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How printmaking made Rembrandt an international star

New technology and growing middle class consumption opened up his works and those of his contemporaries to new markets

San Francisco

Centuries before the development of the internet as an information superhighway, the invention of printing technology in early modern Europe revolutionised communication and, along with it, the visual arts. For Jim Ganz, the curator of “Rembrandt’s Century”, an exhibition of more than 200 prints by an array of artists at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, this was to be a key theme. The challenge was to develop a way to tell the story.

Ganz’s solution was to place the work of Rembrandt and his contemporaries squarely within the context of modernity’s development. The show, which focuses on a series of themes, even features one section titled “The Artist is Present”, a reference to Marina Abramovic’s 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The subject here is how 17th-century printmakers tapped new markets, which Ganz says is “a good way to introduce Rembrandt and his contemporaries, and to discuss some of the technology during that era”.

Overall, Ganz considers the show something of an homage. “Many years ago, Cliff Ackley at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston organised ‘Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt’, which is a classic show and catalogue,” Ganz says. “In a way, this exhibition is [a kind of] sequel to that, and includes many of the same artists.” What sets it apart is its scope: moving beyond the historical borders of Flanders, it includes the work of Italian, French and English artists, all of whom participated in this international golden age of printmaking.

Still, the 17th century remains Rembrandt’s, and with good reason. “His work tackled almost every conceivable kind of subject, which really allows us to place his work in an international context,” Ganz says. But, most ­importantly, Rembrandt’s prints were collected and admired from an early period, something that was made ­possible by the medium’s portability, which is especially important considering that the artist never stepped foot outside Holland.

The booming economy of the Netherlands in the 17th century had everything to do with the moment. A strong art market, driven in part by a growing middle class with a higher level of income to spend, meant that “Rembrandt was really born in the right place at the right time”, Ganz says. It was, in the end, Rembrandt’s zest for collecting that helped ruin him financially, leading to bankruptcy late in life.

While most of the works in the exhibition come from the museum’s vast print collection, the show also includes several key loans, and at least one major recent acquisition: a Dutch ­landscape on paper by Lambert Doomer. The exhibition has been timed to complement “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis” (26 January-2 June), another show at the de Young Museum, which consists of 35 paintings, including Johannes Vermeer’s famed masterpiece, four works by Rembrandt, and The Goldfinch, 1654, by Carel Fabritius.

• Rembrandt’s Century, De Young Museum, San Francisco, 26 January-2 June