Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
FROM THE 1860S THROUGH THE 1880S, FRENCH print treatises, critics, and members of print societies provided the final impetus in the formation of the cult of Rembrandt, positioning him as an iconic figure and a talisman for printmakers. Rembrandt was regarded as the archetypal painter-printmaker because of both his artistic achievements and his technical proficiency. He was known as an individualist and an original, self-taught etcher who used exotic papers, printed his own plates, and treated a copper plate with the freedom of a canvas. Thus the challenges he had faced and the goals he had sought to achieve were seen to parallel those of French printmakers in the nineteenth century. They used Rembrandt's name and images of him to validate and promote the status of painter-printmakers in France as they tried to secure public favor and create a professional identity for themselves. Aligning themselves with Rembrandt was part of their strategy to increase the value assigned to their own names and art and bring about the triumph of the original print in France.
The Role of Treatises
French treatises on printmaking, specifically those promoting a revival of etchings, played an important role in positioning Rembrandt as the mentor and guide for French printmakers. These treatises functioned as an introduction to the technical problems of producing prints and the materials and instruments involved. They provided a history of the medium and were largely “how to” or recipe books explaining the purpose of plates, varnish, resins, oils, turpentine, acid and oxygen baths, rubbing, and printing processes. Most cited the origins of engraving in antiquity and noted its rising prominence beginning in the sixteenth century.
By the second half of the century, Rembrandt was widely acknowledged in treatises as the leading representative of the etching technique. Earlier, in his treatise of 1836, Pierre Deleschamps emphasized no one artist. He cited Callot, Rembrandt, Leclerc, Duplessis, and Bertraux as exemplary etchers. Deleschamps’ interest lay in the function of etchings, which he suggested could be used in two ways: to interpret a painting or function as a drawing.