Woman sitting half-dressed beside a Stove, 1658.
Etching and drypoint, 22x8 x 18.7 cm, First state of seven. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The news got to Rembrandt quickly.
The first trade ships from Japan had just dropped anchor in Amsterdam harbor. And among the exotic treasures in their holds was rumored to be a rare, beautiful paper. Luminescent, incredibly lightweight, yet more than strong enough to hold a printer's ink.
Rembrandt hurried through a maze of alleyways to the shop of the paper merchant. The artist arrived just as the new sheets from Japan were being carefully stacked on wooden shelves.
"Gampi", stated the merchant. "Made from the bark of a shrub that grows only in the wild. Quite expensive."
The cost of the paper did not register with Rembrandt. He was lost in thought, caressing a sheet, imagining the effects his dry point technique could achieve on its silken surface.
"I'll take a packet. Just put it on my bill".
"Your already considerable bill", muttered the merchant.
But Rembrandt was already out the door, the gampi papers tucked carefully under his arm. He moved quickly along the canal, not even stopping for a potato pancake at his favorite vendor.
Arriving at his large (heavily mortgaged) house he hurried up two flights of stairs to his printmaking studio and began to experiment.
The results were stunning. The gampi's smooth finish held his ink on its surface, creating a rich, velvety effect. And the papers' warm tone softened contrast in a pleasing manner he had never achieved with even the finest western parchment.
Rembrandt was so pleased he immediately incorporated gampi into his most important etching editions, the first western artist to do so. He would make several impressions of each state, some on western paper, a select few on Japanese.
Unlike other print artists of the time who released only the final state, Rembrandt considered all states building to the final state as works of art themselves, and marketed them as such. He was unique in this practice. And it was the impressions on gampi that became the most sought after by collectors of the day.
As an artist, Rembrandt was fortunate to be living in a 1650's Holland with whom Japan made its first western trade agreement. It was this "luck" combined with his fiercely open-minded, searching nature that led him to experiment with gampi. His desire for the deepest, most inward expression in his work was answered by the warm, living presence of this beautiful paper from Japan.
Author's note: I am indebted to Erik Hinterding, whose essay "The Etchings - Experimental Technique" in the catalogue of the "Late Rembrandt" exhibition (2015 Rijksmuseum) provided invaluable insights.