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10 Questions About Rembrandt, Goya and Dürer for Art Historian Extraordinaire Morris Shapiro

Photography was unknown to the old masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Yet these artists had at their disposal the next best thing.

Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Francisco Goya all created etchings and prints of such extraordinary detail that they still astound viewers. It’s as if we are looking at a photograph. Like photographs, these images were capable of being easily copied and widely distributed. No wonder the old masters loved them so much!

Some of art history’s greatest prints and etchings are part of an exhibition at the Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center titled Rembrandt, Goya and Dürer: The Marvel of Old Masters. The exhibit, on display through Jan. 15, is on loan from the Park West Gallery of Southfield, Michigan.

Morris Shapiro, Park West’s long-time senior gallery director, will give two presentations about this artwork (at noon and 5:30 p.m.) at the MACC on Thursday, Jan. 5.  Shapiro, who celebrates his 40th anniversary with Park West this year, knows more about the art in this collection than just about anyone. So we decided to ask him some questions about these historic works.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is known as the father of printmaking. I’m wondering if he should also be known as the father of modern marketing and branding. I can’t think of a more fabulous and instantly recognizable brand than his monogram.


Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Monogram

Morris Shapiro: Dürer was really the first artist to create an individual identity. He was able to maintain his relationship with the emperor Maximilian as court painter, while at the same time developing his own iconography and individual body of work. His monogram became famous all over the western world. Since printmaking was the new technology that was transforming all of European culture during his time, and since Dürer was the consummate master of this art, I often like to refer to his monogram as the “Apple Logo” of the 15th century.

 What made Dürer great? What distinguished his prints from all the prints that came before? 

MS: Because he was German, and the greatest master of the Northern Renaissance, he did not have the “public-relations” machine of the Medici family and the Catholic Church that existed in Italy and the South. Consequently, artists from Italy such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are known to nearly everyone today. With Dürer however (usually unless one has studied art history), his genius is not as well-known to the public. Dürer is considered one of the greatest draftsmen of all time, and even though there were some fine printmakers before him, his virtuosity has never been equaled. Giorgio Vasari, in his book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures and Architects, (the first art history book, which was written in 1550) in describing an engraving by Dürer, pronounced it as, “… a work of such excellence that nothing finer can be achieved.” This was typical of the response to his work in the 1500’s. Five hundred years later we are still marveling at his almost supernatural virtuosity.

 Was Dürer’s choice of subject important? I notice that he went beyond the expected Christian themes of his time and created prints depicting classical subjects, like Hercules. 

MS: Yes, and because he was marketing his work so effectively in business. He often chose subjects that he knew would have a broad appeal. He actually hired salespeople to travel through Europe and disseminate his prints to enthusiastic collectors. This was essentially unheard of at the time. Consequently, in addition to the biblical subjects he employed (which were also tremendously popular), he chose mythological subjects, coats of arms, genre scenes, depictions of human foibles and superstition among others. Many of these are amongst the first use of these subjects in the history of printmaking.

Rembrandt (1606-1669) is known as the father of etchings. What did he bring to the art of etching that was either new or extraordinary?  



MS: Rembrandt created portraits primarily to sustain himself financially, and these were commissioned typically by wealthy patrons. His true creativity is found in his etchings, and he was very experimental, restless and spontaneous. He carried a copper plate around with him like a sketchbook, and he captured much of the essence of his time and place. I like to compare him to someone like Norman Rockwell. Because there was no concept of a limited edition in his time, Rembrandt made many changes or states to his etchings when he would return to reprint them to replenish his inventories. The states have been described, analyzed and photographed and it is fascinating to observe the changes and transformations of the images over time. This really set his work apart from any of his contemporaries, and his use of light and dark through the technique of crosshatching was unmatched. He unified his etchings through light and created highly complex compositions, that lead the eye through the works in a theatrical manner. Michiel Kersten, one of Rembrandt’s noted scholars, referred to his etchings as “slow food,” referencing the fact that the longer one takes to contemplate them, the more one is rewarded, much like a gourmet meal.

