This is one of Rembrandt's most mysterious prints, and has been the subject of debate for over three hundred years. The subject is clearly a scholar, surrounded by the tools of his trade. What is less clear is the significance of the apparition by which he is transfixed. The earliest title given to the print is found in Clement de Jonghe’s inventory of 1679, where it is described simply as Practising Alchemist. In 1731 the inventory of the Dutch collector Valerius Röver identified the print as Doctor Faustus, the name by which it is still commonly known today. Whilst this title was only coined later, it seems fairly safe to assume that Rembrandt based his print on the legendary magician and alchemist: it is known that Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was performed in Amsterdam about 1650. One possible explanation is that the print is meant to demonstrate that scholars, and mankind in general, no matter how keenly they search after knowledge, can only perceive the truth as if in a glass darkly - in other words indirectly and distorted. Human knowledge is limited, and it is only through Jesus Christ, symbolised by the disc with the Latin acronym INRI, that we can partake of perfect knowledge hereafter.
In the late 1640s-50s Rembrandt began to experiment increasingly with different papers, in particular oriental papers which arrived with the ships of the Dutch East India Company, and with oatmeal paper, thus exploring the effects of different paper surfaces and tones on the printing and the atmosphere of the image (see also lot 148). It is only the most important subjects of this period which can be found on a variety of supports, which are without exception early lifetime impressions and certainly indicate Rembrandt's immediate involvement. The choice of oatmeal paper with its warm grey tone and soft, slightly mottled surface lends this dark interior a particularly haunting, nocturnal mood.
New Hollstein records a total of eight impressions of the first state printed on oatmeal paper (Amsterdam, Boston, Hamburg, London, New York, Norwich, Rotterdam & Vienna). The present impression is superior to the Cracherode impression on oatmeal in the British Museum.