Rembrandt’s etchings in the National Library’s collections

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My name is Ivana Cernanova. I am currently completing an internship within Rare Books Collections as part of my MSc in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. I have spent most of my time here at the National Library working on the Provenance Project, researching and identifying the previous ownership history of rare books from the library’s collections. Just recently I completed a complementary project in which I catalogued and researched two portfolios of roughly 120 engravings and etchings which are part of the Newhailes Collection.

The two portfolios contain many beautiful and interesting prints, which vary greatly in size, themes and design. They include floral arrangements and patterns, portraits and landscapes, classical as well as Biblical scenes, and artistic studies. Most of them date back to the time of Sir David Dalrymple (1726-92), Lord Hailes, the Edinburgh judge and historian who acquired the majority of the Newhailes collection. Among the highlights are 58 engravings of Scottish Roman forts and Pictish carved stones from Alexander Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale, published in 1726 (National Library of Scotland shelfmark: Newb.4253), and Nicolas Dorigny’s reproduction of a fresco from the cycle The Four Evangelists by  the Italian Baroque painter Domenichino (1581-1641), done for the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.

From among these, it was a group of six etchings attributed to Rembrandt which especially caught my attention. At first glance, the six small Rembrandts (among the smallest prints in the portfolios) can be easily overlooked next to such giants as some of Gordon’s engravings or Dorigny’s work. But for me, in spite of their size, they are the most outstanding items within the collection. The main reason for this is, of course, their association with Rembrandt and his incredible drawing skills. Nowadays, the 17th-century Dutch artist is celebrated primarily as a world-famous painter. But, in his own time, he was, in fact, more well-known as a pioneer etcher.

During his lifetime, Rembrandt produced some 290 etchings. They are considered not only as highlights of his work but also as great masterpieces of Western art. Rembrandt experimented with and perfected the technique of etching – producing prints from metal plates that have been etched with acid. At this time, etching had only started to emerge as an alternative to the more time and skill demanding technique of engraving. Reproductions of Rembrandt’s etchings during his lifetime earned him a reputation as one of the greatest European artists.

The six prints from the Newhailes collection cover a variety of Rembrandt’s favourite themes for his etchings. They include three Biblical scenes from the Old Testament:

The angel departing from the family of Tobias;

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Joseph’s coat brought to Jacob;

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and Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael.

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Two others, Beggar man and beggar woman conversing and The rat-poison peddler, show Rembrandt’s interest in the quirky street characters from everyday life in 17th-century Netherlands. Blog 1Blog 4

The final etching is one of the artist’s 32 self-portrait prints. Rembrandt used these as exercises to improve his drawing skills, and to try out different facial expressions and emotions.Blog 2

Rembrandt’s etchings were sought after by many print collectors of the time and, together with the etching plates, they continued to circulate in Europe throughout the 18th century. Many of the surviving plates were reworked by different engravers and print sellers to produce new impressions for the market. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the plates were protected against further changes and reproductions. With the great popularity of the prints, it is safe to assume that Lord Hailes could have easily acquired a few of them on his travels.

But there is something very peculiar about these six etchings in that they are all reversed! In fact, they are mirror images of Rembrandt’s originals. What is interesting is that they provide a view of what Rembrandt would have seen while working with the etching needle, since the image is always reversed when the plate is printed. Yet, it remains a mystery who produced these etchings and what was their motive behind such curious reversal of the originals.


Gary Schwartz, ed. The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt: Reproduced in Original Size. (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), National Library of Scotland shelfmark: HP4.96.1693.

The Rembrandt House Museum