As a scholar and hermit, Saint Jerome seems to have been the favourite saint of artists, who may have seen in him a kindred spirit, an archetype of the artistic soul. Albrecht Dürer devoted no less than six prints to him, Rembrandt created no fewer than seven etchings on the subject, and countless other artists depicted him either as a scholar in his study or as a hermit during his period of ascetic penance in the Syrian desert.
Jerome (347-420 AD), was born in Dalmatia and baptised in Rome around 360-66 AD. He travelled widely between Rome, Trier, Greece, Antioch and Constantinople. Although his native language was Illyrian, he is above else known for his work on the Vulgate, the translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into vulgate Latin. Together with Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine of Hippo, he is one of the Four Fathers of the Western Church.
In Rembrandt's Saint Jerome in an Italian Landscape we see him as an old man, sitting comfortably reclined in a pastoral landscape beneath a tree. His slippers have fallen off his feet and he is completely immersed in the book he is reading. We can only identify him as Saint Jerome by the lion standing behind him on a rocky outcrop, overlooking the landscape and guarding the saint's secluded spot. Rembrandt has omitted his other saintly attributes - the skull and the crucifix - and instead of the usual cardinal's hat has given him a broad-brimmed sun hat.
This is not the traditional image of the saint doing penance in the wilderness, but of the old scholar enjoying the last rays of sunshine and a moment of solitude outdoors. By straying far from the traditional iconography, Rembrandt has in fact created an almost entirely secular image. The contemporary viewer may still have understood the little bird on the tree-stump as a subtle reference to the Holy Ghost inspiring the saintly scholar, and the sunshine as a metaphor for divine light. Yet to us it seems that it is not the saint but the landscape and the play of light and shade within it, which are the true protagonists of the scene.
From the sketchily etched saint, bathed as it seems by the evening sun, across the similarly cursory yet wonderfully vivid lion in the shade, the eye is drawn once more into the light, towards the large farmhouse in the background. It is this meticulously described building on the hill which gave this print its customary name. To connoisseurs of 16th century Venetian art, this structure is instantly recognizable and brings to mind the landscapes of Giorgione, Titian and their followers - Rembrandt's towered farmhouse is almost certainly based on the engraving of Shepherds in a Landscape by Giulio and Domenico Campagnola.
Early commentators regretted the seemingly 'unfinished' state of this print, yet it is precisely this interplay of a sparsely sketched foreground and a highly detailed background, and of light and darkness, which give the composition rhythm and depth and bring the scene to life. In this print Rembrandt's deliberate, masterful use of blank paper to indicate sunlight on the one hand, and heavy drypoint to imitate deep shadows on the other, is particularly effective.
It was during this period in his career, the late 1640s to the late 1650s (rightly called 'a brilliant decade' by Adrian Eeles), that Rembrandt increasingly began to experiment with seemingly unfinished compositions, as well as with the extensive use of drypoint, and with printing on a variety of different papers (see also lot 141). Impressions of Saint Jerome in an Italian Landscape exist on Japanese paper, European laid paper and oatmeal paper, such as the present example. It appears that Rembrandt or possibly Clement de Jonghe, who owned the plate following Rembrandt's bankruptcy, only chose white European papers as the drypoint began to wear, thus providing greater contrast between the printed lines and the paper tone. The difference in atmosphere and mood of the scene, depending on the paper tone and surface is remarkable: while impressions on white European paper give the impression of a sun-drenched morning or afternoon, impressions on yellowish Japanese or even darker, slightly speckled oatmeal paper lend the scene a distinctly crepuscular feel. In the present impression, the gentle warmth of the evening sun and the cool air emerging from the shade is almost palpable.
With a fine, early impression such as the present one, it becomes apparent why Saint Jerome in an Italian Landscape is one of Rembrandt's most desirable and charming etchings.