Wetmore Print Collection
[Reviser's Note, April 2020: This review was originally published in 2004 for World History Sources. As seen in the Wetmore Print Collection's About section, the site has expanded over the years beyond the Dutch and German collections discussed here to include 600 prints from across Europe and the United States.]
This site offers students a chance to view more than 150 works by Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Specifically, the site presents 65 Rembrandt etchings and more than 100 Dürer woodcuts and etchings, including his illustrations of the Apocalypse. The images are offered in low and high resolution, and can be enlarged for detailed viewing. A bit of on-site archaeology reveals a brief and irreverent history of the sit, but the entire site is first and foremost one of images, organized into different galleries.
The site provides no indication of the way in which the images were originally used, and although the collection includes frontispieces, their Latin is not translated or explained. (If you choose to put Latin students to work on it, tell them about standard abbreviations first!) It also may be worthwhile to explain to students that engravings like these were often collected into books, held in one’s hand instead of hung on a wall or viewed on a computer screen.
Since the site privileges the visual over the historical, it might be a good idea to give students a general idea of the respective time periods of Dürer and Rembrandt before encouraging students to roam the site. Dürer assists here: He always “brands” his work, and often dates it as well. In Dürer’s “Expulsion,” for example, a plaque labeled 1510 hangs from a tree branch in the Garden of Eden.
With little information other than the engravings (or woodcuts) themselves, students should be encouraged to look closely at the two artists’ work. Will they notice that certain scenes in the life of Christ seem to be agreed upon? Rembrandt’s Christ, angrily driving the money lenders from the temple, is strikingly similar to Dürer’s image from a century earlier, and the ladder and the cloth arrangement in Dürer’s “Deposition” are echoed in Rembrandt’s engraving of the scene. But compare some of the scenes from the childhood of Christ: Rembrandt’s circumcision and Dürer’s circumcision, for example. Rembrandt abandons the architectural image Dürer offers for a more intimate view of the events.
It will also be interesting to students to see how the present intrudes into the past in the work of Dürer and Rembrandt. Yes, that must be the standard armor for Roman soldiers in Dürer’s image of the betrayal—but the lamp that an angry Peter has knocked from someone’s hand, isn’t that a lamp from Dürer’s time? And the scene of Mary’s betrothal to Joseph says much more about the late 1400s in Dürer’s Nuremberg than it does about the 1st century BCE. Note Mary’s headdress, and the wimple of the woman behind her, a structural marvel.
Finally, students might ask what response the artists expected from their subjects. Were the paintings intended to inspire devotion? In what way might the artists have attempted to arrive at this end for the viewer? Is it possible that the artists had other motives as well?
Connecticut College’s online image collection also includes the marvelous color prints of Hiroshige, from a Japan about to emerge from the Tokugawa period. Hiroshige shows us city scenes, men and women in lovingly rendered robes, an entire catalog of fish, and one quietly beautiful monkey reaching for the moon. Students might think about the artist’s choice of subjects and his methods of picturing them.
Connecticut College, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, has not only made this collection available online, it has, with great generosity, granted unrestricted permission to reproduce the images, from Dürer’s apocalyptic horsemen to Hiroshige’s calm and fluid fish. While the responsibility of providing historical context for these images remains with the instructor, the images themselves will delight and puzzle students—and, if they are properly prepared, will provide good insight into the historical periods in question as well.