Paper trail: how watermarks illuminate Rembrandt's creative process

By analysing and categorising watermarks, an online tool will allow researchers to connect prints to specific batches of paper.

Original article from The Art Newspaper, February 2019
By Nancy Kenney

The Art Newspaper is the journal of record for the visual arts world, covering international news and events.

The WIRE Project at Cornell uniting art history and engineering students was co-directed by C. Richard Johnson Geoffrey S.M. Hedrick Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Andrew Weislogel, The Seymour R. Askin, Jr. '47 Curator, Earlier European and American Art at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum.


Three and a half centuries after Rembrandt’s death, questions persist about his creative process, including the pace at which he often reworked the surface of a copper printing plate to create multiple states of an etching. As scholars seek to document the various states, watermarks have proved an invaluable tool, allowing them to trace different impressions to specific batches of paper that the artist bought for his workshop and to thereby date the print.

Now students and professors at Cornell University are developing a website that will allow a user to upload an image of the watermark found on a Rembrandt print and then quickly classify it. Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they hope to have the online interface ready by the end of the summer, says Andrew Weislogel, a curator of earlier European art and American art at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, who has helped lead the effort. The website will be tested by partner academic institutions before it becomes available to all. 

Known as the Watermark Identification in Rembrandt’s Etchings (WIRE) project, the Cornell initiative is built on scholarship that was launched in the 1990s by the paper conservators Nancy Ash and Shelley Fletcher and expanded in a 2006 book by Erik Hinterding, now the curator of prints at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Relying on advanced imaging techniques, Hinterding grouped watermarks on Rembrandt’s prints into 54 basic types, then further divided them into 294 variants and 512 subvariants. 

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