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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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