Rembrandt’s Biblical Sketches

joseph's-coat-brought-to-jacob-image-optimzedStudents in Dr. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Professor Jacob Wisse’s Fall 2016 Yeshiva College course on “Rembrandt and the Jews” had the opportunity to reunite on March 27, with a private viewing of ten original Rembrandt prints of Old Testament scenes at the Manhattan home of YU Board Member Mr. Irwin and Mrs. Ruth Shapiro.

The prints in the Shapiros’ collection, dating to the mid-seventeenth century, include sketches such as “Adam and Eve,” “Isaac” (featuring Abraham and Isaac on the way to the Akeidah), and “The Triumph of Mordecai.” Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center, and Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum and Associate Professor of Art History, led the evening’s discussion, revisiting themes from the previous semester.

In addition to recapping the history of Rembrandt’s relationships with Jews of his day (such as Manasseh ben Israel), Soloveichik and Wisse emphasized that Rembrandt incorporated his own creative interpretations of the biblical text into his sketches. “In many ways, the prints are open to bringing in all kinds of interpretations, much like the Torah itself,” said Wisse.

For example, Soloveichik highlighted how two of the sketches depict figures whose presence the text does not explicitly mention. “Joseph’s Coat Brought to Jacob,” which illustrates the aftermath of Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers in Gen. 37, shows Leah (not mentioned in the text) alongside Jacob and his sons. “Leah has nothing to do with the story, but Rembrandt understands that she everything to do with it,” said Soloveichik about the Bible’s most notorious fraternal conflict. “Everything comes down to the fact that their mother is not loved, and Joseph is the son of the beloved wife.”

Similarly, the sketch of “Abraham Entertaining the Angels,” which illustrates Gen. 18, includes Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael, who is not mentioned in that particular narrative. “The angels are coming to tell Abraham that he’ll have a son [with Sarah] who will supplant Ishmael,” explained Soloveichik, adding that Rembrandt also had a troubled family background. “To Rembrandt, that is humanly interesting, because Abraham didn’t want to supplant him.” In both cases, said Soloveichik, the added figure “lends a certain dynamic and pathos to the story...All of Rembrandt’s interesting family pictures are [of] biblical texts.”

In addition to discussing the scenes’ content, Wisse explained the innovative chemical etching technique that Rembrandt perfected for producing the sketches. The method began with a copper plate being covered in acid-resistant resin. The the artist would etch the design into the resin, thereby exposing the copper underneath. Then, the plate would be dipped into dilute acid. The acid would burn into the exposed parts of the copper, engraving the copper plate with the artist’s design, which could then be used again and again. Unlike other artists, Rembrandt produced his sketches on his own, rather than at the hands of an underling. He also surpassed his predecessors in creating “a very evocative and atmospheric effect” in his sketches, said Wisse.

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