Watermark Identification Rembrandt Etchings Johnson Museum Cornell

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is well known for his innovations in the etching medium and the range of his human expression and storytelling. But the paper on which Rembrandt’s images are printed has only been studied much more recently. “Watermark Identification in Rembrandt’s Etchings” (ECE 4960), taught by Andy Weislogel, Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator, Earlier European and American Art, at the Johnson Museum, and C. Richard Johnson, Hedrick Senior Professor of Engineering at Cornell, familiarized students with the processes and characteristics of Rembrandt’s prints and papers, including chain and laid lines and watermarks.

Students were specifically engaged in the development and expansion of a computer-assisted decision tree for classifying watermarks based on the work of the Rijksmuseum’s Erik Hinterding. For this, they used digitized beta-radiographs and low-energy x-radiographs of Rembrandt etchings provided by the Morgan Library & Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Dutch University Institute for Art History. The course culminated in a team-curated focus exhibition at the Johnson (see below), enhanced by student-developed interpretive elements designed to communicate the research to a museum public. These students therefore advanced and continue to contribute to the ongoing WIRE (Watermark Identification in Rembrandt’s Etchings) research project based at the Johnson, designed to facilitate the identification and cataloguing of Rembrandt watermarks for specialists and nonspecialists alike.

Weekly meetings included campus field trips for the observation of printmaking and papermaking techniques and digital imaging methods, sessions on computer-based image forensics data collection and analysis (e.g. chain line marking and pattern matching), and student reports on persistent questions in the field of Rembrandt print studies. In April, the class traveled to New York, where they visited the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan Library & Museum and presented their research to Morgan staff. They also met with Metropolitan Museum of Art curators Freyda Spira and Maryan Ainsworth to learn about curating a major print exhibition, and presenting technical research in art history in a museum setting.

Contributing guest instructors at Cornell included Dr. Louisa Smieska; Hao Lu; Michele Hamill and Jill Iacchei of the Olin Library Paper Conservation Lab; Professor Lisa Pincus; Brittany Rubin, Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Johnson Museum; Jen Scheuer of the Department of Art; and Professors Steve Marschner and Bruce Walter of the Graphics/Vision Lab, Department of Computer Science. Key assistance was also provided by Timothy Moore of Timothy Moore Bookbinding Tools, Concord, MI; Professor Timothy Barrett from Center for the Book at the University of Iowa; and an anonymous collector and lender to the exhibition.

“Recognizing Rembrandt: The Science of Art in Printmaking”
May 11–June 13, 2016, in the Kress Study Gallery

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669) was known for both paintings and etchings. The market for his prints blossomed due to his artistic ability and the nature of etching. Because multiple impressions could be made from a copper plate, these prints were easily distributed and very collectible. During his life, Rembrandt produced thousands of impressions. Even after his death, his original copper plates were used to make more prints.

Etchings during Rembrandt’s time were printed on handmade papers that bore images affixed to the paper molds called watermarks. These marks, wire forms stitched to the molds used to make paper, distinguished each paper mill, so there are many different designs. Watermarks, along with the grid of wires called chain and laid lines that make up the mold, can help date a sheet of paper. From there we can determine when the artist made each impression, when stylistic elements of prints are not enough. Watermarks can also tell us if an impression was printed during Rembrandt’s lifetime or posthumously.

There are hundreds of different watermarks in Rembrandt’s etchings alone, so identifying an unknown mark is time-consuming and difficult. Our WIRE decision tree makes this process easier by guiding the user through classifying a watermark. The tree is based on the taxonomy of Erik Hinterding, an art historian who organized watermarks found in Rembrandt’s prints into categories called types, variants, and subvariants. But since only about a third of Rembrandt prints have watermarks, the spaces between chain lines are now sometimes used to match paper to a sheet with a known watermark. This gallery shows original Rembrandt prints as well as didactic materials that explore the process of watermark identification.



Spring 2016 Watermark Identification in Rembrandt’s Etchings student researchers and curators
Anjum Malik ’16, Archaeology/Anthropology
Elizabeth Martinson ’17, History
Kira Nicolai ’17, History of Art/Statistical Science
Oscar Rieveling ’16, History of Art/French Literature
Jason Setter, MEng ’16, Electrical & Computer Engineering