In 1972 a specimen of Rembrandt’s art was added by courtesy of the Felton Bequest to the fine collection of one hundred and twenty etchings by the master held in the Melbourne Print Room. Het schelpje, the little shell (Bartsch 159) signed and dated 1650 does not often become available at the present time. It went through three states of which the Melbourne print represents the second (fig. 1). The third state, discovered by Christopher White, is known in one example only, owned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.1A. M. Hind, A Catalogue of Rembrandt’s Etchings, London 2nd ed. 1923, No. 248 lists two states; the third described in Ch. White, Rembrandt as an Etcher, London 1969, No. 251. In the rare first state, entirely in drypoint, the shell is by itself, casting a dark shadow on the white paper (fig. 2). In the second state the shell, re-worked with etching, is surrounded with etched shadowy space and in the third state Rembrandt re-emphasised the spiral lines of the probiscus

 

The conus marmoreus varies in size from 2½ ins. to 6 ins. The etched shape is 2½ ins. long and thus presumably the exact size of the model from which Rembrandt worked.2It has been pointed out by P. E. Schwerin, Australian Shell News No. 4, 31st Oct. 1973 that Rembrandt omitted to draw the shell in its mirror image on the plate. As a result it appears in the print as a sinistral shell while it should be a dextral shell. The same fact is referred to by S. P. Dane, Shell Collecting, London 1969, p. 35. I owe these references to the kindness of Dr B. J. Smith, Natural History Museum, Melbourne. It is of Indian-Pacific origin and may well have formed part of a large collection of shells listed in the inventory of Rembrandt’s house which was drawn up in 1656.3Dr C. Hofstede de Groot, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt, The Hague, 1906, p. 199, No. 179 ‘op de Agterste Richel’. Like the gentleman-virtuosi of the 16th and 17th centuries Rembrandt had brought together over many years a universal collection, consisting of objects of art, of nature and of antiquities.4W. Scheller, Rembrandt en de encyclopedische Verzameling, in Oud Holland, 1969 2–3, p. 81 seq. The portrayal of the conus marmoreus gives us an insight into one of the ways in which his collection served him. 

 

J. Q. van Regteren-Altena has shown in a recent article that during the 1640s and early ’50s Rembrandt was remarkably receptive to works of art as well as to impressions from nature,5J. Q. van Regteren-Altena, Rembrandt’s Persönlichkeit in Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt Forschung, Berlin, 1973, p. 178, figs 140–142. and that his conus resembles a conus of a different kind found among the etched series of shells by Wenzel Hollar (fig. 3).6Parthey, Wenzel Hollar, Beschreibendes Verzeichnis seiner Kupferstiche, Berlin, 1853–58, Nos 2187–2224. See also White, loc. cit., p. 169, Note 32. Rembrandt owned etchings by Hollar; see Irkunden, loc. cit., p. 202, No. 235. K. S. Boon, in Rembrandt, Etsen, Catalogue Tentoonstelllng. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 1956 No. 67, already noted the relationship to Hollar’s shell. Hollar has set his shell almost horizontally on the white ground, without any suggestion of surrounding space, so that the emphasis is thrown on its outline and the spectator wants to ‘feel’ around its sinuous and spiky contour. Rembrandt does not communicate with our sense of touch. His schelpje, inspired by Hollar but studied from a less intricately shaped specimen of the conus family, evokes purely visual responses, and thereby becomes a test case of the basic principle of Rembrandt’s art. He rendered the shell’s simple shape with its unique pattern of milk white triangles set in a dark ground, as it emerges diagonally from shadow into light, emphasising the sparkling chiaroscuro. This drama of tone draws our eye away from the contour and reduces the tactile appeal of the shell’s surface in favour of a purely optical effect. The fall of the light, the perspective foreshortening assign a specific place to the spectator at whom the composition is directed. While Hollar’s shell remained an impersonal object, part of a series, Rembrandt’s single shell conveys an individual experience.7Alois Riegl, Das Holländische Gruppenportrait, Vienna 1931. 

The surrounding space of the shell may indicate a ledge; a wooden upright board on the left suggests a shelf. In the inventory of Rembrandt’s house the place where the shells were housed is described as a ‘ledge at the hindmost part’ (presumably of the Kunstkamer inventoried in the previous paragraph). A comparison suggests itself of the shell with the earlier etching of A sleeping puppy (c.1640, B. 158) (fig. 4).8White, loc. cit., No. 230 (drawing of c.1633 and 231, etching c.1640). In a preliminary drawing the puppy is shown in its kennel; in the etching the shadow alone suggests the spatial ambiente. In both cases all tangible detail is reduced to a minimum; in simplicity and impact, however, the shell greatly surpasses the earlier print. 

