Rembrandt's decision to depict Saint Jerome, seated by his desk and pondering his translation of the Bible into Latin, in an almost entirely dark room with only some soft Netherlandish light coming in through a window, demonstrates his innate urge to experiment. In this case, he set himself an almost impossible challenge: apart from the window, almost every surface of this extraordinary etching is covered with dense crosshatching and the image emerges only by means of the finest gradations in density and direction of closely etched lines, thus creating different shades of black and dark grey. Just as our eyes adapt in time to actual darkness, our gaze only slowly penetrates the blackness of the ink covering the plate, and we begin to discern the room and the objects within: the staircase, the skull and cardinal’s hat and ultimately, dimly, the lion crouching under the table. The mere idea to depict a spiral staircase seen from below in a darkened room is testimony to Rembrandt’s confidence and his complete mastery of the etching process.
Yet this plate is not just a display of staggering virtuosity. What separates Rembrandt from other highly skilled printmakers is the atmosphere and emotional depth he manages to convey in this image. Looking at this print, we truly have a sense of watching a scholar deep in thought, sitting under a creaking wooden staircase in an old Dutch house.
Although there must have been contemporary collectors for such demanding works, this print shows Rembrandt’s willingness to take artistic risks apparently at the expense of any commercial consideration. The density of the work meant that the plate wore quickly and that only very few satisfactory impressions could be pulled, with later impressions turning out uneven and grey.
The present, velvety black and atmospheric impression with unusually wide margins is superior to both impressions in the British Museum, the cleanly wiped Cracherode impression and the slightly dry Sloane impression.