Rembrandt, Abraham Francen

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Abraham Francen, Apothecary, c. 1657, etching, drypoint, engraving, 16 x 20.9 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re in the Morse Study Room at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and we’re looking at a print by Rembrandt, showing his friend and the collector Abraham Francen surrounded by luxurious objects in his study.

Dr. Katherine Harper: [0:18] The print was executed around 1657. It’s this personal, intimate moment between a man and his collection. He doesn’t even acknowledge the viewer. He’s looking down at what might be a print or drawing that he owns.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:31] This is simultaneously an intimate portrait of Rembrandt’s friend and confidante, but it also is a print that allows us to think about Rembrandt’s Amsterdam as this wealthy mercantile city, where you have this massive influx of goods coming from different parts of the world that Francen himself has collected or is displayed within this print.

Dr. Harper: [0:51] We not only see the beautiful carpet laid over the desk, but you have the skull, which is a typical symbol for portraits, the vanitas imagery or symbol of the mortality of the physical self, but then you also have this Chinese figurine.

[1:06] The other works of art include maybe a landscape painting and then a triptych that shows a traditional religious image. Everywhere there are these details that make allusions to the international flavor of Amsterdam at this point.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:20] Francen is sitting in a high-backed chair. He is dressed in lavish, brocaded clothes, and yet his shirt has open tassels, suggesting a more casual atmosphere, that he’s relaxed. He’s holding what looks like a print or some type of two-dimensional illustration. He looks absorbed in whatever it is that he’s studying.

[1:42] Before him on the table is an open book. He is surrounded by objects that suggest that he’s a collector. We know, in fact, that he was an avid collector of things that were being imported into Amsterdam.

Dr. Harper: [1:55] We don’t know what he actually owned. One of the seductive things about this image is that it does give the appearance of having been studied from life. This is a plausible fiction, as it were. It’s a confection meant to show him in a certain way, in this flattering light as an intellectual and an aesthete.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:11] Francen himself was an apothecary. He’s acquiring materials to make medicines and then selling them to people. He is benefiting from all of the resources that are coming into the Netherlands because they’re being acquired from places like Asia or Brazil.

[2:27] I want to go back to the figurine that’s on the table. It’s possibly from China and points to the larger trade networks, and posts and colonies that the Dutch were establishing.

Dr. Harper: [2:39] The Dutch East India Company had been established in the early decades of the 17th century, and by this time had accumulated incredible power and prestige and was, for all intents and purposes, the leader in international economic trade. Amsterdam was the launchpad and the receiving port for many of the goods that were imported.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:57] We have things like silks, Chinese porcelains, and possibly figurines similar to this one that are speaking to those trade networks.

[3:06] Artists, collectors were interested in all of these goods coming from Asia. Rembrandt, for instance, will study and copy Mughal miniatures. He paints portraits or even biblical subjects with figures wearing turbans, which was a general exotic sign of Asianness.

[3:24] There is this clear vested interest in what’s happening with the Dutch East India Company and this influx of goods.

Dr. Harper: [3:31] Some of these things helped him set the narrative he was telling in another place and time. Then, here, it’s included as an allusion to Francen’s international taste and his cosmopolitanism.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:44] Now, we know that this print was sometimes even printed by Rembrandt on Japanese paper. This trade benefited artists like Rembrandt. He was able to acquire new types of paper.

[3:55] I can’t help but pause to look closely at the way that Rembrandt has used the technique of etching to draw us to look closely at the print.

Dr. Harper: [4:05] Etching is a method of carving into a layer of wax that sits on top of the copper plate. It allows for a much greater freedom of movement for the artist, who could work the etching needle much like a draftsman’s quill pen. You can create a whole range in your approach.

[4:22] So different kinds of marks on the plate, the different heaviness of the lines, they can be overlapped thickly to create these passages of dense shadow. You can also add drypoint to it. This is where Rembrandt was truly a master of the medium. He wove passages with drypoint, which is directly carving into the copper plate.

[4:41] As you drag a sharp needle across the copper plate, it kicks up little pieces of metal onto either side of the line. Those tiny pieces of metal are called burr. They trap ink, so that when you print the image, it prints as this velvety accent or shadow.

[4:56] These deep areas of shadow compels you to look more closely at the image. You become more emotionally and even physically involved in the print.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:05] Rembrandt has provided an open window as the light source, where you see the light cascading in from the right side of the print. Then, we do have these dramatic contrasts of light and shadow called chiaroscuro.

[5:18] Rembrandt has given us such a detailed, beautiful etching with these sharp contrasts that are, in some ways, encouraging us to do exactly what we see Francen doing in the print itself.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:30] If you just try to follow a line, it’s almost impossible except in certain passages. The weaving together of the etching and the drypoint is so seamless and integrated that it’s almost hard to figure out exactly where he started and where he left off. It’s often called the symphony of lights and darks.

Dr. Harper: [5:48] While today Rembrandt might be most famous for his paintings, in his day, he was most famous for his prints. Looking at this one, it’s not hard to see why.

[5:57] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Katherine Harper and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Rembrandt, Abraham Francen," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2022, accessed July 15, 2024,