In the course of his printmaking career, Rembrandt created no fewer than seven prints on the subject of Saint Jerome. The present print however, as A.M. Hind described it so poignantly, is ‘a tree study with Saint Jerome thrown in’. The dead tree, often with a sole flowering branch as a symbol of regeneration, is traditionally found in depictions of the Saint in the wilderness. Here however, the tree has become the protagonist, while the saint and his attributes, the skull, his cardinal’s hat and the lion, are pushed into the middle ground and etched quite lightly. Rembrandt’s full attention is lavished onto the depiction of this ancient willow, with its cut and broken branches and its rugged, bulging trunk. In a charming detail, giving the whole image an idyllic lightness, he put a little bird on the top. A few blades of grass and rushes are swiftly added to the foot of the tree, the rest of the landscape is merely hinted at. The whole print has a deliberately ‘unfinished’ feel, densely worked in some areas and only a few sketchy, almost careless lines elsewhere.
In its iconography, the print is also a hybrid between two pictorial traditions: Saint Jerome in his Study, depicting the scholar Saint at work; and Saint Jerome penitent in the Wilderness, shown in prayer or beating his chest with a rock. Here, the Saint has chosen a secluded dale to set up a makeshift desk by a brook, to work quietly on his translation of the Bible into Latin.
With the burr of the drypoint in the foreground so characteristic of this print, it has often invited collectors, restorers and dealers to ‘enhance’ impressions a little with some ink or wash – something that thankfully has not happened to this beautifully untouched impression.