(1656). Rembrandt recognized the monetary possibilities of etching; he even reworked plates so that collectors who
wanted complete sets would have to buy several impressions of the same image. The Three Crosses, for example,
was produced in four separate states, the last of which radically alters the original design by changing the position
of several figures and adding more shadow to the already darkened scene.
Rembrandt’s late paintings are among the most moving works in the history of art. His brushwork became even
rougher, so that the forms almost dissolve. Action is reduced, and a sense of drama is achieved through
psychological interaction rather than exaggerated gestures. An example is the Return of the Prodigal Son, which
Rembrandt may have painted in response to his own son’s death. Rembrandt used a soft spotlight effect to focus
on the tender scene of the old man welcoming home his wayward son. A secondary spot of light draws our attention
to the older brother, who never strayed, and who expresses his dismay at the father’s forgiveness of his younger
brother. There is hardly any movement in the painting, but the quiet gestures and expressions of all the characters
bring the story vividly to life.
Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son, 1668
Jan Vermeer is best known for genre painting, but in his hands, this type of painting took on an exquisite balance
and serenity unlike the crowded, boisterous genre scenes of his contemporaries. Vermeer’s mature paintings are
generally small works, focusing on one or two figures in a domestic setting, like Woman Holding a Balance. Light
comes in from a window at the upper left and falls softly on the young woman and the pearls she is about to weigh.
The composition is as perfectly balanced as the scale the woman holds: the vertical and horizontal lines are varied
slightly by the arrangement of the still life on the table and the diagonals in the woman’s dress and clothing. Behind
her, a painting of the Last Judgment suggests an allegorical meaning: the woman may be weighing material objects
she values now, but her actions and thoughts will be weighed on Judgment Day.
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