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In the late 1640s and 1650s, the Netherlands’ prosperous Golden Age dimmed. Hundreds of businesses failed, and a major recession enfeebled the entire society. Even Rembrandt, renowned and rich, hit a wall, partly of his own construction. He’d bought the equivalent of a tycoon’s mansion beyond his means, spent lavishly to acquire an art collection he really couldn’t afford, and expected the art market to continue to reward his tireless genius. Instead, his many tuition-paying students flooded the market with work that competed with their master’s, his client list shrunk, he defaulted on his mortgage, and by 1656 he was bankrupt. The handsome inheritance he might have received when his beloved wife Saskia died in 1642 was contingent on his not remarrying, and when he did take up with another love, Hendricke Stoffels, she (and by implication her non-husband) was publicly chastised by Calvinist elders for her loose ways. And Rembrandt’s painterly manner, so dominant for so long, was quietly falling from favor.

During these bad times, he still produced great work, in particular a series of etchings on New Testament subjects. He had market incentive: prints were quicker and easier to make and sell than paintings. In a compact selection of the “Gospel” etchings currently at the Timken Museum, the museum’s director, John Wilson (drawing from the holdings of San Diegans Robert and Karen Hoehn), has made a smart equivalent for our own lean times. The 15 stellar prints are elegantly installed, with generous meditative spacing between them, on pale gray walls that kick up the prints’ dark radiance. You don’t feel hurried and aren’t badgered by tendentious wall labels — and each work is a busy country of meaning.

The Old Masters chose religious subjects (as certain young masters still do) because they’re fraught with action, character, conflict of all kinds, and because they release urgent passions. When scriptural events or personalities elicit feelings specific to the artist’s own life experience (Fra Angelico’s piety, Lippo Lippi’s worldliness, Caravaggio’s carnal voracity) the work carries an explosive charge. Rembrandt’s Shakespearean curiosity about human nature, transformation, inwardness evidenced by physical expressiveness, and the demons fate sends our way is played out in his paintings. The etchings are compelling because he was forcing another, more stringent medium (scores and scrapes on copper plate) to yield more physically expansive, pictorially complex imagery than his predecessors. Rembrandt gets you lost in the wiry surges and mass-attack actions of line, and in his scenes from the life of Jesus you feel that personal emotional compulsion is pitching his imagination to startling extremes.

Consider Christ Preaching. Christ is a saddened, fatigued street-corner preacher, and the crowd Rembrandt assembles around Him is a mildly tranquilized Shakespearean rabble: a few bored, hungry faces; a kid fooling around in the dirt, indifferent to the news-bringer; and an old woman so distracted by her own misery that she looks slightly deranged. Above Christ’s head hovers a puny oval halo, drizzled with light. And Rembrandt’s black lines create such light! In a crucifixion scene, thicketed cross-hatchings and curvilinear swells create a storm of confusion, fury, catastrophe — the celestial light that drains down looks like a tightly strung instrument, the entire scene a heaven-and-earth sound box.

Etching calls attention to the mechanics of scene-engineering. In The Descent from the Cross by Torchlight, Rembrandt makes Christ into animal mass difficult to maneuver because of its dead weight. (His head and dangling arm are sorrow-heavy.) You’re made to realize how much care it required of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to get the body down from the cross without further mutilating it and that the come-and-go torchlight made the removal all the more precarious. In Christ Presented to the People [Ecce Homo] Rembrandt makes Christ nearly a shrunken wretch next to the self-important Pilate. Rembrandt organizes the stage action — or, rather, inaction, since the surrounding onlookers seem so impassive — around the civic-center porch they stand on. His staging suggests a sacrificial altar, a dry-run Golgotha tricked out as a kind of City Hall appearance. As Mr. Wilson says in his snappy, succinct catalog essay, Rembrandt was depositing all kinds of personal anger and grief into works like Ecce Homo, but there’s also an ethereal tenderness in, of all things, Christ on the Mount of Olives (The Agony in the Garden), in which the angel’s wing, raised like an accusing hand above the disciples sleeping in the background, is also cocked to protect the desolate Jesus but won’t — can’t, really — shield Him from the ominous soldiers sketchily visible behind the wing.

