Saint Francis beneath a Tree praying

Saint Francis beneath a Tree praying
etching and drypoint
on laid paper, watermark Name of Jesus (Hinterding B.a.b.)
a brilliant impression of this rare print
second, final state
printing very richly, with abundant burr, particularly on the cross, tree and foliage
with selectively wiped plate tone and remarkable relief
with small margins
in very good condition
Plate 179 x 244 mm.
Sheet 183 x 248 mm.
Hans Freiherr von und zu Aufsess (1801-1872), Aufsess and Nuremberg (Lugt 2749).
Private Collection, New Zealand.
With C. G. Boerner, Düsseldorf; their catalogue, Gedruckte Kunst von Schongauer bis Goya, Neue Lagerliste 88, 1987, no. 44.
Sam Josefowitz (Lugt 6094; on the support sheet verso); acquired from the above; then by descent to the present owners.
Bartsch, Hollstein 107; Hind 292; New Hollstein 299 (this impression cited)
Stogdon 57

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Tim Schmelcher
Tim Schmelcher International Specialist

Lot Essay

Religious scene, landscape, tree study? This rare print, created late within Rembrandt’s oeuvre, is all of these things, presented here in a beautiful impression with rich burr and a subtly modulated plate tone. The plate is executed to a large degree in drypoint, and relies much on the presence of burr and tone for balance and atmosphere, which can vary significantly, as Nicholas Stogdon explains: ‘Like other plates of the 1650s this one has the particular qualities that come of a masterly use of drypoint and the surface manipulation of ink in many permutations; hardly any two impressions are alike in pictorial effect, or indeed in mood.’ (Stogdon, 2011, p. 103)
The mystic Saint Francis of Assisi (circa 1181-1226) was a young patrician who rejected his rich inheritance for a life in poverty and preaching, and was canonised only two years after his death. He is particularly venerated in his hometown of Assisi in Umbria and at the Sanctuary of La Verna in the Apennine Mountains in Tuscany, where he is shown here. We see him at his hermitage in the densely wooded hills, kneeling in prayer, his hands folded on the open pages of a large bible, before a large crucifix. Somewhat departing from the iconography of the saint, Rembrandt depicted him as an elderly man. The hood of his simple monk’s habit reveals his bearded face, with the eyes closed and mouth open as he speaks his prayers. The foreground is taken up by the trunk of an ancient tree. Behind it in the twilight of the forest stands a cross with an almost life-size Corpus Christi. In the middle ground to the right we see the hooded figure of a monk, seated and reading below a straw-covered roof, suggestive of the rustic nature of this mountain retreat. In the background, we see the nave and sturdy tower of a church, presumably the Basilica of La Verna.
It was here at La Verna that Saint Francis received the Stigmata in a state of religious ecstasy. The hooded monk at right is Brother Leo, who gave the first account of this miraculous event: ‘Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.’ (G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 14th ed., New York, 1924, p. 131) Rembrandt follows the pictorial tradition of Saint Francis and brother Leo in the 'wilderness', yet does not show the moment of his stigmatisation. Perhaps this was 'too Catholic' a concept, and he deliberately depicted the saint simply in prayer, as a more sobre act of the ‘imitation of Christ’. That Rembrandt chose to devote this large and ambitious etching to him is in any case a sign of the veneration the Saint still attracted, even in Protestant Holland. As the founder of the Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of Saint Clare, and the lay fraternity of the Third Order, Saint Francis is one of the most revered figures of Christianity, admired for his life of peace, diplomacy, and love for God’s creation and all living things.
Saint Francis beneath a Tree praying is reminiscent of the other two, highly important prints of saints in Rembrandts oeuvre – Saint Jerome reading in an Italian Landscape and Saint Jerome beside a Pollard Willow (see lots 30-31) – and has indeed been mistaken for Jerome in the past. In all three prints, Rembrandt immersed the figure of the saint in the surrounding natural environment, which is perhaps a reflection of Rembrandt’s own spiritual attitude. Printed in 1657, this ‘may also be seen as the last of Rembrandt’s landscapes’. (Stogdon, p. 103)

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