OMG! What An Awesome Picture Frame!
February 2011-ish. It was a lazy Saturday morning.
The best kind of day.
Not a care in the world. Multi-directional hair style. No shower. No power makeup. No coat. No double socks. No snow boots. No beanie. No Gore-Tex gloves. With liners.
Just speesh on some flowery fragrance, put on a floppy hat, and head out the door with my hubby to do our favorite Saturday morning thing.
Breakfast and antiquing in beautiful Old Towne Orange.
OTO is an antiquary’s paradise. It’s a giant museum where everything is for sale. Shop after shop is filled with glorious relics of the past. Odds and ends and little treasury bits that were loved by someone 100 years ago just sitting there gathering dust.
Waiting to be loved again.
After enjoying al fresco gastronomical delights at Felix’s Continental Café (where they serve OC’s cheapest, biggest, and greasiest Cuban breakfast), Mike and I plunked down some cash, pushed back from the table, and hit the first shop.
I don’t remember where we started that morning. I just remember at some point we ended up at Antique Depot on Glassell, a massive, two-floor cabinet of curiosity jam-packed with everything from doll heads to grubby doilies to chipped porcelain frogs to delicate Murano chandelier.
After an hour or so of exploring, we were making the final pass through a back aisle on the main floor when Mike brought my attention to a 20% off sign posted at a little vendor’s booth that sold random pieces of art. Not one to pass up a sale, ever, I moseyed on over and began rifling through piles of moderately well-executed Old Master knock offs and Dogs Playing Cards on velvet.
You just never know.
“Hey, come here,” Mike suggests as I’m extracting a giant crackly fruit basket oil from a stack in the corner. I hold it up in the air like a human billboard, waiting for his nod of approval.
“Not that one,” he says.
He directed my attention to a smaller piece hanging on a faux pony wall.
“This one is really . . . interesting,” he says.
Sort of dejected, I returned the fruity oil to its pile and made my way to the object of Mike’s attraction.
My eyes opened wide.
“Wow, look at that frame!” I squealed. “It’s so super baroque and sooooo goopy. Love, love, love the frame!”
Then I notice the handwritten price sticker. 70 bucks. That’s like half the price of what I knew the frame would cost alone, I’m thinking to myself.
Better move on this one quick.
“How much is 20% off $70?!” I ask.
Mike tried to get me focused. “Okay, yeah, the frame’s nice,” he said, “but check out at the art.”
More interested now, I peered closer at what appeared to be a sketch. Or a print of a sketch. I wasn’t sure, but I could see the subject was very simple and sparse. Just a frizzy-haired Rubenesque gal leaning her head on her hand and wearing the most perfectly executed resting bitch face I’d ever seen.
A couple of things struck me as I continued to ponder the image, none of which seemed important at the time.
First, the lady in the sketch seemed, to me, very plain and ordinary. I wondered if she was the artist’s mother, or grandmother.
Second, I had this weird tug. It was, I don’t know, like a passing or fleeting sense of something that felt almost old world.
I just don’t know how else to describe it.
I chalked up the old-world feeling to the fabulous baroque-styled frame. Besides, Antique Road Show shenanigans happen to other people. Not us. As far as I was concerned, we had art back at the house that would be so much happier in THAT gorgeous frame.
Now committed based on the frame alone but trying to appear thrifty, I asked Mike if we should negotiate the price.
“It’s already 20% off,” he reasoned before continuing, “It’s cheap, so let’s just get it.”
Whew. No bartering.
Sign it up!
Ten minutes and $56 later, we left the air-conditioned antique mall and stepped into the sunshine. Strolling home with my doggie bag of Revotillo de Jamon and clutching a shiny new treasure, my mind was wandering here and there.
Should we just hang this little oddity in its “as is” condition, I wondered? Or, should I pull out the ho hum print and plunk something more interesting into my new favorite picture frame?
It's A What???
April 2012-ish. Fast forward to more than a year later.
I wasn’t able to find another piece of art in the house that fit the fab frame, so the curious little sketch sat on our wall just as we found it. Except now it was surrounded by much more flamboyant and, I thought, valuable art.
Gloria Gales, the appraiser we hired to value our art for insurance purposes was stuffing a small notebook into her purse, preparing to leave after several hours of photo snapping and visual analysis.
Gloria asked me if there was anything else I’d like her to look at before she took off.
Again, the tug.
“I think so. Just one thing.”
The $56 framed sketch thing was on the wall behind me. I turned around, lifted it from the hooks, and handed it to Gloria.
She studied it for a while without saying anything.
“Mind if I take this out of the frame?” she asked before disassembling the back.
She removed the image from its lovely encasement, placed it on a table, and continued studying the details with her magnifying glass.
And then this.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up or anything, but I think you might have something here. I’d like to take this with me,” she said before explaining that she thought the image looked an awful lot like a Rembrandt. More importantly, she elaborated, because of certain characteristics, she felt it could very well be one of his lifetime etchings.
“What’s that mean?” I queried. Obviously, I knew who Rembrandt was. However, despite being a collector of mostly mid-level art purchased under the influence, I didn’t know anything about lifetime etchings versus the stuff I’d seen at cruise ship art auctions.
Gloria then described how Rembrandt hand carved lines on plates which, when inked and pressed on paper, created an etching or a print. Some etchings she explained were made from the plates after he died. These were considered less significant and less valuable. Others he made during his life. These were considered more significant and more valuable.
As we eventually learned a month or so later, this one, she concluded, Rembrandt made himself.
That’s right. Wowzer. A 375-year-old lifetime etching that Rembrandt held in his own hands. And now it was hanging on our wall over Mike’s favorite arm chair.
Of all the dumb luck.
