How Sam Josefowitz assembled the finest collection of Rembrandt prints in private hands

Among more than 270 prints acquired by the collector are magnificent examples of the artist’s rarest and most famous works, ranging from Self-Portrait leaning on a Stone Sill to The Three Trees, The Shell and Christ crucified between the two Thieves

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), The Shell (Conus Marmoreus), 1650 (detail). Plate & sheet 97 x 132 mm. Sold for £730,800 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

The inspiration to collect prints by Rembrandt — ultimately resulting in the finest and most comprehensive private collection of the 20th century — came to Sam Josefowitz in rather unlikely circumstances. Taking a flight from Paris to Geneva in 1969, Josefowitz happened to strike up a conversation with the stranger in the seat next to him: Ira Gale, an American prints dealer.

Within 10 minutes, Gale had pulled out from his briefcase a whole album’s worth of Old Master prints. ‘I invited Ira to come to my home [in Lausanne] for lunch the next day,’ Josefowitz recalled shortly before his death in 2015. ‘We spent several hours looking at his prints, and talking about Old Master prints, their availability and their beauty. Before he left, I had purchased… one of his Rembrandt etchings.’

At that stage of his life — he was in his late forties, running a successful mail-order book and music business — Josefowitz’s collecting interests lay chiefly in the art of the Pont-Aven painters, who had operated in that Breton town towards the end of the 19th century.

His purchase of the Rembrandt etching from Gale, however, heralded a significant new direction: over the following four decades, Josefowitz would acquire more than 270 prints by the Dutchman, building a collection that is without equal in the depth, quality and rarity of its holdings.

On 7 December 2023, Christie’s will be offering a selection of 75 works from the collection across two sales in London: Old Masters Part I and The Sam Josefowitz Collection: Graphic Masterpieces by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-Portrait leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639. Plate 206 x 163 mm. Sheet 208 x 165 mm. Sold for £201,600 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Rembrandt was born in the town of Leiden in 1606. He started his printmaking career at the age of 19, at first producing prints of mostly modest size and subject matter: small sketches of peasants and beggars as well as so-called ‘tronies’, studies of facial features and expressions.

These early years were a period of flexing his artistic muscles and perfecting his craft. His efforts paid off. By the time Rembrandt settled in Amsterdam around 1634, he had fully mastered the technique of etching.

Through the use of different patterns of hatching, and variations in the thickness of his lines, he depicted all manner of scenes with convincing spatial arrangements, facial expressions and the sense of figures in motion. His motifs now ranged from the dramatic nocturnal vision of The Angel appearing to the Shepherds, with herdsmen and animals fleeing in panic in several directions, to the tranquil and intimate Woman reading. Both prints date from 1634.

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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), The Angel appearing to the Shepherds, 1634. Plate 262 x 218 mm. Sheet 265 x 223 mm. Sold for £113,400 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Woman reading, 1634. Plate 124 x 100 mm. Sheet 127 x 104 mm. Sold for £113,400 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

The young Rembrandt did not lack ambition and soon felt confident enough to compare himself to the great artists of the Italian Renaissance. In his Self-Portrait leaning on a Stone Sill of 1639, he emulated Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (today found in the Louvre). The Dutchman depicts himself in sumptuous dress, with the luxurious folds of his sleeve draped over the wall in the foreground. This is the largest of the 31 self-portraits he produced in print across his career and will be offered at Christie’s in a magnificent early impression.

From the 1640s, Rembrandt expanded his repertoire of genres to include landscape etchings, with The Three Trees (1643) being one of the most celebrated and sought-after of all his prints. It is a technical tour-de-force, including all the methods at his disposal — etching, drypoint, engraving and sulphur tinting — to create astonishing weather effects in a chiaroscuro reminiscent of his finest paintings. The example offered here was once in the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam and is a brilliant, early example in impeccable condition.

An imaginary view of the Dutch countryside — an orderly patchwork of fields, canals and windmills, with a town and the glistening sea in the far distance — is captured beneath a tumultuous sky, as sunlight breaks through the receding storm clouds.

Two people can be seen fishing in the foreground, and on the hill Rembrandt added a tiny figure of a man sketching — the kind of incidental detail that pervades the artist’s printed oeuvre. Josefowitz said that ‘to experience the full beauty and artistic merit’ of the Dutchman’s work, ‘one really has to study it minutely’.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), The Three Trees, 1643. Plate 214 x 280 mm. Sheet 221 x 287 mm. Sold for £869,400 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

One of the great rarities included in the collection is Rembrandt’s only etched still life: The Shell (1650). It portrays a life-size shell of an exotic sea snail, which — due to the undefined setting and dramatic lighting — attains a strange, almost otherworldly monumentality.

