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Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” seems to get all the ink from the de Young Museum’s latest exhibition (as well showing up on every conceivable gift shop item from coffee mugs to chocolate bar wrappers.)

But it’s an added treat that the art museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park offers two shows in one: 30-plus Dutch paintings form the Mauritshuis royal picture gallery and more than 200 prints from the 17th Century.  The latter section is entitled “Rembrandt’s Century.” It offered some deft storytelling with ink and paper. And Rembrandt van Rijn – a man I barely knew for his paintings – was one of its most influential artists.

As an ink-stained wretch, I am embarrassed to say that I don’t understand much about how ink gets put on paper, whether it’s with a laser printer or a modern newspaper press. I was just as clueless when my wife turned to me at the exhibition and asked, “What’s the difference between etching and engraving?” (Thank you, Google. Engraving, we later learned, uses a tool to carve into a hard plate of copper or similar substance. Etching involves putting a protective layer over the plate, using a tool to mark an image on that layer and then using acid to cut or etch the image into the uncovered, unprotected parts of the plate.)

The effect is reminiscent of the Wall Street Journal’s “Hedcut” portrait illustrations – black and white images, but with tiny parallel or crosshatch lines for shading. But the subject matter of these printmakers was so varied. The works included landscapes, images from religious stories, portraits, and more. And while it may not have resulted in mass production, the techniques allowed many more people to behold these images than a single painting.

Here is an example of a self-portrait by Rembrandt with his wife Saskia.

Self-portrait with Saskia. 1636 etching on paper. Wikimedia Commons.

So by all means, go see the girl with the pearl, as well as the other paintings. But also check out these venerable prints. It will remind you that art often harnesses a craft in order to provide the medium for expression. And in a Rembrandt, you can have the gifted artist and the master craftsman in the same person.

The exhibition continues through June 2. Click here to visit the de Young website.

– Robert Digitale

 

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