This is Rembrandt-in-So-Cal season. The Timken is part of an ad hoc consortium of museums, including LACMA, the Norton Simon, the Armand Hammer, and the Getty, that are showing works by Rembrandt and Netherlandish artists close to him. The San Diego Museum of Art’s From Rembrandt’s Studio: The Prints of Ferdinand Bol picks up where its 2003 exhibition, The Age of Rembrandt: Etchings from Holland’s Golden Century, left off. It revisits Rembrandt’s etchings in relation to those by his most gifted student, Ferdinand Bol, born in 1616 and one of many assistants who worked in the master’s studio. Bol did that for about six years then established his own practice as a painter. He produced only 22 known etchings, but they so boldly flashed the technical finesse he learned from Rembrandt (who, unstoppable as usual, made over 300) that his work was sometimes mistaken for his teacher’s. On a few prints you can see where light-fingered dealers scratched Rembrandt’s name in place of Bol’s.

The SDMA exhibition isn’t meant to be a horse race. Rembrandt was Rembrandt, but there’s enough of Bol’s work to impress us with his gifts and outline the dynamics of borrowing and imitation that churned between the two of them.

One rarity, the only known impression of Bol’s Saskia with Pearls, adapts Rembrandt’s 1634 etching of the same title (not included in the exhibition), and, since it’s unsigned, the attribution is still a little shaky, but the floating ringlets and curlicues are signs of Bol’s later style, though it’s a style closely tied to Rembrandt’s. Bol built on the master’s techniques to develop his own oscillating effects in fabrics, and mid-1600s Netherlandish art adored rich stuffs and exotic costumes. All painters made “tronies,” portraits of subjects dressed in fictive, historical dress, the more opulent the better — Rembrandt’s studio must have looked like a wardrobe trailer on a film set — and they fancied scenes of substantial women leaning out windows or half-doors. My favorite Rembrandt used to be a painting of Saskia looking out a Dutch door — it’s in the Art Institute of Chicago — until experts determined that Rembrandt didn’t paint it. It’s still one of my favorite pictures, but my favorite Rembrandt it can no longer be. Anyway, Bol made a sensuous etching of a woman leaning out a window offering passers-by (i.e., us) a pear and her come-up-and-see-me-sometime allure. The pear’s curves repeat the U-shaped necklace dangling above a scooped-neck dress that’s doing its best to contain the rotund, voluptuous fall of her breasts.

Bol possessed impressive gifts, and he learned much from Rembrandt’s way of cross-hatching tonal zones and mass. Rembrandt’s work, though, is more finely modulated passage-to-passage, from cavernous shadow to the wiry delicacy of beads, women’s hair, and textiles. And the gift of representing human character can’t be learned. You either have a feeling for it or you don’t. Bol didn’t quite have Rembrandt’s way with eyes as repositories and instruments of feeling. In his best etchings, the eyes seem to look inward even as they look out on the world. In Self-Portrait with Saskia, Rembrandt depicts himself in a dashing feathered hat — he’s a world-beater, full of beans, more than a little arrogant. Saskia stands behind his shoulder, demure, calmly self-contained, but her look is custodial: her man may be the player, but she’s the stake-holder.

Rembrandt was the more audacious, but he and Bol both pushed etching toward finer textural expressiveness and subtler lighting. The buoyant angel in Bol’s Gideon’s Sacrifice floats upon the earth dressed not so much in a seraphic gown as in a sketchily outlined phantasmal whiteness. And the drypoint lines and crosshatching in Rembrandt’s St. Jerome in a Dark Room strain bright window light through tattered curtains toward a wall’s scoured surface that gradually darkens to nearly monotonal darkness: in the middle zone sits Jerome, his mediating human intelligence operating in the middle passage between vague light and storm-cloud darkness. The closer you scrutinize these things, the more lost you become in the tumbling of line and mass. Their energy feels like a desirable contagion.

Rembrandt’s Recession: Passion and Prints in the Dutch Golden Age
Timken Museum of Art, 1500 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, May 2. For additional information, call 619-239-5548.

From Rembrandt’s Studio: The Prints of Ferdinand Bol
San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, March 7. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.

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