What attracted Rembrandt to etching? The techniques required to create them seem wildly complicated. 

MS: He was driven by a financial benefit to create his etchings. I like to emphasize the fact that photography did not exist in Rembrandt’s time. It’s very challenging for us today to imagine a world without photography as it is so ubiquitous now, with video and social media, etc. Printmaking served as the way in which culture could be disseminated through pictures in the 17th century, and Rembrandt understood this and became the most famous printmaker of his time. His etchings were wildly sought after, and he established record prices at auctions for his etchings. One of his famous etchings, “Christ Healing the Sick,” is often referred to as, “The Hundred Gilder Print,” which is the price it fetched at an auction in Rembrandt’s lifetime which was unprecedented. Many of his collectors aspired to acquire every example of the different states of a single etching. Many of his etchings were small, visually delicate and intimate, and were intended for the print cabinets of his collectors. Others were highly sustained, large in format, and were proudly displayed on the walls of his collector’s homes.

Rembrandt suffered a great deal of tragedy in his life. He lost loved ones, died poor and was buried in an unmarked grave. Are these careworn experiences reflected in his art in any way? 

Yes, it is one of the tragedies of his legendary career. As a younger generation of wealthy Dutch matured, Rembrandt’s imagery fell out of fashion. The younger generation preferred a more classically oriented, Italianate imagery at the time. His commissions began to dry up, and his etchings became less popular. He struggled financially, and he made poor financial decisions. He went bankrupt twice, and he died essentially penniless. You are correct though, much of this hardship can be perceived in his late self-portraits. Rembrandt is considered the father of psychological portraiture, and his works convey the essence of his sitters’ personalities, not only their likenesses. One can sense this clearly in the sadness and profound pain of his late self-portraits.

The classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven created some of his most profound late-period masterpieces when he was stone-cold deaf. He was forced to delve deep into his own psyche for inspiration. Did Francisco Goya (1746-1828) do essentially the same thing? 

MS: What an excellent observation! As an enthusiastic devotee of Beethoven’s compositions, I am most moved personally by the late string quartets, which he wrote when he was completely deaf. These are amongst the most beautiful (and sometimes heart-wrenching) musical creations ever written, in my opinion. It’s truly astonishing to imagine how he created them. I read that he conducted his final symphony without hearing a note from the orchestra, and there was another conductor behind him, keeping everyone in order. The musicians had to tell him to turn around to see the thunderous ovation he received at the end. Amazing!

I think for Goya, being a profoundly sensitive artist, and fiercely intellectual, to have one of his senses completely removed, dramatically transformed him from a psychological standpoint. He was separated from the world, and went deep into his own consciousness, and this forged for him an alternate view of his world and the extraordinary circumstances of Spain during his lifetime. In many ways, like Rembrandt, his portrait painting commissions served as his principal means of financial sustenance, but in his etchings, one discovers his true artistic personality and genius.Goya

Goya is a real transitional figure – he was both the last old master and the first modern artist. What made his work so new, so contemporary, so modern? 

MS: Goya essentially had no artistic peers. Spain at the time was one of the most backward countries in Europe, dominated by the church, the monarchy, and the “office,” also known as the “inquisition.” It was overburdened by the clergy, and an overabundance of aristocrats, who dominated the lower classes and laborers and sought to keep them uneducated and superstitious. Goya was really the first artist to break away from the accepted subjects for painters, and to explore the foibles of humanity, the political climate of his time, superstition, guile and vanity. His series, “The Disasters of War,” is the first example of true wartime journalism. It is not slanted toward the French or the Spanish. It gives a cold-eyed depiction of the atrocities of war that’s as relevant as ever.

What should our visitors be looking for when they scan Goya’s art? What makes it great? 

