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Christ crucified between two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses’

Christ crucified between two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses’
drypoint, 1653, on laid paper, watermark Strasbourg Bend (Hinterding D.a.b.), a very fine impression of this highly important subject, the very rare third state (of five), printing with rich burr and a warm, selectively wiped plate-tone, with thread margins on all sides
Plate 386 x 450 mm.
Sheet 388 x 453 mm.
(Probably) with Pieter Yver, Amsterdam, from whom acquired for or valued at 49 livres before 1780 by the following,
Gabriel Friedrich Schreiber von Cronstern II (1740-1807), Schloss Nehmten, Schleswig-Hollstein, then by descent in the family to the following,
The Counts of Plessen-Cronstern, their sale: Old Master Prints from a German Family of Title: Part II; Christie’s, London, 18 June 1992, lot 142, where acquired by the present owner.
Bartsch, Hollstein 78; Hind 270; New Hollstein 274

J.Bikker, Rembrandt – Biography of a Rebel, Amsterdam, 2019, pp. 138-139, no. 94 (another impression illustrated).
A.T. Eeles, R. A. Hoehn, Rembrandt Prints 1648-1658: A Brilliant Decade, exhibition catalogue, Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries, San Diego, 2015, pp. 48-51, no. 13 (another impression illustrated).
J. Bikker, G.J.M. Weber, M.E. Wieseman, E. Hinterding, Rembrandt - The Late Works, London, 2014, pp. 159-60, no. 63 (another impression illustrated).
N. Stogdon, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etchings of Rembrandt in a private Collection, Switzerland, privately printed, 2011, pp. 64-74, nos. 39-41 (another impression illustrated).
K. Althaus, Rembrandt – Die Radierungen aus der Sammlung Eberhard W. Kornfeld, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum, Basel, 2005-2006, pp. 183-185, no. 77 (fourth state illustrated).
C.S. Ackley, et al., Rembrandts Journey Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, exhibition cataloge, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, pp. 247-253, no. 168 (another impression illustrated).
E. Hinterding, G. Luijten, M. Royalton-Kisch, Rembrandt the Printmaker, exhibition catalogue, British Museum, London, pp. 297-304, no. 73 (another impression illustrated).
C. White, Rembrandt as an Etcher A Study of the Artist at Work, New Haven and London, 1999, 2nd edition, pp. 77-88, fig. 103 (another impression illustrated).
H. Bevers, P. Schatborn, B. Welzel, Rembrandt: The Master & his Workshop Drawings & Etchings, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, 1991-1992, pp. 264-269, no. 35 (another impression illustrated).
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

