Rembrandt – "Prodigal Son & Academical Figures"


Return of the Prodigal Son – 1636

Two Men, One Standing - 1646
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, (the Netherlands 1606-1669), Return of the Prodigal Son (1636) (6-1/4″ x 5-7/16″) and Two Men, One Standing (1646) (7-21/32″ x 5-1/8″), etching on heavy laid paper. Amand-Durand, after Rembrandt.

    I imagine everyone would like to own a Rembrandt, and this is as close to one (or two) as I may ever get (other than at a museum). But these restrikes serve as an example of how NOT to collect fine art. Sure, the images are finely and beautifully detailed as I expected, and I realize they are not lifetime works, but because of a mis-understanding by the seller and my blind desire to own them, I ended up with an enormous case of buyer’s remorse.

The story goes one day at a local Orange County (California) gallery I frequented in the mid 1990′s, I was shown some new etchings from American master etcher Peter Milton, and I thought, “why not collect etchings from the old masters?” I already had 19th century Alfonse Legros and Maxime Lalanne etchings that I loved, so why not go back another two hundred years and see what’s available, and even more importantly, affordable. Rembrandt came immediately into mind. The Peter Milton etchings were glamorous to say the least, but like Erte’, I just couldn’t get into his decorative style.

An inquiry from this dealer got her talking on the phone to another dealer and I found the prices not nearly as bad as I had anticipated. Back then (mid 1990′s) a lifetime Rembrandt “Hundred Guilder Print” could be had for $4500, with some of the lesser works (and smaller works) costing as little as $1200. These were prints pulled by Rembrandt himself therefor oozing in aesthetic value (to me). Normally, when I contemplate the possibility of acquiring something truly inspirational (which original art does to me anyways), I automatically think of ways to juggle my financial responsibilities in a way that would enable me to buy it. But I was already in the midst of paying for an oil by one of California’s most favorite muralists (Emigdio Vasquez) so I had to exercise a little restraint (very little).

When the dealer noticed my apprehension about the price of the lifetime prints (she was always good at that), she immediately suggested Rembrandt restrikes. She said after Rembrandt died his estate containing all of his paintings and plates were transferred to the government of Amsterdam, where they sat in storage (in a humid castle dungeon) for a couple hundred years until a famous master etcher discovered them (name unknown). Now, this famous European etcher so revered Rembrandt’s work that he dedicated his life to the restoration of his etching plates by cleaning and clarifying each and every line on all of the surviving plates. This meticulous work took decades to complete but made available restrikes of Rembrandt’s original etchings now available directly from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. She said the museum issued certain prints from the restored plates every year, but only a handful were available to the public, and I may have to wait for years to get the exact ones I wanted.

Well, I swallowed this story hook, line and sinker. We went through a catalog of Rembrandt’s etchings she had right then and there and I choose an old favorite, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” and another one that caused my throat to tighten, “Two men, one standing.” I’ve always loved his Prodigal Son and how he surrounded the reuniting with a statement from the bystanders. They turn their heads away from the raw emotion of the scene as the father embraces his son, made humble by the trials of life. And the two male models, their emaciated bodies and oppressed expressions burning straight through Rembrandt as he so honestly captured their humanity.

These “restrikes” were both priced about a tenth of what their lifetime cost would have been, so I gladly laid down my payment and waited anxiously for their arrival. About two months later I got a phone call asking me to drop by the gallery to pick-up my Rembrandts! It never amazes me how joyful I can feel, with such abundant anticipation, when taking possession of original art you already know you’re going to love. The next best thing to it is discovering the pedigree or in-depth background about an unknown work of art you already own.

She said the quality of these restrikes were as good as the first pulled prints from the original plates and I couldn’t have agreed with her more. Each line was strong and clear and the plate marks were heavily indented into the thick, laid paper. The images were simply beautiful and I couldn’t help feel that they were every bit a satisfying experience as holding the lifetime versions right in front of me (I thought).

After I had owned and admired these works for awhile I wanted to know more about the master engraver that had devoted his life to their preservation. I decided to start with the “Amand-Durand” stamp on the verso of my prints which I assumed was the dealer’s stamp. This is where things went downhill, and as the saying goes, “I should have left well, alone.”

The advent of the internet opened-up the world to research where previously hours had to be spent in libraries, museums and galleries trying to track down information about an artist or his or her work. Time and money on books and magazines were the accepted norm if that piece of info was to be garnered to satisfy your curiosity. Now it’s just a click away, and away I went clicking until I found the dirt on Rembrandt’s reproductions.