The shell motif here makes a unique appearance in Rembrandt’s oeuvre. It occurs however frequently in the flowerpieces and still lifes of the Dutch small masters of Rembrandt’s century. In such pictures shells not only formed attractive and decorative by-work but served a number of symbolic purposes as diverse as representing the Far East and the American West;9Ingvar Bergström, Dutch Still Life Painting, London 1967, pp. 64–5. The flowerpiece by Ambrosius Bosschaert in the Perman collection, (col, frontispiece) has a rounded polymita picta from Cuba, W. Indies, side by side with a conus marmoreus from the East Indies. or glorifying the creative powers of nature;10Scheller, loc. cit., p. 120. in a different context, the empty shell, bereft of life, joins the skull as a memento mori.11Mirimont, Une Nature morte de Balthasar van Ast, in La Révue du Louvre, 1964, No. 4, p. 239. See also Bergström, loc. cit., figs 145, 146 showing Vanitas Still Lifes by Herman and Pieter Steenwijk, uniting a shell and a skull. 

Whether any such considerations were in Rembrandt’s mind cannot be ascertained. The orderly, yet irregular, pattern of the conus marmoreus, with its resemblance to sunspots and shadows under moving water, becomes yet one more example of the ‘schilderachtig’, the element suitable for painting, which induces the mood of withdrawn contemplation, so characteristic of the art of Rembrandt and of the Dutch 17th century masters.12For the term ‘schilderachtig’ in relation to Rembrandt see J. A. Emmens, Rembrandt en de Regels van de Kunst, Utrecht, 1968, pp. 124–129. 

 

Ursula Hoff 

Notes

1              A. M. Hind, A Catalogue of Rembrandt’s Etchings, London 2nd ed. 1923, No. 248 lists two states; the third described in Ch. White, Rembrandt as an Etcher, London 1969, No. 251. 

2              It has been pointed out by P. E. Schwerin, Australian Shell News No. 4, 31st Oct. 1973 that Rembrandt omitted to draw the shell in its mirror image on the plate. As a result it appears in the print as a sinistral shell while it should be a dextral shell. The same fact is referred to by S. P. Dane, Shell Collecting, London 1969, p. 35. I owe these references to the kindness of Dr B. J. Smith, Natural History Museum, Melbourne. 

3              Dr C. Hofstede de Groot, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt, The Hague, 1906, p. 199, No. 179 ‘op de Agterste Richel’. 

4              W. Scheller, Rembrandt en de encyclopedische Verzameling, in Oud Holland, 1969 2–3, p. 81 seq.

5              J. Q. van Regteren-Altena, Rembrandt’s Persönlichkeit in Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt Forschung, Berlin, 1973, p. 178, figs 140–142. 

6              Parthey, Wenzel Hollar, Beschreibendes Verzeichnis seiner Kupferstiche, Berlin, 1853–58, Nos 2187–2224. See also White, loc. cit., p. 169, Note 32. Rembrandt owned etchings by Hollar; see Irkunden, loc. cit., p. 202, No. 235. K. S. Boon, in Rembrandt, Etsen, Catalogue Tentoonstelllng. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 1956 No. 67, already noted the relationship to Hollar’s shell.   

7              Alois Riegl, Das Holländische Gruppenportrait, Vienna 1931. 

8              White, loc. cit., No. 230 (drawing of c.1633 and 231, etching c.1640). 

9              Ingvar Bergström, Dutch Still Life Painting, London 1967, pp. 64–5. The flowerpiece by Ambrosius Bosschaert in the Perman collection, (col, frontispiece) has a rounded polymita picta from Cuba, W. Indies, side by side with a conus marmoreus from the East Indies. 

10           Scheller, loc. cit., p. 120. 

11           Mirimont, Une Nature morte de Balthasar van Ast, in La Révue du Louvre, 1964, No. 4, p. 239. See also Bergström, loc. cit., figs 145, 146 showing Vanitas Still Lifes by Herman and Pieter Steenwijk, uniting a shell and a skull. 

12           For the term ‘schilderachtig’ in relation to Rembrandt see J. A. Emmens, Rembrandt en de Regels van de Kunst, Utrecht, 1968, pp. 124–129.