The new exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) has garnered immediate attention. This recently opened exhibit “Teaching with Art: Rembrandt Works and Controversial Issues,” is a collection of etchings and drawings that focuses on Rembrandt van Rijn, but also contains works by Hendrik Goltzius, Esaias van de Velde I, Claes Jansz, Visscher the Younger and Jacob von Rusdael in order to offer comparisons to Rembrandt’s ouvre.
Zirka Filipczak, professor of art, organized this exhibition as a support for her tutorial, “Rembrandt Works and Controversial Issues.” This use of the WCMA collection for specific instructional purposes in a college course came from WCMA’s central tenant of “teaching with art.” As the museum says on its website, “WCMA is the largest classroom at Williams.” The museum is dedicated to sharing the extensive resources of WCMA with the College community, and allows the display of etchings that are normally by request only to supplement the course. The result is a finely curated collection of pieces. “It’s very impressive that a college museum collection would even have these works,” Filipczak said of the exhibit.
This connection to the tutorial has created a slight misnomer. The exhibition gains its name from the title of a tutorial that deals with controversial issues and concepts such as, “Are Rembrandt’s late works vague or are they profound?” The art pieces of the exhibit, however, do not overtly share any kind of controversial nature. Filipczak called the title “misleading” since there “is nothing controversial about what is displayed there.” However, the slight effect on the expectations of the potential viewer is a small price to pay for the chance to see these beautiful works.
For those unfamiliar with the Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a 17th-century painter and etcher whose work came to dominate the period that has since been named the Dutch Golden Age. He has come to stand as one of the most revered artists of all time, with subjects ranging from portraits of his contemporaries to genre scenes to mythology to biblical scenes. Rembrandt’s style is known for the use of line differentiation and deep shadows to create a plausibly natural effect. His ouvre is also known for a realism that relays fantastical elements with their lighting and style. These aspects of Rembrandt’s work are evident in the exhibition.
Though there are a small number of works in the presentation, they span a large range of Rembrandt’s career and display his varied subject matter. This emphasizes Rembrandt’s particular style and technique. In the section of biblical scenes, there is a stark difference between the “Pieta” by Hendrik Goltzius, one of Rembrandt’s Dutch contemporaries and Rembrandt’s biblical scenes. Goltzius conveys divinity through large, prominent haloes while Rembrandt relies on the whiteness of the paper and the diversity in his lines to convey the same aspect of the divine event. Yet, even in the genre scenes of Rembrandt with a number of his contemporaries, “Landscape with a Cow” stands out from the rest with Rembrandt’s individual style. The clearly delineated lines, the shadow of the foreground in contrast with the lighter etching of the background designed to give the piece depth, all make Rembrandt unique from the darker lined works of his contemporaries.
Even in the sections in which Rembrandt’s contemporaries are not displayed for comparison, the artist’s style is very clear. This is not to say that Rembrandt’s style itself remained constant over his career, but certain aspects of his lines and shadows emerge with close studying of the works in the exhibition. The beauty and unique nature of Rembrandt’s style become apparent.
While Filipczak created the exhibit to connect it with her tutorial course, this exhibition is a great opportunity for the entire community. These prints and etchings, often stored rather than displayed, are now open for viewing. This part of “teaching with art” does not have to stop with the 10 students enrolled in the course. The exhibition is an opportunity for the community to learn about the style of the Dutch master and the beauty of the past.