That’s right–the truth is these so-called “restrikes” are simply reproductions. Now there’s nothing wrong with reproductions; they educate and satisfy a need for decoration, but I wasn’t looking for decoration as much as I wanted to feel a kind of closeness to an artist’s work, and most reproductions lack that kind of aesthetic to me.

Further investigation (which is what I should have done in the first place) reveled the master engraver to be Amand-Durand, born in Paris, France in 1831. There’s quite a good write-up on him here at an online gallery specializing on his work, but in a nutshell Amand-Durand admired 15th, 16th and 17th century Old Masters’ engravings and decided to recreate their images to preserve the original quality for future generations. He did this by exactly duplicating each work, particularly Rembrandts’, onto copper plates and called the recreations “Amand-Durand’s after Rembrandt.”

“What we have is a noted master duplicating a master some 200 years later,” says the Kavanaugh Gallery, and they are correct. They are reproductions, and I wanted to see if they really are as masterful as everyone since the 1800′s said they are since I now owned two of them. But I have to say I was terribly disappointed to learn this as all this time I thought, as I was told by my dealer, that these etchings were indeed struck from the original reconditioned, Rembrandt plates. This was an assumption about a new facet of collectible art (to me) that I should have examined before purchasing, and the same could be said about the dealer. I don’t feel that I was deliberately mislead in the beginning since she may have lacked the same knowledge that I did, but she could have notified me later on when she placed the order for the works which I doubt came directly from the Rijksmuseum since the plates were not in their possession (more on that later).

Here’s a couple comparisons between lifetime Rembrandt etchings found on the net, and scans of my Amand-Durand reproductions:


The first is a detail from The Return of the Prodigal Son found on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website (state unknown).  This reproduction appears pretty close to the lifetime version but bear in mind the state of either of these versions is unknown, and there may be variations caused by scanning, etc., but the main thing I’m looking for are the absence and inclusion of material.

The main difference with the Amand-Durand version is the additional lines on the father’s cap, a droopier lip on the figure overlooking the father and son (who appears to have six fingers on his right hand), and an overall roughness instead of a lighter, more elegant style of the original. The son’s face appears to be turned slightly more to the right and his mouth more open in the Amand-Durand.
Here’s a detail from Two Men, One Standing (also known as Academical Figures of Two Men) found on the Jonathan Janson website:


The differences are a bit more apparent here with Amand-Durand’s additional shading on the seated man’s cheek and the lack of detail on the standing man’s groin cloth. Shading is heavier handed. But again, this may be due to a difference in the state of this particular plate between the two, or wear on the lifetime plate.

The Amand-Durand story gets even deeper, though. After his death in 1905, his original copper plates were obtained by a French book publishing family (Dominique Vincent et Cie) who used the plates for book illustrations, and for private parties interested in his work. That’s when the problem seemed to start as it was later rumored in art circles that some original Rembrandt etchings in museums may in fact be Amand-Durands. In 1985 an American art dealer researched this rumor and managed to track down and purchase all 348 original Amand-Durand copper plates from the Dominique Vincent family.

So, apparently, this art dealer (AFA Editions) is the international dealer of Amand-Durand restrikes (that’s right, they are restrikes of reproduction restrikes!), but I could not find AFA Editions anywhere on the web. That also means my pieces could not have come from the Rijksmuseum since the plates have been in the possession of AFA Editions since 1985.

In summary, I like these images, if not just for their very close similarity to Rembrandt’s work, but for the feeling and emotion that they impart to me with the story being told. They are, after all, reproductions, but they are also excellent illustrations of a master artist-- the master artist being Rembrandt.

Mike-

3 comments:

  1. This piece of art carries immense emotion. We can get the feel of all of them at an instant. These paintings are hardly seen any more. We are privileged that we are seeing it out here.

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  2. This is what we call an art. It is truly unique and we just can't wish for anything more than it. The expression in the painting is really adorable and it seems like that it is asking question to us.

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  3. Thank you so much for your story. I have recently inherited a collection of Rembrandt etchings, which I have been told are reproductions. Based entirely on the fact that the plate margins are wider than what is normally seen. They are old (at least 100 years, they've been in my family that long) and beautiful, on old Dutch paper, and I thought they might be Durands. But they are EXACTLY IDENTICAL to early state originals, so I think they must be some other type of reproduction. I'm very interested in their history, even if they aren't worth much.

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