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The culmination of an obsession: Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo

This 1655 print is considered among Rembrandt’s most significant achievements in any medium. Ahead of its sale on 5 July in London, specialist Tim Schmelcher explains why it stands at the summit of the Western printmaking tradition

Alongside Dürer, Goya and Picasso, Rembrandt was one of the greatest printmakers in the history of Western art. In the course of his career he produced around 300 different prints, ranging from minuscule portraits to large, complex multi-figure scenes.

Dating from 1655, Ecce Homo (Christ presented to the people)  is one of Rembrandt’s largest etchings. The work depicts the New Testament scene in which Pontius Pilate asks the people of Jerusalem to decide whether Jesus or Barabbas should be spared execution. ‘It is hardly possible to experience Rembrandt’s intentions, thought and work process with greater intensity and immediacy than by close observation of this work,’ argues Tim Schmelcher, International Specialist in Prints & Multiples at Christie’s.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’). Sheet 15 x 17⅝  in (38.7 x 44.8  cm). Estimate On request. Offered in Old Masters Evening Sale on 5 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’). Sheet 15 x 17⅝ in (38.7 x 44.8 cm). Estimate: On request. Offered in Old Masters Evening Sale on 5 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

This is the culminating moment in the chain of interrogations, trials and persecutions that followed Jesus’s arrest. In a highly theatrical manner, Rembrandt stages the presentation on a raised platform in the courtyard in front of Pontius Pilate’s palace, with a crowd of onlookers directly in front of the tribune.

Pilate, Christ and Barabbas stand out against the darkness of the low arched doorway behind them. Attired in a robe and turban, Pilate holds his long staff of office in his right hand as he gestures towards Jesus with his left. Jesus’s hands are bound in front of him, and he is clad only in a loincloth and a cloak that covers one shoulder.

The brutal-looking figure with a moustache and shaved head standing between and just behind the two principal figures is Barabbas, leader of a bloody insurrection. Christ’s humble status as a prisoner is emphasised by the fact that he is roped together with the rebel commander.

‘In 60 years of connoisseurship Sam Josefowitz built an outstanding collection of work by Rembrandt, key among which was this masterpiece’ — Jussi Pylkkänen

Rembrandt set the scene in front of a municipal building resembling Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace), which had been inaugurated in the same year in which this print was created. In 17th-century Holland convicts were often sentenced outside, which coupled with the fact that many of the observers in the foreground are in the dress of the day, suggests Rembrandt was attempting to make contemporary viewers feel like participants in the drama, and, perhaps, complicit in the judgement.

Rembrandt’s printmaking practice peaked in the 1650s, as his use of tonal shading, pure drypoint technique (scratching an image directly onto a copper plate using a sharp needle) and experimentations with exotic papers became increasingly radical.

To create Ecce Homo, ‘Rembrandt essentially executed a huge drawing on copper, while making full use of the rich, inky effects, intense contrasts and graphic clarity that can only be achieved in print,’ Schmelcher explains. ‘Ecce Homo  is the culmination of Rembrandt’s obsessive engagement with printmaking.’

Rembrandts signature appears at the bottom left of the print

Rembrandt's signature appears at the bottom left of the print

Executed entirely in drypoint, Christ Presented to the People  stands alongside The Three Crosses  as the largest print in Rembrandt’s oeuvre. The present impression is one of eight recorded in the first state, and is the only example of this state in private hands — indeed it is the only impression of the first four states still in private hands.

Printed on a sheet of fine Japan paper, which was extremely rare and expensive in Europe at the time, this print was held in the collection of a German noble family for more than 250 years before being purchased in 1991, at Christie’s, by the renowned Rembrandt connoisseur Samuel Josefowitz.

‘Sam Josefowitz was among the greatest Old Master print collectors of his generation,' explains Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s Global President. ‘In 60 years of connoisseurship and enthusiasm for Rembrandt, he built an outstanding collection of work by the artist, key among which was this masterpiece.’

Of the eight recorded examples of this first state known to exist, the other seven are all in major museum collections: the British Museum, the Albertina, the Louvre, the Ashmolean, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Petit Palais and the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin.

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