Souvenir from Rembrandt

February 13, 2012


This is an original printing after Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching my brother made with his own two hands in a visit at the Museum Het Rembrandthuis in old Amsterdam, 2 months ago, when we had the coincidental inspiration of stepping into the painter’s graphic workshop exactly as the doors closed and a demonstration, presented by a nice, middle-aged, historian lady, began. Lucky us!


Dozens of people were cramped in the square, relatively small chamber  which contained faithful copies of the initial instruments utilized by the 17th century men, listening the guide’s concise information on the subject. She said Rembrandt’s real passion were these printings (exhibited all around the room) that, contradicting what many believe, actually made him famous in the epoch as his pictures were commissioned only by rich art patrons and never revealed to the  larger public. They were small, easily made and cheep, so even a mediocre butcher could afford buying least one, relishing their delicate beauty. The themes he depicted recalled those he usually painted: religious scenes, self-portraits-galore, Saskias (his wife and muse with a rodent’s face), local landscapes and, occasionally, erotic compositions. All were inspired by former masters of diverse conceptions such as Mantegna, Raphael and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione whose printings he had collected avidly along the years.

Rembrandt used both the etching and engraving technique, the lady continued explaining, of which etching represented a chemically based practice and engraving the incising of a design onto a flat copper surface by cutting groves. The latter requested hard work and the result was marked by visible contrasts between shadow and light while the first permitted softer lines similar to a sketch’s, rather fitted for painters. Obviously, he opted for etching and the guide further showed us how it was done step by step.

The museum’s site offers an online demonstration: Etching in 9 Steps

Basically, you take a copper plate, polish it smooth, apply a wax mixture ground, draw what you’ve planned with a special needle, coat it with acid-resistant varnish and leave it a few minutes then clean the plate, ink it using a dabber, wipe it off (a tip: the hands are preferable here) and print it on a damped paper by running it slowly through the wooden-press (my brother kindly volunteered to do this last part, which freely won us the thing you saw above). Voila, you’ve got a tiny work of art!

The originals conventionally bear the stamp of an official institution like the Het Rembrandthuis  museum to prove its authenticity:


And a final advice: if you ever enter in the possession of a legitimate print by any author, remember to take care and frame it so the protuberances around the margins of the illustration could be observed- they attest it’s not a mere copy reproduced through modern means but the genuine product of etching.



This piece of divine beauty, all gilded silver, enamel, blue glass and emeralds masterly blended in the form you can admire, is the toilette de la duchesse de Parme whom I met personally some time ago, while I was doing my job as foreign tourist in Paris, visiting the chief museums, that is. When I first set my greedy-of-luxury eyes on its shimmery surface with minutely carved figures I couldn’t help to jump straight to it and analyze it closely. Expensive, massive objects posses magnetic powers which never fail to capture me like in a Circe charm.

So there was I, leaping around it feverishly, a young teen literally seized by the sparkling richness of the exquisite toilette, refusing for about half an hour to continue the tour through the other Salles of the Musée d’Orsay although I knew there were enough other equally gorgeous items to gaze at. I just continued to stare, passing my fingers over its magnificent shapes (I think it’s me to blame for the glass case they put it in now), reading the ivory inlaid inscriptions in words quite hard to understand because of their flourished style, watching the miniature portraits of great French ladies, Blanche de Castille, Jeanne d’Arc, Santa Redegonda or Clémence Isaure, absorbing its genuine beauty. I barely managed to leave it behind as the museum was soon closing and I realized that I shamelessly hadn’t said hello to Manet’s “Olympia“, which was the main purpose of my going to Orsay along with some Renoirs and Monets, also ignored.

Arrived home, I began to browse for more information regarding the lovely toilette, thus learning it had been commissioned around  1845 by a subscription of the Legitimist Ladies of France with the occasion of Louise-Thérèse de Bourbon ( King Charles X’s granddaughter) and duke Charles III of Parma’s wedding. The lavish gift, representing exactly the French values and the opulence they promoted, was intended to exalt the virtues of marriage guarded by twenty examples of French women renown for their piety, courage and talent whose faces are set on two jewelry cases reassembling 12th century Mosan reliquaries. Lilies and roses intertwine with delicate ivy on the decorations around the mirror, evoking conjugal fidelity.


