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Christ crucified between the two Thieves: 'The Three Crosses'

Christ crucified between the two Thieves: 'The Three Crosses'
on laid paper, watermark Strasbourg Bend (Hinterding D.a.b)
a very fine impression of the extremely rare third state (of five)
printing with much burr and a subtle, selectively wiped plate tone
Plate 387 x 455 mm.
Sheet 396 x 465 mm.
Hofbibliothek Vienna; then Albertina, Vienna (Lugt 5d; with their stamp and de-accession stamp; see also Lugt 174 & 1260); their duplicates sale, C. G. Boerner, Leipzig, 3 May 1932, lot 61 ('… Abdruck von herrlicher Qualität, mit feinem Plattenton, schwerem Grat in den Seitenpartien und mit großer Leuchtkraft des breiten Lichtstrahls in der Mitte. […] Wasserzeichen Lilienbekröntes Wappen.‘ (M 23,000; to Dr Kann for Schocken).
Salman Schocken (1877-1959), Margonin, Zwickau and Jerusalem (without mark and not in Lugt).
Sotheby's, London, 29 November 1966, lot 16 (£ 30,000; to Maison).
With Faerber & Maison, London.
Charles C. Cunningham Jr. (b. 1934), Boston (Lugt 4684); acquired from the above (through Zinser).
With Robert M. Light, Santa Barbara, California (on behalf of the above).
Sam Josefowitz (Lugt 6094; on the support sheet recto); acquired from the above in 1982 (through Laube); then by descent to the present owners.
Bartsch, Hollstein 78; Hind 270; New Hollstein 274 (this impression cited)
Stogdon 40 (this impression 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).
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).
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).
J.Bikker, Rembrandt – Biography of a Rebel, Amsterdam, 2019, pp. 138-139, no. 94 (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).
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. A. Ganz, Rembrandt's Century, Munich, 2013 (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).
N. Stogdon, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etchings of Rembrandt in a private Collection, Switzerland, privately printed, 2011, pp. 64-74, nos. 39-41 (this 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).
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Rembrandt: Experimental Etcher, 1969, no. 58 (ill.).

Brought to you by

Maja Markovic
Maja Markovic Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Few prints in European art history are of equal importance and so unanimously admired as Rembrandt’s Christ crucified between the two Thieves, commonly known as The Three Crosses. 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. Frederik Schmidt-Degener, director of the Rijksmuseum from 1922-41, summarised the achievement of this work thus: 'Only once, in Rembrandt’s vision, has the Christian imagination truly dwelt on Golgatha.' (F. Schmidt-Degener, quoted in: Eeles/ Hoehn, 2015, p. 11). Other scholars and print connoisseurs have, from different perspectives, expressed the importance of this work no less emphatically.

According to Holm Bevers, ‘Rembrandt’s psychologically penetrating study of terrified humanity has no equal in the iconography of Calvary’ (Bevers, 1991, 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, 2013, p. 133); Nicholas Stogdon considered it ‘the most celebrated of all prints’ (Stogdon, 2011 p. 71); and Adrian Eeles called it ‘an unforgettable masterpiece of print-making’ (Eeles, 2015, p. 48). 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, 2014, 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:

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. (Luke 23; 33-48)

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.

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.’ (White, 1999, 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. In the present third state, Rembrandt strengthened the shading here and there, and finely modelled the face of Simon of Cyrene, who now becomes a focus point and identification figure for the viewer. At this point Rembrandt considered the print finished, and signed and dated the plate at the lower centre left: Rembrandt.f.1653. 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. 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, 2013, p. 133) Finally, the Amsterdam printer Frans Carelse (d. 1683) acquired the plate, engraved it with his name, and printed a small number of impressions of the fifth and final state. (For the most recent census of impressions, please see: Bikker, 2014, p. 159-60.)

The present sheet was formerly in the Imperial Court Library ('Hofbibliothek') in Vienna, one of the grandest and oldest print cabinets in Europe, preceeded only by Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The core of the print collection was formed by Prince Eugène de Savoie (1663-1736), with the help of the French family of print dealers, Mariette. In 1737 the collection became property of the Emperor Charles VI. In 1921, the prints and drawings of the Hofbibliothek were united with those of the equally venerable collection of the Duke Albert Casimir of Sachsen-Teschen (1738-1822), to form the Albertina, one of the world's greatest collections of graphic arts. The depth and quality of the holdings of these two august collections meant that they included many duplications, even of some of the rarest and finest prints, some of which were deaccessioned following the merger of the two cabinets. This impression of Christ crucified between two Thieves: The Three Crosses (3rd State) was one of those duplications and sold in one of the Albertina sales, in 1932.

Before the reappearance on the market of the Plessen-Cronstern impression, also of the third state, last year (Christie's, London, 7 June 2022, sold for £1,482,000), no other impression of the first three states had been on the market for over three decades. About twenty impressions are known of the first state, including a fragment and a trimmed one (Josefowitz Collection), which are still in private hands. Of the ten known impressions of the second state, two remain in private collections. Of the present third state, 22 examples of are recorded, with only three still in private hands, including the present impression.

Rembrandt's Christ crucified between two Thieves: The Three Crossesis, in Christopher White’s words, ‘one of Rembrandt’s most moving work in any medium’ (White, 1999, p. 88), and this very fine sheet presents one of the last chances to acquire an early state of this majestic print.

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