The Shell (Conus Marmoreus)

The Shell (Conus Marmoreus)
etching, engraving and drypoint
on laid paper, partial watermark Foolscap
a fine impression of this very rare print
second state (of three)
with a thread margin below, trimmed on the platemark elsewhere
in very good condition
Plate & Sheet 97 x 132 mm.
J. F. Linck (d. 1863), Berlin (Lugt 1685); inscribed in pen and ink ‘B. No. 159. – 2de Epr:/ De la plus grande rarété/ J. F. Linck 480’; his sale, R. Weigel, Leipzig, 14 May 1855 (and following days), lot 2773 (‘Die Muschel. qu.8. B. 159. Guter Abdruck dieses äusserst seltenen Blattes.’) (Th. 20; to Cronstern).
Gabriel von Cronstern III (1783-1869), Schloss Nehmten, Schleswig-Hollstein; acquired at the above sale; 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 161 (£ 66,000).
Sam Josefowitz (Lugt 6094, on the support sheet recto); acquired at the above sale; then by descent to the present owners.
Bartsch, Hollstein 159; Hind 248; New Hollstein 247 (this impression cited)
Stogdon 68

Brought to you by

Tim Schmelcher
Tim Schmelcher International Specialist

Lot Essay

The Shell is Rembrandt’s only etched still life, and one of the rarest and most desirable major subjects within his oeuvre. The sea shell is depicted approximately life size, and Rembrandt beautifully captures the structure and the sheen of its surface. With its undefined surroundings, theatrical lighting, and marked foreshortening, it attains a strange monumentality and an otherworldly, mysterious quality. It is a timeless image, and in its complete concentration on the object itself could well be a work of the 20th century, reminiscent of the still-lives of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964).
There was however a precedent, as Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) had, just four years earlier, completed 39 etchings of shells (NH 1273-1311), presumably specimen in the collection of the Earl of Arundel. While Hollar’s series appears to be an early case of systematic natural science, Rembrandt’s more staged presentation of one particular shell, Conus Marmoreus, seems to stem from a mixture of motives: admiration for the beauty of the object, the sheer curiosity of such a rare, exotic and costly thing, and perhaps a burgeoning scientific interest, too.
Shells were often part of the display in a Wunderkammer, the pre-scientific ancestor of the modern museum, together with corals, exotic feathers, horns and tusks, stuffed animals, colourful stones and minerals, as well as rare and precious artifacts. These cabinets of curiosities had their origin at princely courts, but by Rembrandt’s time could also be found in patrician households, including those of the rich merchants of Amsterdam, who through their trading activities had access to the most far-flung places. Conus Marmoreus, a poisonous sea-snail, is endemic to the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal as well as the Western Pacific. Rembrandt’s shell would undoubtedly have come to Holland on one of the ships of the Dutch East India Company. As we know from the inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions, drawn up as part the insolvency proceedings in 1656, he himself was an ardent collector, not just of paintings, drawings and prints, but all manner of things which piqued his interest and could serve as props for his art and teaching, including natural history specimen, statuary, curiosities, weaponry, fabrics, costumes and anatomical models.
The present sheet, from the collection of the Counts Plessen-Cronstern, is a fine impression of the second state. The first state exists in five examples only, while of the second state New Hollstein lists a total of 33 impressions, and one of the third.

More from The Sam Josefowitz Collection: Graphic Masterpieces by Rembrandt van Rijn

View All
View All