Friday, February 15, 2013

Rembrandt's Shell

A Little Fable

I recently visited the spectacular exhibit Rembrandt's Century - a sidekick to the Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshius (also great) - at the DeYoung Museum. Rembrandt's extraordinary etchings, drypoint and engravings are presented along with the other artists of his time who were expanding the vocabulary of printmaking techniques to keep a hungry new art market supplied with reproductions of paintings and original works illustrating popular subjects of the day.

Rembrandt Van Rijn - The Shell (Conus Marmoreus) - 1650 - etching, drypoint and engraving

Late in the exhibit is a room full of the wonders of the natural world. Expensive, exotic flora and fauna were making their way into the cabinets of curiousity of the wealthy Dutch, and Rembrandt was among the seekers of marvels. He purchased the shell - a Conus Marmoreus, native to south-east Africa, Polynesia and Hawaii - at great expense during the peak of his success. The still life created from it is unique to his printed work. It is lovingly rendered and his etching technique masterfully captures the quality of light and the surface sheen. Alas life, like a Dutch still life, begins to spoil, and Rembrandt's later years were fraught with personal loss and financial ruin. His home, studio and personal effects were sold at auction, the Conus Marmoreus shell among them.

As always, we exit through the gift shop. I stand patiently in line to purchase my little postcard of Rembrandt's precious shell. Next to the cash register - where they keep the last minute impulse buys - is a clear lucite box filled to the brim with Conus Marmoreus, not at all expensive.
I sigh and resist the temptation.

Rembrandt's etching studio at Rembrandthuis - studio envy knows no bounds.


  1. I have a Conus Marmoreus and if I can find it I will give it to you.
    (I'm not even an artist and I have studio envy.)

  2. If one is lucky while visiting the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam, you'll see Eric Armitage working in the above pictured studio, explaining the etching process. Perhaps, as on my March 2013 visit, he'll demonstrate the process using an etched plate of The Shell created by the Dutch mint. If you're really lucky, Eric will give you an impression run from this plate or, exit through the gift ship, and purchase one of the Rembrandt reproductions run on the Rembrandthuis's Rembrandt press, built using the original design drawings.