A remarkable self-portrait by Rembrandt is on display at Escher in The Palace from 29 November until 29 January. It is a self-portrait with a stormy history, that disappeared off the radar for many years and has now returned to the place where it hung for a long time in the nineteenth century. This painting can be seen in the royal ballroom of the palace, amid M.C. Escher’s prints. Despite the obvious link between this self-portrait by Rembrandt and Lange Voorhout Palace, there also appear to be undeniable connections between Rembrandt and Escher.
Rembrandt created an etching in 1638 showing the same moment as the one featured in Escher’s 1927 woodcut. Rembrandt, a master at depicting people, concentrates on the characters Adam and Eve debating what to do. Here, too, Rembrandt opts for a dragon-like reptile instead of a snake. In doing so, both artists latch onto an interpretation of this Biblical story in which the animal that tempts Eve had legs and claws before the Fall. According to the Bible, it was only afterwards that the animal had to continue crawling as a snake on the ground, condemned to do so by God. Another striking similarity is the presence of an elephant in both prints. The animal symbolises piety and chastity, though also Christ, the only one who can raise those who are fallen. Thus the elephant serves as the counterpoint to the temptation of the apple and the weakness of Adam and Eve. Both Rembrandt and Escher must have been familiar with this symbolism.
Over the course of his career, Escher became increasingly captivated by Italian Renaissance artists, especially when he took up residence in Italy from 1924 onwards. His admiration for Rembrandt remained dormant, albeit still alive in the background, and when he visited the National Gallery in London with his friend Paul Keller in 1957 and came across a painting by Rembrandt, he enthusiastically wrote in his diary*:
Rembrandt (Hendrikje Stoffels) Female Portrait!!
A final similarity is that both artists can be characterised as craftsmen. Rembrandt had learned the painter’s trade as an apprentice and later became a member of the Guild of St. Luke as an artist from Amsterdam. He was an entrepreneur who made money doing commissioned portraits. Rembrandt was known in his time as the best portrait painter in the city, immortalising many wealthy Amsterdam residents. In his etched portraits, he mainly depicts acquaintances from his immediate surroundings and these are therefore more informal. Being portrayed by him did really mean something, though. Escher mainly created work for himself, but subsequently tried to sell it. He saw himself primarily as a graphic artist – a profession that required a lot of practice for him to master. However, Escher struggled with the word ‘artist’. In a speech he gave when he was awarded the Hilversum Culture Prize in 1965, he reaffirmed this and referred to himself as a craftsman:
“If I am not mistaken, the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’ did not exist during the Renaissance and before: there were simply architects, sculptors and painters, practising a trade. Printmaking is another one of these honest trades, and I consider it a privilege to be a member of the Guild of Graphic Artists. […] I am a graphic artist with all my heart and soul, though I find the term ‘artist’ rather embarrassing. That is why, Mr Mayor (and this concludes my lecture), I would like to receive this prize as ‘just’ a graphic artist, if I can say it like this. I hope you approve of me accepting it like this.”
[*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 378