A multitude of different styles were mixed and projected to blend homogeneously, from the Islamic inspired ewer with basin to the candlesticks based on 17th century bronze models.

The toilette was little more than an official present – it incorporated the very essence of the French mentality, history and art, a token, a reminding of Louise-Thérèse ‘s origin when she’ll be moved to Italy, in a region marked by political tension and reluctant to modernization or in the face splendor.

The affluent display of putti sculpted in Renaissance manner, the realistic flowers and numerous fineries must’ve been inappropriate for a duchess whose power wasn’t approved by the authority of the city, but they represented modernity with ancient basis. Surely Louise-Thérèse  enjoyed the gift and the others coped with it.

The toilet chest was completed finally in 1851 and sent to London, Crystal Palace, the same year, where it was presented at the World Fair, strange destiny for such a piece.


The eclecticist ensemble, exponent of the Second Empire’s ideals, caught the attention of a French journal, “Opinion Publique“, that wrote:

“Imagine a walker fine, graceful like your bracelet, like your pin, like your ring, but as big as a coach, imagine this enormous jewel covered with branches and leaves, birds, of inscriptions, emblems of all sorts, and add to everything that the imagination can more freely invent Inspired by nature, all that art and reason can dream if a heart and guide, when intelligence leads them; then you will not even have an imperfect idea of what the ladies of France will offer to His Royal Highness the Duchess of Parma.”

A majestic description of a precious masterpiece which keeps astonishing people hundreds of hears later.

You might not believe in its enchantment, but if you’ll ever stumble across it in the Salle des Fêtes at Musée d’Orsay you’ll certainly freeze before this gigantic monument of wealth. The sensation is blissful.

It was in the mid 19th century, when most foreigners would normally yearn for a bottle of classic white wine, a delicious wheel of Brie cheese or least some fiery night with the reputed lorettes who made the prostitutes of the time, that Ottoman diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey (1831-1879) , very respectable man otherwise, commissioned  an erotic painting from libertine Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).

Origin of the World

Roll out the red carpet for “L’Origin e du monde” (“The Origin of the World“), a medium-sized oil-on-canvas naughtily representing the genitals and abdomen of  Whistler’s mistress, Joanna “Jo” Hiffernan, with the cruel realism Courbert was so proud of. Vulgar? Offensive? Gaudy? Maybe, but label it as misunderstood art and here you go! a masterpiece! currently one of Musée d’Orsay’s most appreciated works!

Symphony in White

Only looking at the model, really, you can see she had just one part which truly deserved to be immortalized in Courbert’s picture -and what an inspiring part that was! Visitors today queue to admire and impassionedly comment her precisely drawn fanny, as I observed when I passed through the halls of the museum, few years ago. Can’t blame them, though.

But if nowadays open-minded people curiously gather to watch it, how could such a specific violation of academic canons escape from a scandal while more innocent and traditional portrait like Eduard Manet’s “Olympia” caused a historic outrage?


Well, l”L’Origin e du monde” was sheltered by an usually unlucky factor which can be quite merciless with some things- ignorance. For over two decades, after its first pervert owner, Khalil Bey (remember him?), sold it due to financial problems,  our controversial painting was hidden behind a wooden pane depicting a church (ironically…) with a snowy landscape, in a Parisian antique shop. Since then, it went from Hungarian Baron Ferenc Hatvany’s house to the thievish Soviet troops and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s country estate, the Brooklyn Museum, the Met and ultimately, the Orsay Gallery, its present place.

Thus being mostly privately displayed in the period when it wouldn’t have been accepted and unveiled with “Playboy” ‘s apparition, “L’Origin e du monde” ‘s story is a happy one.

Now it’s hanged between the best works of French masters, showing what a Turk wanted from a French.

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