(Photo #1. Rembrandt created a number of his etchings in stages, called “states.” Some of the changes between states were minor, while others were more distinct. Our art is known as the first state of Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched. As can be seen in Photos #3 and #4 below, the plate that created our image was later significantly altered to produce an image depicting two additional women, hence the title Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched. Based on my understanding of this process, the original plate – in the state that existed when our art was made – was subsumed by the second and then third state and therefore no longer exists.)
17th Century, The Netherlands. Here’s a very abbreviated backstory on our little-known work of art.
In 1633, Rembrandt, who was the son of a miller, met 21-year-old Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia was orphaned when she was 12 and at that time was living with her sister and sister’s husband. The daughter of a patrician, Saskia was considered noble and clearly was out of Rembrandt’s league.
This didn’t stop Rembrandt and Saskia from falling in love and, in June of that same year, getting engaged.
By all accounts, Rembrandt adored Saskia and she became his muse and model for many of his important works. As you can see in Photo #2 from Rembrandt’s first drawing of Saskia just a few days after their engagement, both artist and subject were hopeful and in love.
(Photo #2. Portrait of Saskia in a Straw Hat is Rembrandt’s 1633 silverpoint drawing on vellum of Saskia during their engagement. Rembrandt’s handwritten description in Dutch reportedly was added some years later and reads, “This is drawn after my wife, when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were betrothed, 8 June 1633.”)
Just slightly more than a year after their engagement, on July 2, 1634, Rembrandt and Saskia married. At that time, contrary to common belief, Rembrandt was a promising and successful artist. Saskia’s family was bucks up, and she came with a big dowry. This apparently enabled the couple in 1635 to move into one of the posher neighborhoods in Amsterdam.
However, it didn’t take long for tragedy to strike. In December of 1635, Rembrandt and Saskia had their first child. Their new baby – a son named Rumbartus – died when he was just two-months-old, presumably in connection with a plague that beset Amsterdam in 1636.
The grief associated with this event, I think, is apparent by 1637 when Rembrandt created our work of art, the first state of Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched.
Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched, First State
According to the Montreal Museum of Art’s online description, in 1637, Rembrandt did a series of “fast sketches” of Saskia. To make the first plate of what later became Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched, as the museum theorizes, Rembrandt used the lighthearted drawing of the newly-betrothed Saskia in a straw hat which is shown in Photo #2 above. However, as further described in the museum’s online resources, the printmaking process would have reversed the drawn image of Portrait of Saskia in a Straw Hat, making the first state of Three Heads of Woman essentially a mirror, or backwards, image of the first drawing.
Significantly, as can be seen by comparing the two portraits, when transposing the original image, Rembrandt altered Portrait of Saskia in a Straw Hat to reflect what the museum describes as Saskia’s “maturity.” In doing so, the museum explains Rembrandt gave Saskia the more solemn and experienced, almost brooding expression that we now see in the first state of Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched as shown in Photo #3.
(Photo #3. A close-up photo of our 1637 Rembrandt, Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched, first state. I believe Rembrandt’s adjustment of Saskia’s facial expression from the 1633 portrait in Photo #2, which was drawn during happier days, reveals how deeply he must have understood her emotions. Her almost wry smile and heavy, knowing eyes, makes me think Saskia’s grief was giving way to hope. Or the other way around. I’m not sure which. He also changed her hands, which now appear older, maybe even arthritic, and more detailed.)
(Photo #4. This is a Google Images picture of the third and final state of Rembrandt’s 1637 etching Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched. This is an adjustment to the first state that produced our art shown in Photo #3. There is a second state, but I don’t know much about it or where to locate it on the Internet.)
A Love That Transcends Place and Time
Roughly a year after Rembrandt completed Three Heads of Woman, One Lightly Etched, in July of 1638, Saskia gave birth to her second child, a daughter they named Cornelia after Rembrandt’s mother. Cornelia lived only three weeks. Hard times then persisted the following year when the couple had their third child, a daughter also christened Cornelia, who died less than a month after her birth.
By 1640, Saskia was gravely ill, likely from tuberculosis and, surely, from the physical and emotional tolls of her short life. As can be seen in the artwork below in Photo #5, Rembrandt captured another moment in the evolution of Saskia’s compelling emotional life in an etching done during her sickness.
(Photo #5. Rembrandt’s 1640 etching of thinning Saskia entitled Sick Woman in White Shaw. I think the etching just exudes resignation, anxiety, and quiet dignity.)
A year or so after Rembrandt etched Sick Woman in White Shaw, on September 22, 1641, Saskia gave birth to her fourth child, a son named Titus who did survive to the age of 26. Saskia, however, died on June 14, 1642 at the age of 29, when her only living son was just 9 months old.
Rembrandt had two significant relationships after Saskia’s death, but he never technically remarried. Eventually, he fell on difficult financial times, and was forced to sell Saskia’s grave in or around 1662.
Rembrandt himself died on October 4, 1669. He was buried in a rented grave which reportedly has long since disappeared.
At some point before his death, Saskia’s small portrait left Rembrandt’s hands and was passed along from person to person and place to place, none of which we know. What we do know is, a few centuries went by, and then on one sunny day, it was hanging on a hollow half wall at Antique Depot in Orange, California.
$56 and a cross-country move later, this little bit of serendipity now floats on a brightly lit pink plaster wall in our house.
It’s happy now, I’m sure.
* * *
I think Rembrandt’s God-given and humbling genius is most evident in his etchings.
They are just so stark. Nothing more than a wisp here. A controlled jag there. A tiny line, some sparse shading, a small curve and a whole lot of complexity buried in negative space.
Simple but intense, our etching captures profound human emotion with pure accuracy.
I think it looks like love.
I just don’t know how else to describe it.