My tutor asked me to look at the way Rembrandt used the negative space in his ‘The Shell’, 1650. He originally had the shell with just the shadow… like my objects in Assignment 1. This places it on a surface but lacks emotional ‘weight’ or physical context.
He then completed the print by adding a background which places it in the real world and makes it look like it’s magically lit. By adding shading around the shell he adds lighting. And gives it an ambiguous but real physical location… the corner of a room?
Finished shell: From the British Museum using their free image service.
©Trustees of the British Museum.
The ambient shading adds narrative and a human element. Where is it? How did it get there? You almost start to build the rest of his house around it, and place him in it drawing the shell.
Lighting is a very effective tool. It alters the mood adds emotional value. Chiaroscuro is a very effective tool to add drama or mystery. And the lighting both focusses the attention on the shell by taking the eye to it – the surrounding is dark and interesting but lacking detail and our eye is constantly draw back to the shell… it introduces a magical almost mythical quality to the shell with the its etherial lighting. Almost as if the shell is glowing.
Two interesting points strike me here.
His primary interest was in the shell and he initially printed up his etching without ambient shading… just the shadow on the surface. But this obviously didn’t have the effect he wanted so he added the shading. It’s got to be a guess but the preliminary etching though ‘anatomically correct’ wasn’t what he saw (The duality of creation consisting the shell outside of him and his brain combining to create what he sees.). It wasn’t emotionally or psychologically correct so he corrected it by adding the shading.
Which is exactly the point my tutor made to me.
His hatching is very tight so it almost edges into shading. This is interesting as it is still hatching and uses lines so is symbolic rather than real… but it has elements of shading and the shell becomes at least half real.
I wonder if this was due to the restrictions of etching (you have to etch in lines?) or an artistic choice?
Finally I love the way he leaves a tiny bit of light around the shadow on the left. The reverse of drawing a black line round something to give definition… he draws a white line!
Articles used in this Research:
Preliminary stage from the Rijks Museum.
The Shell (Conus marmoreus), Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1650
Collecting exotic shells was a popular hobby in the 17th century, and it excited Rembrandt’s interest too. He had a small natural history collection of his own, including this marbled cone shell; it is similar in shape to the conus cervus, a ‘deer’ cone. He rendered the form and markings of the shell with meticulous care on the copperplate. Note that the shell appears in mirror image.
©Trustees of the British Museum.
Still-life was one of a number of new genres in painting that became popular in seventeenth-century Holland, after the collapse of religious patronage in the previous century (as did landscape, domestic interiors, and townscapes). Rembrandt engaged closely with the human content of his work, and this still-life study is unique in his printed work. The shell is a Conus marmoreus, which is native to south-east Africa, Polynesia and Hawaii. It may be that Rembrandt owned an example, along with many other curiosities in his collection. Wenceslaus Hollar etched similar shells with great virtuosity, and Rembrandt may have been exercising his etching technique to capture the sheen on the shell.The first state of the plate lacks all the ambient tone, except for the shadow cast by the shell on the surface that supports it. By including the surrounding atmosphere of lights and darks, Rembrandt transforms the balance of the lighting. The shell’s striking pattern, with the tight spiral of its base, clearly fascinated him, as it is captured in great detail.
Height: 97.00mm; Width: 132.00mm
Bequeathed by Slade, Felix
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
Print made by Rembrandt