Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves ‘The Three Crosses’, 1653. Drypoint, on laid paper. Plate 386 x 450 mm. Sheet 388 x 453 mm. Estimate

The legacy of a difficult year: Rembrandt’s Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves — also known as The Three Crosses

In the midst of an ongoing war, legal disputes and personal problems, Rembrandt produced only two dated works in 1653. Yet one of them, The Three Crosses, has been described as marking ‘a key point in the history of the graphic arts’

By 1653 Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a hugely successful artist. He was in his late forties, and had already created more than 200 paintings. A decade had passed since he had received what has been estimated at between 2,000 and 4,000 guilders — perhaps $250,000-$750,000 in today’s money — to produce his colossal civic militia portrait, The Night Watch.

That year, however, Rembrandt only made two dated works. One was a painting, his melancholic meditation on fame, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The second was a print — the largest, most innovative, ambitious and technically demanding print he had ever embarked upon. Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves, otherwise known as The Three Crosses, was described by the art historian Christopher White as ‘one of Rembrandt’s most moving works in any medium’.

On 7 July, one of only three impressions remaining in private hands from the third state of The Three Crosses  is being offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale in London.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves ‘The Three Crosses’, 1653. Drypoint, on laid paper. Plate 386 x 450 mm. Sheet 388 x 453 mm. Estimate £800,000-1,200,000. Offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale on 7 July 2022 at Christie’s in London

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses’, 1653. Drypoint, on laid paper. Plate 386 x 450 mm. Sheet 388 x 453 mm. Estimate: £800,000-1,200,000. Offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale on 7 July 2022 at Christie’s in London

Rembrandt’s decline in output in 1653 can be attributed, in part, to the problems that beset him that year.

He was entangled in legal disputes with his former lover — a wet nurse hired to care for his son, Titus, following the sudden death of his wife, Saskia. He was also summoned several times to Amsterdam’s courts for failing to pay taxes and for quarrelling with his neighbour.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the First Anglo-Dutch War — a fight for maritime supremacy between the Dutch Republic and England, which had commenced the previous year — rumbled on throughout 1653. It placed enormous strain on the economy of the Netherlands, which in turn caused demand for commissions to dry up.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-portrait with Saskia. Plate & sheet 103 x 91 mm. Sold for £6,875 on 3 July 2019 at Christie’s Online

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-portrait with Saskia. Plate & sheet 103 x 91 mm. Sold for £6,875 on 3 July 2019 at Christie’s Online

Against this backdrop of hardships, and perhaps driven by economic considerations, Rembrandt began focusing more on printmaking, experimenting with new styles and techniques.

The Three Crosses  is the size of a small painting and depicts Saint Luke’s account of the events at Calvary. The upper third of the print is filled with dark sky, while Christ’s haggard body, bathed in a shaft of glowing light, is shown crucified at its centre.

He is flanked by two thieves; beneath him are mourners including Mary Magdalene, Saint John and the Virgin Mary — who has fainted in despair. To the left, a centurion kneels before the cross, helmet removed, indicating the intense moment of his conversion as Christ exhales his last breath.

The fainting Virgin Mary is among the mourners at the foot of the cross

The fainting Virgin Mary is among the mourners at the foot of the cross

The work was created using the drypoint technique, which involves scratching lines directly into a copper plate with a stylus. The gouged lines have rough edges, known as ‘burr’, which catch ink and give the printed lines a dark, velvety look.

Daringly, Rembrandt incised a combination of hard, straight lines, dense cross-hatching and light, loose sketching to create highly contrasting passages of light and dark and a sense of movement and drama. In some places, he scraped the burr away to avoid the blurring of his marks.

He also played with the amount of plate-tone he applied to the surface of the copper, wiping away patches to leave the some figures bathed in celestial light, while others are covered with sombre shadows. The effect of these powerful tonal contrasts, known as chiaroscuro, had been championed a few decades earlier in oils by Caravaggio, and introduced to northern Europe by travelling Dutch artists.

The overall effect of the image is cinematic in its scope and animated energy, and the work was acknowledged by the Rembrandt scholar Erik Hinterding as both ‘a highlight of [Rembrandt’s] etched oeuvre and a key point in the history of the graphic arts’.

The centurion is shown genuflecting in his moment of conversion

The centurion is shown genuflecting in his moment of conversion

Rembrandt created four different versions — or ‘states’ — of The Three Crosses, each time reworking the copper plate, adding more lines to alter the image.

The first state already shows the complete composition. Twenty-one prints of it are known, only two of which — both fragmented — are in private hands. For the second state, Rembrandt added a few lines of shading at the right edge. Ten prints of this state are recorded, and two are in private collections.

The print being offered at Christie’s is from the third state, in which Rembrandt intensified the shading to heighten the drama. He also signed and dated the plate ‘Rembrandt.f.1653’, indicating that this was the version of The Three Crosses  he considered complete. Just 22 prints of the third state are known to exist.

The artist signed and dated the plate ‘Rembrandt.f.1653’

The artist signed and dated the plate ‘Rembrandt.f.1653’

The rich, crisp burr suggests that this was one of the earlier impressions to be ‘pulled’ from the plate.

By the time the artist came to print the fourth state, around two years later, the plate’s detail was considerably worn. Rembrandt’s solution was to rework the copper surface completely, scraping off the burr and burnishing the image so that only ghost-like lines of the previous design remained. He then etched a new and drastically different composition on top.

Many of the figures were reimagined or removed entirely. Christ’s appearance was altered, and large areas were obscured. In fact, the changes to the fourth state are so substantial that for a long time it was considered to be printed from an entirely different plate.

A fifth state was created after a local printer acquired the plate, added his own address and printed a handful of impressions.

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The impression offered on 7 July is remarkable for having had very few previous owners. 

Its whereabouts for the first century of its existence is unknown. It was first documented in the celebrated collection of Gabriel Friedrich Schreiber von Cronstern II (1740-1807) around 1780. Gabriel II founded the library and print collection at his family seat, Schloss Nehmten, acquiring many of his prints — likely including the present work — through the Amsterdam dealer Pierre (or Pieter) Yver in the 1760s and 70s.

The print remained in his descendants’ possession for more than 200 years. Following its rediscovery, the collection was auctioned in Old Master Prints from a German Family of Title (1991-92) at Christie’s in London, when the Three Crosses was acquired by the current owners.

For the past 30 years, no other impressions of any of the first three states of The Three Crosses have been offered at auction.

Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses will be on view at Christie’s in London from 2 to 7 July, ahead of the Old Masters Evening Sale on 7 July, part of Classic Week London