The Unseen in Society

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Placed in the spotlight by art

Where the church could provide no answers, fortune tellers, charlatans, and peddlers had a field day with their dubious offers. In times of crisis, it was easy to delude people into believing in the illusion of an intact world.

This theme was first taken up by the early modern period. Even Rembrandt couldn’t avoid the theme of poverty and its consequences. Was it artistic curiosity, or an early form of social voyeurism?

The Fortune Teller

This mezzotint is a reversed reproduction of a painting that is located today in the Toledo Museum of Art (USA). Painter and mezzotinter are here one and the same person: Nicolaas Verkolje. The Dutch artist learned the two very different techniques from his father Jan I. Art historian and critic Alfred von Wurzbach wrote in his dictionary of Dutch and Flemish artists (1906) that Verkolje’s “exceptional mezzotints” were highly valued by art lovers.

A young, elegantly dressed woman is leaning on a stone balustrade in front of a stately house and extending her left arm (her right arm in the painting) towards another woman who comes from poor circumstances. Her simple clothes are full of holes, and the bast rope around her bottle is unravelling. She is holding the hand of her noble counterpart in hers so she can tell her fortune and satisfy her curiosity. The women’s eyes meet. A young man is standing directly behind the inquisitive young woman with his arm around her shoulder and appears to be whispering something to her.

In the park in the background, water is gushing from a fountain. This could be a reference to the fons vitae, the fountain of life. According to Christian tradition, however, the fountain can also be understood as a place of love, or as a metaphor for marriage.

Seated Beggar

A hunched, scruffily dressed, bearded man is sitting on some kind of hillock and extending his left hand slightly forwards, asking for alms. His eyebrows are drawn together, and his mouth is open as if to speak. His facial expression suggests a moaning full of exasperation and, at the same time, reproach. The beggar’s face resembles some early self-portraits of Rembrandt’s so closely that it has often been identified with the artist.

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Old Beggar Woman

This is a very late print of the plate, as the drypoint lines mentioned in the literature are hardly visible anymore. What’s more, the image itself is somewhat faded due to the many prints. The motif of the beggar woman as its own subject of art was inspired by Jacques Callot (1592–1635) and probably also fascinated Rembrandt, who had already explored this theme in his early etchings.

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Beggar with Wooden Leg

With this image of a man dressed in rags and standing on a wooden leg, Rembrandt comes very close to the series of beggars created in 1622/23 by the Lorraine engraver Jacques Callot (1592–1635). Callot’s series was widely known and often copied. Rembrandt's handling of the etching needle alone, however, clearly distinguishes him from the master from Nancy. Whereas the latter mainly worked with parallel hatching and a very strict linear system, Rembrandt employed a wild jumble of short strokes and thereby gave his work a painterly quality.

The irregular platemark at the top and the bottom is worth noting here. For later prints, the bottom edge of the copper plate was cut off so that the beggar's stick is even with it.

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The Young Gipsy

This print is a reproduction of a painting by the Bolognese painter Bartolomeo Morelli, also known as il Pianoro. He was a student of Francesco Albani. Morelli’s works are found in the churches of Bologna and in the Sala Farnese in Palazzo Pubblico. According to the caption, the painting The Young Gipsy (1762) was part of the English collection of Edward Fitzgerald of the Temple at the time this print was made. The French engraver Simon François Ravenet the Elder went to London in 1743 and worked there, among others, for the famous English engraver William Hogarth. Numerous commissions from the equally renowned publisher John Boydell followed, such as the print shown here.

A feigned window frame (trompe-l’œil) reveals a woman with a child on her back. The child appears to be sleeping contently. The mother is looking directly at the viewer. Her mouth is slightly open, as if she wants to talk with the observer. Her clothes are still in good condition, although she has casually thrown them on so that one shoulder remains free. She is wearing a hat with feathers. The illusionistically foregrounded wall is crumbling and covered in cracks. All these signs and the title of the picture allow us to identify the woman as a member of the wandering community. It is an unknown, nameless woman who captivates us with her somewhat shy, questioning look. The open window frames the person, thus focusing the attention on her. The background is kept neutral and changes from light to dark. The place is not defined by any kind of surrounding like a landscape or a village scene.