‘The perfect line’: How Rembrandt made some of his greatest works

Artist Alexander Massouras demonstrates how the techniques behind some of history’s greatest prints remain unchanged — almost 400 years on

‘In etching, you can achieve a quality of line that you can’t in any other medium,’ says artist Alexander Massouras, discussing the creative process behind a remarkable group of 50 etchings by Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn, to be offered at Christie’s on 5 July

Renowned for his work in the medium, Rembrandt came to be recognised as one of the most accomplished printmakers of all time, producing works in intricate detail. ‘The lines follow the contours of what he depicts,’ comments Massouras, citing the individually-rendered hairs on a work such as Old Bearded Man Looking Down. ‘That detail is facilitated by etching.’ 

Workshop of Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, Old Bearded Man Looking Down. Plate 44 x 44 mm., sheet 45 x 45 mm. Estimate £1,500-2,500. This lot is offered in Fifty Prints by Rembrandt van Rijn A Private English Collection on 5 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Workshop of Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, Old Bearded Man Looking Down. Plate 44 x 44 mm., sheet 45 x 45 mm. Estimate: £1,500-2,500. This lot is offered in Fifty Prints by Rembrandt van Rijn A Private English Collection on 5 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

In this video, Massouras follows Rembrandt’s process in a modern-day print studio, using a technique that has varied very little since Rembrandt first began to make prints at the beginning of the 1600s. ‘A print like Self-Portrait with Saskia has a lot of variation in tone,’ he observes, explaining how the artist used acid to achieve depth. 

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, Self-Portrait With Saskia. Plate & sheet 103 x 93 mm. Estimate £15,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Fifty Prints by Rembrandt van Rijn A Private English Collection on 5 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, Self-Portrait With Saskia. Plate & sheet 103 x 93 mm. Estimate: £15,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Fifty Prints by Rembrandt van Rijn A Private English Collection on 5 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

‘Nothing rivals the crisp, sharp, black line of an etching,’ Massouras concludes. ‘In Rembrandt, there’s something compelling about that marriage of his ability to draw and the process of etching. There are very few people who can wield a drawing instrument with such alacrity.’