Few items from centuries past are as widely collected as prints. Their durability and artistry resulted in a long tradition of collecting by contemporary and later audiences. One subset of particular interest is prints by Dutch artists of the 16th and 17th century, which includes engravings and etchings from printmaking artists like Hendrick Goltzius and Rembrandt van Rijn.
In the 16th century, Dutch artists began to understand the power of prints as a way to enhance their reputation and access a new group of collectors. Leading up to and during the Dutch Golden Age, which is roughly defined as spanning the 17th century, Dutch artists perfected the techniques of etching and engraving. Today, remaining examples of those prints are still in high demand.
To learn more about the market for Dutch prints, our editors spoke to Todd Weyman, Vice President and Director of Prints & Drawings at Swann Auction Galleries, who explained what he believes to be responsible for the enduring spirit of Dutch art. Weyman notes, “The humanity is always what comes to me first: we relate to it because we can still see ourselves back then in what these artists are saying and what they’re struggling with. The imagery is still pertinent. In terms of the most collected artists, it’s their virtuosity and their ability to amaze us with what they can do. Those two things to me are key.”
Below, explore the evolution of Dutch printmaking and discover types of printmaking and the famous printmakers who left their mark on society, both then and now.
Printmaking in the 16th and 17th Centuries
The popularity of printmaking in the North is credited in part to the flow of information between Italy and the Netherlands during the 1500s. At that time, Rome was home to monuments of classical antiquity and modern frescoes by Raphael, Michelangelo, and their contemporaries. Painters like Annibale and Agostino Carracci were inspired to create engravings by the art of Italy, which in turn influenced Dutch artists like Goltzius.
Another reason printmaking became so popular with Dutch artists in the 16th and 17th centuries is because large-scale production allowed the dissemination of an artist’s work to far outstretch what was possible for a single painting.
“Logistically, you can look all the way back to somebody like Albrecht Durer who, early on, recognized that he’d be a more successful, better-known artist using the printed medium as opposed to painting,” says Weyman, “because of the painstaking amount of time it took to make a painting and it being a singular thing versus being able to make a virtuoso engraving that everyone wanted and talked about that you could make a hundred copies of.”
By the mid-1500s, prints were established enough as a collecting category that publishing houses would commission artists to create a drawing, either an original or a reproduction of a painting, and then print the work for collectors in a process not unlike what occurs at many publishing houses today.
“You start to see more artists having individual style, if that’s the way to put it, and moving away from ‘reproducing’ artwork towards the late 1500s,” says Weyman. By the early 1600s, printmakers in Italy like Giovanni Castiglione and Jacques Callot were making inventive, original prints just before Rembrandt started etching in the 1630s. “If you look at the history of prints in a linear way like that, [Rembrandt] and his contemporaries are the first who are doing such an original thing.”
Printmaking techniques evolved along with subject matter. While engraving was still popular in the 1500s for reproducing paintings and sculptures, Weyman explains that “the 16th century, in terms of original printmaking, is all about etching – there’s virtually no engraving at that point.”
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–1569)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a member of a family of artists spanning four generations. A painter and draftsman, Bruegel developed a partnership with an Antwerp publishing house called At the Four Winds and produced over 40 designs for engravings between 1555 and 1563. These prints were often in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch due to the strong market demand for those images.
Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617)
Hendrick Goltzius was one of the most important Dutch engravers of the late 16th century. He established a printmaking workshop in Haarlem the 1578 in order to break the monopoly held by publishers in Antwerp. Goltzius and his followers straddled the line between reproductive and original prints. He created both, but is most widely known for engravings of earlier Mannerist works produced between 1585 and 1589.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)
Rembrandt created over 300 etchings and drypoints during his career. Like his contemporaries, Rembrandt’s prints rarely copied his paintings outright, but rather paralleled the subjects he preferred, including Biblical subjects, portraits, and genre scenes.The artist was also a collector of prints himself and owned works by Durer, Callot, and others. “There was a lot for him to look at,” says Weyman, “and you have to think that, being the artist he was, he was looking back at prints that had been made before him and thinking how he is going to tweak it and take it forward in his own way.”
Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678)
Though men dominated most artistic fields at the time, there were many educated women across Europe who created prints, including Anna Maria van Schurman. van Schurman was the first female university student in Europe. After she attended Utrecht University, she became a gifted writer, linguist, poet, and artist. Though few of van Schurman’s prints survive today, she is immortalized in Judy Chicago’s seminal feminist work The Dinner Party. van Schurman’s plate decoration is an homage to Dutch 17th century etchings.
Adriaen Jansz. van Ostade (1610–1685)
Adriaen van Ostade is known for paintings and etchings depicting peasant life. van Ostade resided in Haarlem, where he was likely trained by the painter Frans Hals and introduced to the work of Flemish genre painter Adriaen Brouwer. Rembrandt’s influence began to assert itself in van Ostade’s work around 1640.
Ferdinand Bol (1616–1680)
Ferdinand Bol was a pupil of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, establishing himself and closely imitating the the style of Rembrandt before stepping out on his own in the 1640s. Though his style changed, Bol continued for a time to work off the same subjects as Rembrandt, notably historical subjects and portraits.
The Market for Dutch Prints
The market for 16th century Dutch prints is led by engravings after paintings by Bruegel and Bosch. “Whether it’s moralizing or more generic landscapes with Biblical subjects that are sort of tucked away in the background – those are really popular images still today,” says Weyman.
In addition, says Weyman, “I would have to say the Mannerists are doing very well, within the last several years their market’s really picked up – Goltzius, Spranger, that group. There, anything that’s more erotic and less religious is helpful. They were so into the body, looking back at the Renaissance and Classical art.”
Turning to the 17th century, Rembrandt becomes a ubiquitous part of any discussion of Dutch art. The market for his works is heating up again after about a decade of cooling, but you can still find a relative steal. Says Weyman, “there are still a number of collectors out there who don’t recognize that you can buy a legitimate 17th century etching printed by Rembrandt for ten or twenty thousand dollars. Something his hands touched, and inked, and put out there into the world. That’s pretty amazing.”
Other 17th century printmakers that remain perennial favorites in the market include close friends or associates of Rembrandt like Ostade and Bol.
How to Collect and Display Dutch Prints
- Assess the quality of the image.
When adding prints by Dutch artists to your collection, Weyman suggests narrowing your search by the type of image you like first. Then, consider the quantity available and the quality of the specific lot compared to other prints by the artist on the same theme.“I would always ask how it stacks up quality-wise to another impression of this very subject,” says Weyman, “What does the printing look like? How does it compare to the one in the Morgan Library or at the Met or at the British Museum?”
- Determine whether the image is a lifetime impression or a later print.
A qualitative assessment is especially important to determine the difference between a lifetime impression and a later print, which are prints off of a plate after the artist’s death that may have been worked on by less-skilled artisans. Later prints are worth only a small fraction of the price of a work printed by the hand of the artist. “It’s night and day,” says Weyman. “You see something that Rembrandt printed and it’s got a crispness and a life and it breathes, and then something that was done 200 years later is fatter and chunkier and flat.”
- Weigh the value of scarcity and condition.
After you’ve determined quality, you must find the balance between scarcity and condition when assessing a potential purchase. Says Weyman, “the more scarce something is, the less chance you’re going to have of seeing it again to purchase in your lifetime, the more leniency you’re going to give to condition issues.”
Dutch prints require proper matting and storage, but are surprisingly resistant to fading and browning and as such make a great addition to any collection. “Basically everything you have is going to be under a certain size…you can rotate those mats in and out of frames,” suggests Weyman. “If you have an eclectic collection that reaches into the 20th century and beyond, why not dip back into the Old Masters and find images that speak to the things you have on the wall already?”
Click here to explore the full catalog of Old Master Through Modern Prints at Swann Galleries (May 8).