The metropolitan milieu of Amsterdam, filled as it was with a sizeable circle of print connoisseurs, undoubtedly fed Rembrandt’s innate curiosity and desire to experiment as a printmaker. He began to work with unusual supports, for instance, printing on Oriental papers and vellum rather than European paper. These materials were less absorbent, causing the ink to sit on the surface, thereby lending the images an ethereal, almost liquid appearance.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Saint Jerome reading in an Italian Landscape, circa 1653. Plate 259 x 205 mm. Sheet 263 x 208 mm. Sold for £1,552,500 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Around the same time, from 1640 onwards, Rembrandt began to work increasingly with a technique called drypoint — first in combination with etching, then in certain later works on its own.

To produce an etching, a copper plate is covered with a wax and resin ground, into which the artist scratches with a needle. It is then dipped in acid, which ‘bites out’ the desired lines. In drypoint, by contrast, a needle is used to scratch the image directly into the copper plate. Rembrandt seems to have been particularly fond of the dark, soft and velvety lines which drypoint offers.

In Saint Jerome reading in an Italian landscape — especially in the magnificent first-state impression owned by Josefowitz — Rembrandt created a striking tension between the lightly sketched saint in the foreground and the deep black of the drypoint passages on and around the lion’s mane.

This work dates from the mid-1650s, just before Rembrandt made the two largest prints of his career: Christ crucified between the two Thieves (sometimes called ‘The Three Crosses’) and Christ presented to the People (‘Ecce Homo’). Among the most widely admired prints in art history, these images — both executed solely in drypoint — show the Dutchman at his most ambitious.

In the former, Rembrandt throws us into the midst of the Crucifixion. The 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. This all adds to a sense of movement and immediacy, and invokes an almost cinematic experience. According to the art historian James Ganz, ‘the death of Christ on the cross has never been depicted with such graphic intensity or raw expressive force’.

In both ‘The Three Crosses’ and Christ presented to the People (‘Ecce Homo’), Rembrandt rejected a panoramic composition in favour of a viewpoint much closer to the central figures. In Christ presented to the People we thereby become almost complicit in this critical event, as Pontius Pilate asks the people of Jerusalem whether Jesus should be spared, not allowing us to observe the judgement from a comfortable distance.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Christ presented to the People (‘Ecce Homo’), 1655. Plate 358 x 455 mm. Sheet 361 x 459 mm. Offered in Old Masters Part I on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

If ‘The Three Crosses’ is cinematic, this composition is more theatrical: the stage is set, and the tragedy of Jesus’s fate unfolds slowly and inevitably. Christ stands on a raised terrace before Pilate’s palace, barefoot and dressed only in a loincloth, his hands tied together in front of him. Pilate, sporting a turban, large cloak and long staff, stands to the left. The governor points at Christ with a questioning gesture, as if asking the crowd of onlookers below: ‘What shall I do with him?’

Both biblical scenes are offered in rare, early states, produced before Rembrandt markedly altered the compositions on the respective printing plates. Broadly speaking, the earlier the impression of a print, the sharper and richer the image — and Josefowitz liaised closely with curators, scholars and dealers worldwide, aiming to find the best impressions available. In most cases, this meant as early an impression as possible — while also seeking out impressions of the same plate in different states.

Explore an artwork like an expert

Specialist Tim Schmelcher looks in detail at Rembrandt’s Jan Lutma, Goldsmith from The Sam Josefowitz Collection, decoding the language of Old Master prints

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Rembrandt was known to rework certain designs over time, adding or subtracting details on his plates, thus modifying the composition of his prints from state to state. A prime example is Jan Lutma, Goldsmith: an impression of this portrait in the first state is being offered in the upcoming auction. In the second state, Rembrandt added a large window behind his sitter.

The artist’s reasons for amending some of his designs are unclear, although experimentation and artistic curiosity were always the driving forces of his creations. In the case of ‘The Three Crosses’ and ‘Ecce Homo’, the fact that his copper plates were wearing out, a common occurrence with drypoint, would also have been a factor.

In later impressions of the former print, Rembrandt radically changed the composition and obscured much of the plate with dark drypoint shading; in later impressions of the latter, he erased the crowd of people beneath the terrace, replacing them with a pair of archways. In both cases, he not only altered the image, but added another layer of meaning and expression to the scene.

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Vincent van Gogh once referred to Rembrandt as a ‘magician’, and more than four centuries after his first etching, his prints are as astounding and moving as they were at the time. Ever since they were made, interest in and demand for Rembrandt’s prints has never dimmed, and many of his finest works in the medium are now in great museum collections around the world. It is testament to Sam Josefowitz’s discernment and determination that he was able to acquire this extraordinary, incomparable ensemble — a collection which, as he said in 2011, ‘absorbed and enriched my life in so many ways’.

Explore art from antiquity to the 21st century at Classic Week, 1 to 15 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

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