Faithfully conserving a Rembrandt
The Three Crosses is Rembrandt’s powerful depiction of Christ’s crucifixion – but how do you stabilise a 350-year-old print for exhibition while preserving the qualities which make it distinct?
The conservation process involves a series of negotiations, each informed by close and careful observation. We often worry that we have not done enough, that we have done too much; that we have been forced to sacrifice aesthetics for structural stability and vice-versa.
Our recent minor treatment of a Rembrandt print from 1653 was a perfect example.
In preparation for the exhibition Horizon Lines: The Ambitions of a Print Collection – that features prints from the Dutch Republic, Northern and Italian Renaissance, and the etching revival from the 1850s – twenty-two works from the Baillieu Library’s collection came to our paper laboratory at Grimwade Conservation Services for mounting and conservation treatment.
Among them was Rembrandt van Rijn’s Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves (The Three Crosses) from 1653, one of the most significant prints in the University of Melbourne’s collections. To ensure its safe display and ongoing stability, it required a new mount and careful repair.
Each object presents a new challenge for the conservator: how can we stabilise the object while retaining all the qualities that make it distinct?
The Three Crosses displays Rembrandt’s brilliance as both a printmaker and painter.
Working with our Paper Conservation Intern, Christine Mizzi, we began our treatment of The Three Crosses with careful examination and condition reporting, to better understand its materiality, condition and history.
The Three Crosses is an intaglio print, in which the image is drawn or etched into a metal plate to form recessed areas which hold the ink during printing. Rembrandt used two intaglio mark-making techniques – drypoint and engraving – on the same plate to render this powerful image.
In the former, the artist reshapes the plate surface by working directly into the plate with a needle, leaving a groove with a burr along each edge. In engraving, the artist instead cuts into the plate surface, removing material with a sharp metal tool called a burin. During printing, ink is applied to the plate and pushed into each groove, burr and incision. The remaining ink is carefully wiped back and the plate is ready to print.
One of the most striking characteristics of the Baillieu Library’s rendition of The Three Crosses is that it is a particularly densely inked impression of the fourth version of the original plate – or the fourth state to use printmaking terminology.
In all there are five states of The Three Crosses, the fourth being the last and most densely worked state executed within Rembrandt’s lifetime. The fifth state is the only posthumous rendition, differentiated by the presence of publisher Frans Carelse’s address along the lower edge of the print.
Each state depicts the crucifixion of Christ in a markedly different manner, allowing us to track both Rembrandt and Carelse’s process of image resolution and adaptation.
The fourth state is differentiated from the third by deeply engraved directional lines that obfuscate the crucifixion’s peripheral elements to place intense focus on the suffering of Christ.
A closer look at the surface of this impression reveals the sculptural aspects of intaglio printmaking. The lines engraved into the plate with a burin transfer a deep embossing to the paper, while those lines incised with a dry-point needle give the surface its characteristic velvety appearance.
Rembrandt’s painterly approach to printmaking also contributes to this luxurious surface quality – he has selectively wiped the plate, purposefully leaving a substantial amount of ink, or plate-tone, on the plate surface.
As the conservator’s aim is to preserve the integrity of the object, every effort is made to retain these distinctive qualities throughout treatment.
While it is important to ensure that the image is seen as the artist intended, it is also essential to acknowledge the history of the print as an object. While this rendition of The Three Crosses bears the original mark of the artist, it also traces a series of interventions over more than three centuries.
At some point in the print’s life, it was damaged, torn and folded. It was later repaired and reinforced with a heavy-weight lining paper, which was in turn stamped and inscribed by collectors.
Later an attempt was made to remove this lining, which inadvertently caused additional tears and losses in the original paper. Larger losses and tears were then repaired and filled, as can be seen by comparison of the two images attached to its catalogue record.
The print was then more recently hinged into an archival clamp-mount – a mounting system where the aperture makes direct contact with the surface of the print along all edges.
The combination of these factors has caused undulations throughout the print and abrasion in various areas to the heavily-inked surface. As a result we decided to remove the print from its mount, and complete minor stabilisation treatment.
To separate the print from its old mount, Christine Mizzi cut through the two hinges with a scalpel. I then removed the portion of the hinge attached to the reverse of the print by softening the adhesive with a rigid gel.
Gels are a relatively new material in conservation that we use to deliver controlled quantities of moisture to targeted locations.
Fragile areas along each edge of the print were then reinforced from the back with Japanese kozo-fibre tissue – a remarkably strong but light-weight paper made from Japanese mulberry.
Repairs were glued with wheat-starch paste – a strong and stable yet easily reversible adhesive. To disguise small losses in the lower corners, small fills were applied in the same manner and retouched with dry pastels to match the surrounding surface.
As The Three Crosses is a bleed print – an impression where the printing plate extends beyond the edges of the paper – it was important to select a mounting solution that displayed the work in full and didn’t risk further abrasion of the ink surface.
It was also imperative that the mounting system provide adequate support in fragile areas while accommodating the print’s undulations.
We inlaid the print onto a support paper with pull-through hinges, allowing it to be float-mounted in a deep sink-mount. As a result the perimeter of the print is fully visible and it appears as if suspended between the window mount and backing board. The pull-through hinges were secured with starch paste only along the upper edge, to permit natural expansion and contraction in the print over time.
This mounting system also facilitates safe access to the reverse of the print for future research. Since the introduction of this method to our laboratory in 2017 by paper conservator Briony Pemberton, we have employed it for the mounting of various works from the Baillieu Library’s collection.
Now on display, The Three Crosses is an example of when both aesthetic and structural conservation concerns align to produce a gratifying result.
While the small infills reinforce the weak areas in both lower corners, they also allow the work to be seen as the artist intended. Similarly, the sink-mount emphasises The Three Crosses’ dramatic tone, while ensuring its preservation for close study and appreciation – hopefully for many years to come.
Horizon Lines: The ambitions of a print collection celebrates the perspectives of artists, collectors and scholars alike with an exhibition of intaglio and relief prints from the Baillieu Library’s rich collection.
Banner: Christine Mizzi at work: Picture: Paul Burston, University of Melbourne