Few landscape prints in the history of art rival the evocative power of Rembrandt’s The Three Trees. The chiaroscuro he had first perfected in his historical paintings is used here in the largest and most ambitious of his etched landscapes, and the strong overplay of shadow demanded all of Rembrandt’s technical mastery. Based on the countryside around Amsterdam, Rembrandt graduated distance and atmosphere with breathtaking subtlety, using etched lines of varying density. The three sturdy trees, of uncertain species, are starkly silhouetted against a clear patch of sky, and seem to echo the three crosses in Rembrandt’s other great masterpiece.
Where it differs from other landscape etchings is the vivid depiction of the elements at work. Yet the human life depicted in the print - the angler and his wife in the foreground at lower left, the workers in the fields beyond, the cartload of peasants on the dyke behind the trees, the artist resolutely ignoring the approaching storm, and most intriguingly the lovers secreted in the bushes lower right - none of them respond to the climatic drama unfolding around them.
The present, fine impression compares favourably with the Slade impression in the British Museum, which is printed on the same paper with the same watermark, probably during the early 1650s. It perfectly captures those dramatic effects of light and shade, the dark storm clouds and the landscape still dappled with sunny spots. The print was once in the celebrated collection of Edward Rudge, one of the great collectors of the 19th century. He had stipulated that his collection should remain intact for three generations. Frits Lugt describes the effect it had when the collection was finally offered at Christie’s in 1924 – 76 years after the collector’s death in 1848: ‘Cette vente a été le plus grand événement de ce siècle dans le domaine de la gravure, surtout par son ensemble incomparable d’eaux-fortes de Rembrandt (306 nos). Il y avait en plus l’attrait de la surprise. La collection était restée complètement oubliée. Formée 100 à 135 ans plus tôt, conservée toujours en Worcestershire, elle avait été déposée dans une banque à Londres en 1899, dans des caisses bien capitonnées, et elle y resta.‘
It is nice to think that another 90 years and three generations have passed since this impression of The Three Trees was last offered in these rooms and subsequently bought by Percival Duxbury from Colnaghi’s in 1933.