JAN CORNELIS SYLVIUS, PREACHER
Rembrandt Van Rijn
JAN CORNELIS SYLVIUS, PREACHER
etching, engraving & drypoint
An original Rembrandt Van Rijn etching, engraving & drypoint print.
Original etching, engraving and drypoint printed in black ink on laid paper bearing a “Strasbourg Bend” watermark (Ash/Fletcher 35.A.a; Hinterding A.a.a, the same watermark found in the impressions of this etching in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Chicago Art Institute) found in early impressions of this state of this etching
A superb 17th century/lifetime impression of Bartsch, Usticke and New Hollstein’s second state of two, of this rare and desirable portrait (characterized by G.W. Nowell-Usticke in his 1967 catalogue Rembrandt’s Etchings: States and Values as “a very rare posthumous portrait”, and assigned his scaricity rating of “RRR” [30-50 impressions extant in that year]), showing burr on the signature and extensive sulphur tinting on the curtain and robe of the figure, printed after the small patch between the sitter’s right eye and eyebrow was darkened with cross hatching.
Catalog: Bartsch 280 ii/ii; Hind 225; Biorklund-Barnard 46-E; Usticke 273 ii/ii; New Hollstein 235 ii/ii.
11 x 7 3/8 inches
Sheet Size: 11 1/2 x 7 15/16 inches
Translations of the Latin inscriptions read:
My hope is Christ. Johannes Cornelisz. Sylvius, Amsterdamer, filled the function of preaching the holy ward for forty-five years and six months. In Friesland, in Tjummarun and Firdgum, four years; in Balk and Haring one year; in Minnertsga four years; in Sloten, Holland, six years, in Amsterdam twenty-eight years and six months. There he died, on 19 November 1638, 74 years of age.
Thus is how Sylvius looked – he whose
eloquence taught men to honour Christ /
And showed them the true part to heaven. /
We all heard him with these lips /
He preached to the burghers of Amsterdam. /
Those lips also gave guidance to the Frisians. /
Piety and religious service were in good hands /
As long as their strict guardian looked over them. /
An edifying era, worthy of respect on account /
Of Sylvius’s virtues; he tutored full-grown men /
In catechism until he himself was old and tired. /
He loved sincere simplicity and despised false appearance. /
He did not attempt to ingratiate himself /
To society with outer display. /
He put it this way: Jesus can be better taught /
By living a better life /
Than by raising your voice. /
Amsterdam, do not let his memory fade; he /
edified you /
Through his righteousness and represents you illustriously to God.
This man’s gift I cannot paint any better. /
I attempt to emulate him, but in verse I fail.
P.S. (Petrus Scriverius)
Jan Cornelis Sylvius (1564-1638), who “preached the holy word for forty-five years and six months” as a member of the reformed congregation, embarked on his church career with a long series of country posts in Friesland. In Amsterdam from 1610, Sylvius was pastor at the city hospital from 1619 to 1622, before becoming minister at the Oude Kerk. During the course of his 16 years in office, there were many passionate disputes about church policy and administration, in which the remonstrants finally prevailed. The fact that Sylvius was able to retain his place on the church council until his death, despite the quarrels between the Reformed Church and the Remonstrants, may have owed much to his tolerance and to his liberal attitude in political and religious matters.
In 1595 Sylvius married Saskia’s elder cousin, Aaltje van Uylenburgh. In 1634 Sylvius acted as proxy for Saskia, who was then still living in Friesland, at her official betrothal to Rembrandt in Amsterdam. It may have been on the occasion of his engagement to Saskia in 1633 that Rembrandt produced his first portrait of the cleric (“Jan Cornelis Sylvius,” Bartsch 266). This shows Sylvius in his study, in concentrated mood and with his hands laid, one over the other, on the open Bible. Two years later Sylvius and Aaltje were godparents to Rembrandt and Saskia’s first child, and in 1638 Sylvius performed the baptism of their second child.
In 1646 Rembrandt etched a second, posthumous portrait, which shows Sylvius within an oval frame surrounded by an inscription and with an obituary added below. Significantly, the inscription does not come from the hand of a scholar who belonged to the Reformed Church. Caspar Barlaeus, whose 14-line Latin poem honors equally the piety, virtue, simplicity and eloquence of the cleric, was a Remonstrant, as was the author of the succinct commemorative poem, Petrus Scriverius.
Only two of Rembrandt’s portraits have added inscriptions, the other being the portrait of Jan Uytenbogaert of 1635 (B. 279), which is presumed to be the first “official” portrait by Rembrandt who previously had produced etchings only of members of his own family. As the earlier portrait of Sylvius shows the sitter without an inscription, it would seem that Rembrandt portrayed him there as a relative. It was, however, usual in the 17th century for portraits to bear inscriptions; and it would thus seem that the later portrait of Sylvius uses an official formula. It is possible that, in producing the posthumous etching of 1646, Rembrandt was trying to strengthen his relations with Saskia’s family. These had swiftly deteriorated after Saskia’s death in 1642, although Rembrandt remained dependent on the Uylenburghs. Although it is also possible that the portrait was commissioned, there is no record of such a commission.
In this etching Rembrandt has achieved a subtle gradation of grey tones by creating a network of fine lines. The technique employed for the rendering of the face and the texture of the frame is particularly striking. Here Rembrandt uses a special method of etching – sulfur tint. Grains of sulfur, suspended in an oily liquid, are applied to the plate. Rembrandt used this technique on several occasions in the 1640’s, and it is possible that he may have done so even earlier. The richly rendered grey tones, achieving the affect of a soft wash, were greatly praised in the early 18th century as a precursor of the mezzotint process which was just then coming into fashion.
As a function of the various elements employed in this 1646 portrait of Jan Cornelis Sylvius (the oval frame, the forward leaning figure, the inscribed eulogy, the sulfur tinting, and most dramatically the trompe l’oeil effect of the hand of the figure reaching out to the viewer, a device unique to this subject in the artist’s graphic oeuvre), it is still today, as it has always been, one of Rembrandt’s most desirable and sought after etchings.