Only once, in Rembrandts vision, has the Christian imagination truly dwelt on Golgatha.
Frederik Schmidt-Degener, Tentoonstelling Bijbelsche Kunst, Amsterdam, 1939, p. 14 (quoted in: Eeles, Hoehn, p. 11).
Few prints in European art history are considered of equal importance and are so unanimously admired as Rembrandt’s Christ crucified between the two Thieves, commonly known as The Three Crosses. According to Holm Bevers, ‘Rembrandt’s psychologically penetrating study of terrified humanity has no equal in the iconography of Calvary’ (Bevers, p. 264); James Ganz felt that ‘the death of Christ on the cross has never been depicted with such graphic intensity or raw expressive force’ (Ganz, p. 133); Nicholas Stogdon considered it ‘the most celebrated of all prints’ (Stogdon, p. 71); and Adrian Eeles called it ‘an unforgettable masterpiece of print-making’. For Erik Hinterding ‘this monumental print is one of the highlights of his etched oeuvre and a key point in the history of the graphic arts.’ (Bikker et al., p. 159).
The year of its creation, 1653, must have been a difficult year for Rembrandt and for Holland, as the dispute with his former maid and lover Geertje Dircks rumbled on, and the Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) put an enormous strain on the economy of the country, gravely affecting the demand for luxury goods and art commissions. It was at this point that Rembrandt embarked on the creation of his most ambitious and demanding print in subject, technique and size. He decided to depict the pivotal event of Christianity, to do it entirely in drypoint, and on a scale never before attempted.
Of the four gospels, Rembrandt followed Saint Luke’s account most closely:
Luke 23; 33-48 (King James version)
And when they were come to the place, which is Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. And the people stood beholding. … And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly, this was a righteous man. And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.
The composition is divided quite evenly into three parts, horizontally and vertically. The upper third is entirely taken up by the sky, dark towards the sides and bright at the centre, where an intense light falls in shafts from above. In the middle section are the three crosses, with Christ slightly off-centre to the right. His body has sunk deep below the crossbeam, His eyes are closed, the mouth half open. We see His ribcage and thin, stretched abdomen. A loincloth is wrapped around His waist, the feet are nailed next to each other to the Cross. To the right below, we see a group of mourners, including Mary Magdalene clutching the foot of the Cross. Saint John stands behind her, his hands raised to his head in despair. Below him on the ground, the fainting Virgin is consoled and supported by a group of women around her. Further to the right stands the cross of one of the thieves, bathed in light. His body is painfully bent over the crossbeam, with his arms pulled back and down, tied to the trunk. The centurion mentioned by Luke has dismounted his horse and cast off his helmet, as he kneels with his outstretched arms raised, facing the figure of Christ. This is the moment of his conversion, as Christ has just breathed his last breath, the apex of the Passion, the turning point of the work of Redemption.
To the left of Christ are two Roman cavalry soldiers on horseback, one with a tall lance, the other pointing his sword at Christ’s thigh. Further to the left stands the cross with the second thief, his face and body partially shaded. Below him, a foot soldier is leading the centurion’s horse away. Towards the left edge, Rembrandt has placed a group of soldiers with a raised standard and lances, including a commander on horseback and a man reaching with a staff and sponge towards the good thief.
In the lower left third of the sheet another small crowd of mourners has turned away, about to leave the cruel scene, including a bareheaded man, presumably Simon of Cyrene. Two women have fallen to the ground in panic or despair, a running dog adds to the sense of tumult and chaos. The lower centre is dominated by two figures, presumably Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, hurrying towards a cave in the lower right corner - the future tomb of Christ, where the two men will bury Him.
Most multi-figure Calvary scenes, popular in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th century but no longer in Rembrandt’s time, allowed the viewer to calmly observe the scene from the outside. Rembrandt, by contrast, throws us into the midst of the event as it unfolds. His print is a turmoil of light and darkness, of hard, straight lines and dense crosshatching, of highly worked details and loosely sketched, seemingly unfinished passages, all adding to a sense of movement and immediacy, to invoke an almost cinematic experience.
To create this astonishing print, Rembrandt employed the drypoint method, whereby the design is scratched directly into the plate rather than etched into the copper by acid. In the process, small barbs of metal are raised alongside the scratched lines, creating rough ridges. When the plate is inked up, the ink gets caught in these barbed ridges, resulting in deeply black, velvety lines and blurred areas, an effect called ‘burr’. It is astonishing to observe with what virtuosity Rembrandt employed the drypoint technique to its full potential on such a monumental scale. As a result, The Three Crosses has the immediacy and spontaneity of a drawing. ‘As far as we know, with the possible exception of two small sketches for individual figures, he worked directly on the plate without the aid of compositional drawings. His control and mastery were such that no preparation on paper was necessary. For him, drypoint became another tool for drawing.’ (Christopher White, p. 81)
The Three Crosses exists in five states. In print-making terms, a change in ‘state’ denotes a deliberate alteration to the plate and consequently to the printed image. The first state of The Three Crosses already shows the complete composition, no unfinished proofs exist. The second state differs from the first only in that Rembrandt added a few lines of shading at the right sheet edge. About twenty impressions are known of the first state, including two fragments still in private hands; and ten of the second, of which two are in private collections. In the present third state, Rembrandt strengthened the shading here and there, but no substantial changes were made. He signed and dated the plate at the lower centre left: Rembrandt.f.1653. At this point Rembrandt considered the print complete and finished. Impressions of the third state are generally more cleanly wiped that those of the first two states, although some do have a light, selectively wiped tone, such as the present one. A total of 22 examples of this state are recorded, with only three still in private hands, including the present impression.
The majority of impressions of the first state were printed on vellum, while all of the second and most of the third state were printed on white paper with a Strasbourg Bend watermark. In the fourth state, Rembrandt famously transformed the image completely instead of reworking it, as the drypoint began to wear. He scraped and burnished off much of the previous design, removed many figures, added some, and obscured much of the plate with long and heavy, vertical lines of shading, leaving only the central section slightly brighter. James Ganz described this state as ‘a tour de force of draftsmanship and printmaking in which emotion eclipses intelligibility.’ (Ganz, p. 133) Around 80 impressions of this state are recorded. Finally, the Amsterdam printer Frans Carelse (d. 1683) acquired the plate, engraved it with his name, and printed a small number of impressions. Of this fifth and final state, only five impressions are known. (For the most recent census of impressions, please see: Bikker et al., p. 159-60.)
The present example of The Three Crosses is a very fine impression of the third state (of five). It must have been printed relatively early, as it prints with much burr and before any wear, with a subtle plate-tone in particular in the lower part of the subject, while the central, brightly-lit section has been mostly wiped clean. It was first documented in the print inventory of Gabriel Friedrich Schreiber von Cronstern II (1740-1807), written around 1780 at the latest. It was he who made Schloss Nehmten the family seat in 1768 and who founded the library and print collection. Many of his prints were acquired through the Amsterdam dealer Pierre Yver in the 1760s and 70s, including presumably the present sheet. The collection was handed down in the family, which eventually through marriage acquired the name and title Grafen von Plessen-Cronstern. It remained with the family well into the late 20th century, but by the time Christie’s were asked to value the collection around 1990, it had been all but forgotten. Its rediscovery, publication and dispersal was a momentous event in the history of print-collecting. The first part of the collection was auctioned at Christie’s in London in the anonymous single-owner sale Old Master Prints from a German Family of Title, on 10 December 1991. The sale included the companion piece of The Three Crosses, an extremely rare and fine impression of Christ presented to the People: Ecce Homo, which was subsequently re-sold in these rooms on 5 July 2018 for £ 2,648,000 - the highest price ever paid for an old master print at auction. Another tranche of the collection was sold on 18 June 1992, including the present Three Crosses, when it was acquired by the current owners.
It is now exactly thirty years since this sheet was last sold, and no other impression of either of the first three states has been offered at auction since. This sale of Christ cruci?ed between two Thieves: The Three Crosses (3rd State) is a rare opportunity to acquire an undisputed milestone in the history of European printmaking and, in Christopher White’s words, ‘one of Rembrandt’s most moving work in any medium’ (White, p. 88).

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