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The faces of the Rembrandts

NEITHER of these etchings by Rembrandt is strictly speaking a portrait, though characteristically in both he makes use of faces that were very familiar to him: his own in the tiny (not quite two inches high) etching of a man open-mouthed with staring eyes, and his wife Saskia's in the print known traditionally as ``The Great Jewish Bride.'' Although he was to become one of the most sensitive portraitists in the history of art, at this comparatively early stage of his career his study of physiognomy was still generally tied in with his painting of vividly dramatic narrative pictures in which the observation of human feelings and reactions is all-important.

Kenneth Clark writes of the artist's ``studies of grimace and gesture, made with exceptional powers of memory and concentration on a fleeting moment.'' The little etching variously named ``Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed'' or ``Rembrandt aux Yeux Hagards,'' is a masterly example. It is one of numerous studies he made of his visage pulled and distorted as he stares at it in a mirror and tries to express fury, surprise, toughness, querulousness, or rebellion.

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There is something consciously theatrical about such exercises, but we can look at them, nevertheless, with an awareness of his later, increasingly subtle depiction of his own features (he made self-portraits from 1629 to 1669) and see that even this apparent extroversion already betrays an unusual interest in the facial expression of inner emotions, his own or another's. His early portraits of his mother, however, do show how undemonstratively he could explore, as a young artist, the inward and hiding mentality of a person hinted by her face.

After his move from Leyden to Amsterdam at the beginning of the 1630s and his marriage to the well-connected and wealthy Saskia in 1634, his wife served him as model on many occasions. Sometimes she is portrayed essentially ``as his wife''; sometimes more as loved person who happens to be his wife. Sometimes she seems away in a dream. Sometimes she looks at him with intent directness. He also used her as a model for such allegorical figures as Flora.

And she appears in this fine etching, which still carries the misleading title given to it in 1733 by Valerius R"over, under the false impression that the woman represented was the daughter of one of the artist's Jewish friends, Ephraim Bonus. The notion may have arisen from the tradition of a Jewish bride receiving her husband with her hair down and the ketubah in her hand. Other interpretations, however, have suggested that Saskia is playing the part of Minerva or a Sibyl.

Impressions of both etchings were recently shown in an absorbing exhibition at the Mus'ee du Petit Palais in Paris, which offered a rare opportunity to see a large selection from the collection of Eugene Dutuit (1807-1886) which entered the museum in 1902. Only twice since that year had Rembrandt etchings formerly belonging to Dutuit been shown in public: Twelve were on display at the Mus'ee du Petit Palais in 1933 and 32 in the Louvre in 1969.

In the exhibition this year, 170 were displayed, supported by photographs of comparative drawings and paintings and a good catalog.

Although etching is a technique in which the artist always has to work at one remove from the final image, Rembrandt's revolutionary experimentation and excitement with this medium give his printed etchings a spontaneous power not unlike that of his drawings. The viewer feels in direct touch with his work on the copper plate, which so marvelously balances exhaustive care and detail with a kind of vigorous urgency. The smallness of many of his etchings also promotes a sense of intimacy.

``Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed'' is enlarged in the photograph of it shown here. While this greatly exaggerates the boldness of the artist's needle strokes, it also makes it possible to appreciate the essentially intuitive, energetic way in which he drew. The etching of Saskia is a much more finished, elaborate image, but the vibrant accumulation of shadows and textures by means of a restless, tireless line is the same. Out of this curling, cross-hatching, penetrating buildup of light and shade, forms emerge almost magically. And even in the richest dark, the white paper sparkles vividly: Every minute segment of the printed image is alive.

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``Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed'' is an etching with only one state -- it is ``unique,'' while ``The Great Jewish Bride'' is known to have gone through five states, or alterations, as Rembrandt reworked and reprinted it. The one shown here is the third state. It is also the first version of the print Rembrandt signed and dated.

Christopher White has well expressed the kind of interest roused in scholars and collectors by the various states of Rembrandt's etchings: ``In numerous examples . . . we watch the work grow and alter before our eyes. We become the armchair witness of his struggles and desires.'' The ceaseless experimentalism of Rembrandt's approach to art is made, in this way, peculiarly apparent in his etchings. As White adds, he kept ``the forces of the unexpected on a loose rein.'' Etching seems to have provided him with an ideal balance of incisive control and expressive freedom.

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