Christ preaching ('La Petite Tombe')

Christ preaching ('La Petite Tombe')
etching and drypoint
circa 1657
on laid paper, without watermark
a brilliant, early 'black sleeve' impression of the first state (of two)
suffused with burr, printing with great clarity, contrasts and remarkable depth
with margins
in very good condition
Plate 154 x 207 mm.
Sheet 164 x 216 mm.
George Hibbert (1757-1837), London (Lugt 2849, recto); his sale, Thomas Philipe, London, 17 April 1809 (and following days),13th day, lot 54 ('Little La Tombe, so called after a painter of that name - the subject is Christ preaching to the people - BRILLIANT, with the burr') (£ 3.15; to Champernowne).
Arthur Melville Champernowne (1871-1946), Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon (Lugt 153); his sale, Sotheby's, London, 1 February 1911, lot 84 ('very fine and full of burr, with margin') (£ 260; to Colnaghi; cited in Lugt).
With P. & D. Colnaghi & Obach, London.
Eldridge Reeves Johnson (1867-1945), Wilmington, Delaware & Philadelphia (without mark and not in Lugt); his posthumous sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, Part II. 3-4 April 1946, lot 140 ('Brilliant proof impression') ($ 1,000; to Kennedy).
With Kennedy & Co., New York.
Captain Gordon W. Nowell-Usticke (1894-1978), Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands (without mark and not in Lugt); his sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 30 April - 1 May 1968, lot 284 ($ 9,500; to Kennedy).
With Kennedy Galleries, New York.
With Aldis Browne Fine Arts, New York.
Sam Josefowitz (Lugt 6094; on the support sheet verso); acquired from the above in 1984 (through Frederick Mulder); then by descent to the present owners.
Bartsch, Hollstein 67; Hind 256; New Hollstein 298 (this impression cited)
Stogdon 31

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Tim Schmelcher
Tim Schmelcher International Specialist

Lot Essay

Christ preaching or ‘La Petite Tombe’ is the smallest and last of Rembrandt’s great, multi-figure compositions of scenes from the Life of Christ. It was created about eight years after the famous Christ healing the Sick (‘The Hundred Guilder Print’) and at about the same time or just after Rembrandt had completed work on his two most radical and ambitious endeavours in printmaking, Christ crucified between the two Thieves (‘The Three Crosses’) and Christ presented to the People (‘Ecce Homo’) (see lots 19 & 20, Old Masters Part I)
We can only speculate why Rembrandt, at this point in his career, decided to make a print of a similarly important subject, Christ preaching, on a more modest scale. Perhaps he was disheartened by the effort his two monumental drypoints - ‘The Three Crosses’ and ‘Ecce Homo’ – had required to create and print, and disappointed by the financial gains they had brought. It may have felt reasonable and commercially viable to apply his recent experiences and lessons learned to a more manageable project: a smaller plate, without the need for extra-large and expensive sheets of paper or vellum - and with drypoint, but without relying entirely on it and having to cope with is transience.
There may have been another, very practical instigation for the creation of this print: it could have been a commission. The etching’s nickname ‘La Petite Tombe’ derives from the description of the plate in Clement de Jonghe’s estate inventory, who had later come into possession of the plate. This title was then adopted by Gersaint in his first methodical catalogue of Rembrandt’s prints of 1751, and has stuck ever since. This is clearly a misunderstanding, for the print does not depict a ‘little tomb’. The description in de Jonghe’s inventory was probably an abbreviation of ‘ La Tombe’s small print’ and thus referred to the either Nicolaes or Pieter de la Tombe, who both had relations with Rembrandt. It seems likely that one or the other de la Tombe owned or commissioned the plate.
Whatever the circumstances of its conception, Christ preaching is more finished and unified, more controlled and balanced than the aforementioned, larger prints. The figure of Christ is imposing enough and his listeners numerous, yet the whole scene feels intimate and engaging. Rembrandt achieved this by setting it within a confined space, yet giving it depth by allowing a distant view through the gateway. By arranging the crowd in an almost complete circle, only leaving a gap in the front, the viewer becomes part of Christ’s audience. This sense of proximity and immediacy is further heightened by the care with which Rembrandt has depicted the individual figures. Some, in particular the man seated on the left and the older one directly behind him, have the veracity of true portraits.
The child lying in the foreground, oblivious to the words of Jesus, is an endearing detail, but also an artistic device: it adds an element of ‘real life’ to the event and brings it into the here and now. It is furthermore self-referential allusion the myth of artistic genius: the gifted child, inexorably drawing in the sand.
The present example is a brilliant impression with beautiful contrasts of light and shade and a great sense of depth, printing with rich burr in the folds of Christ’s cloak and elsewhere. Nicholas Stogdon particularly noted ‘lines of drypoint following the curve of the archway […] charged with ink but quite distinct, a feature characteristic of the very best early pulls…’ (Stogdon, no. 31, p. 44).

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