Rembrandt Abraham and Hagar

. . . the symmetry and motion of the scene: Sarah and Isaac rest “secure within the confines of their house,” while a weeping Hagar, her face turned away, leads her son (in "foreign" clothes) toward exile. It is, at once, an emblem of Abraham’s “heartbreak” and his allegiance to the “covenant.” As Rachel observes, the imposing Abraham stands in the center, his arms pulled both directions, his legs off balance, with one foot on the step of his home and the other on Hagar’s path toward expulsion. It becomes a “moving visual of the Hebrew patriarch as he balances compassion and obedience in light of his covenant with God.” Rachel’s other summaries examine the political resonances in “The Triumph of Mordecai” (1641), the disputed setting of “Jews in the Synagogue” (1648), and the “Eucharistic” overtones of “Abraham’s Sacrifice” (1655). Diva Zumaya, a doctoral student in art history at UCSB, has written the other entries on the prints.

Usually, we first fall in love with an artist’s work through reproductions in books, posters, or web images, though my interest in Rembrandt began when I saw the actual canvases and etchings in person, especially when Arlyne and I lived briefly in the Netherlands. Admittedly, there were some personal and historical connections that drew us to Rembrandt's work. My father-in-law was born within walking distance of the artist’s home in Leiden, and many of the English Protestant dissidents I have studied found refuge in Leiden during the years of Rembrandt’s youth. We lived in Utrecht, an historically Catholic town some thirty miles from Leiden, and home to the Utrecht Caravaggisti, the early seventeenth-century artists whose use of "chiaroscuro" (the bold contrast of dark and light) influenced some of the Protestant artists in South Holland, where Rembrandt began his career. But the real lure was encountering the work itself: the impasto layers, the rough palette or brush strokes mixed with the precise lines of a brush handle, all the many textures that can only be seen at close range. Some of that same spontaneity is also evident in his prints, as he often scraped or rubbed down plates and spread the ink unevenly before each impression. As Lisa observes in a final note to her introduction, "Rembrandt probably used mordant, a slow-biting acid composed of potassium chlorate and hydrochloric acid." It was an alternative to the more aggressive "nitric acid" and allowed Rembrandt to score a plate many times, "producing different states of a plate" for varied effects.

Rembrandt AbrahamYou can imagine, then, how delightful it has been for me to encounter the actual prints on our own campus, and to see the opening as an occasion to strengthen rapport with our own Jewish neighbors. One of the pieces in the show that I find most moving is an etching that Rachel discussed at the recent Staff Forum—Rembrandt's depiction of "Abraham's Sacrifice" (detail, left). The "Akedah"— or the "binding" and near-murder of Isaac, as recounted in Genesis 22—is a scene that Rembrandt drew and painted often. This late rendition (1655) reveals an older Abraham, his muscles firm, his face gaunt, as he appears equally determined and frail. In contrast to other versions of the event, this intervening angel does not jar the knife loose, but rather encloses the frightened patriarch and his son in an embrace. The angel's arm merges with Abraham's own as if they both now share the duty to shield and spare the son. The rescue is not complete, but all three figures are covered under the wings.

So I encourage you to see the show and choose your own favorites. Before the exhibit closes, there are some special opportunities to learn more about the artist and the prints. Besides the major "Rembrandt and the Jews" symposium on February 28 (9:30 to 1:00), Lisa is also hosting a "brown bag" lunch in the Founders room at noon on March 17, when she will present many of the ideas that she offered in her lecture on the night of the show's opening with the Jewish Federation.