MS: Goya’s etchings perfectly capture equilibrium of form and content. The messages and meanings in his etchings are profound and timeless. They can be disturbing and unsettling, as they depict aspects of human nature that will forever be with us. But they are conveyed with such exquisite aesthetic beauty and technical virtuosity that the profound meaning of the works takes on an even more powerful form of visual communication. I recommend people take time to view them, as the meaning of Goya’s etchings typically hovers just beyond our comprehension, and the longer we view them and discern the details, which become keys or touchstones to the meanings of the etchings, the more we were able to perceive his extraordinary ability to communicate his moral messages.

Finally, what are your desert island prints? If you could only take two or three prints from this exhibition with you, which ones would you take? 

MS: The first is Dürer’s “Virgin Worshipped by Angels and Saints.” To me, this is a marvelous example of all the elements that Dürer mastered. It’s been said that viewing his work is like experiencing a waking dream, and this work perfectly captures that notion. The combination of the lighting, spatial perspective, and description of textures is astonishing, particularly when one considers the negative space was cut away in a block of wood to create such a complex masterpiece.

I would also take Rembrandt’s “The Strolling Musicians.” As a musician myself, I’m always drawn to musical subjects in art. And in particular to depictions of the various ways music was presented throughout history (in this case “busking!”). I referenced Norman Rockwell above, and this is another charming example of Rembrandt’s ability to capture his time, and the personalities of the subjects he portrayed. I love the little dog in the work, attempting to elicit sympathy for the musicians, and the smile on the baby’s face in the doorway, who is clearly delighted by the performance.

Finally, there’s Goya’s “Que Pico de Oro!” Goya loved portraying animals engaging in human activities. It was a popular artistic theme in Spain at the time, but was presented in humorous, entertaining ways. In Goya’s etchings, these themes take on a profound, often biting and satirical meaning. Here the parrot orates to the rapturous audience of tonsured clerics, while the “handler (manager/agent),” wearing the hat, at center, gazes self-satisfied at the ridiculous adulation the parrot is receiving, probably thinking about his ticket sales. This work has layers and layers of meaning and is a marvelous example of Goya’s penetrating gaze into human behavior.


Kaylin Warden

External Affairs Coordinator

Kaylin Warden joined the Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center staff in 2024 as External Affairs Coordinator. In this post, she organizes special off-site events and manages the organization’s external communications. She also works with the development department by updating the MACC’s customer relations database, and she assists the executive director in setting up exhibitions. Above all else, Kaylin is passionate about the arts. It comes as no surprise, then, that she is now pursuing a master’s degree in art history. When she’s not at the MACC, you can find her reading her favorite books (especially ones dealing with maritime mysteries), cooking, gardening, playing with her cat and two dogs, and cheering for the Nashville Predators.

Ruth Chase

Regional Arts Director
Ruth Chase is the Regional Arts Director of Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center, joining the team in 2023. For Ruth, the job is all about community, bringing people together to uplift and educate artists and art lovers alike. Her role at Monthaven is to strengthen the local artist community and build connections that will enrich Hendersonville and our surrounding communities through art exhibitions, art education, and opportunities for regional artists.
Prior to joining Monthaven, Ruth worked in the arts for over 30 years and is a multimedia artist and graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. Her artistic practice is inquiry-based and engages in community bridge-building. She was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation from the City of Los Angeles, curated and juried exhibitions, and has taught at the Crocker Art Museum.
Ruth was awarded an Artist-in-Residence for Artist Activating Communities through a grant from the California Arts Council for three consecutive years. Her film Belonging screened at both the 18th Annual Nevada City Film Festival and Wild & Scenic Film Festival. She has received the Legendary Female Artist of Venice award, and she has exhibited in The Crocker Kingsley, the Museum of Northern California Art, and the Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute. Ruth also continues her work as a Curatorial Consultant and Art director for the Californian Indigenous Research Project, where she has worked with the local tribe since 2018.