- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

The world recognizes the artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) as one of its most spiritual and humane — and what better excuse to celebrate his genius than the 400th-anniversary of his birth?With “Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt’s Prints and Drawings,” the National Gallery of Art joins a multitude of museums in honoring this master of graphic art. At the National Gallery, visitors can see that he’s equally joyful with the minimal in sketchy landscapes and exuberant in complexly etched and engraved portraits such as “The Great Jewish Bride.”

The National Gallery of Art, fortunately, owns one of the nation’s great collections of Rembrandt graphics — built from the cache given by Sears, Roebuck and Co. magnate Lessing J. Rosenwald in 1934 — and it has placed 22 Rembrandt drawings and 170 prints on view.

Of course, the great ones are there: the grimacing, mocking “Self-Portrait, Laughing” at the show’s beginning; “Abraham Entertaining the Angels,” hidden for about 300 years on the back of a landscape painting; the iconic, minimally rendered “The Three Trees”; and “Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses,” shown in four versions.

Note that the exhibit is divided into five rooms:

• “In the Street” and “In the Studio,” in the first gallery, are mainly of figurative subjects in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam neighborhood.

• “The People Rembrandt Knew,” in the second gallery, offers self-portraits and portraits of friends and family.

• “Country Walks Around Amsterdam” shows his genius for minimal, horizontally configured landscapes.

• “Histories and Figures in the Bible” reveals how great are his interpretations of legendary figures from both the Old Testament and New Testament.

• “What Makes One Rembrandt Better Than Another?” — in the final gallery — explains how etchings can be altered expressively from a single print.

The artist worked with two major intaglio processes on metal plates.

Etching is a technique by which lines are eroded on the surface of metal plates with acids. Repeated printings and reworkings of the copper plates yield different-looking prints called “states.”

By contrast, a graver cuts V-shaped trenches in engraving plates. Not surprisingly, the two processes are often combined, writes William Ivins Jr. in his book “How Prints Look.”

One of the most successful combinations is the exhibit’s “The Great Jewish Bride.” Rembrandt dressed up his wife, Saskia, in an elegant fur-lined velvet dress to show her as Esther from the Old Testament.

The show saves its best work for near the end with the four versions of the monumental “Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves: The Three Crosses,” the exhibit’s stars. The wall text tells visitors: “Daringly, Rembrandt drew the entire image directly on copper with sharp strokes of a drypoint needle. A triangle of light from the heavens penetrates a surrounding gloom and illuminates the emaciated body. Sorrowing witnesses stare.” (In drypoint, a sharp round point is pushed into a metal plate.)

Clearly, “Christ Crucified” goes beyond what usually is known as spirituality. It penetrates our souls as few works in the history of art do.

WHAT: “Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt’s Prints and Drawings”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through March 18 .

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

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