Over the course of his prolific career, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) completed more than 350 etchings and cemented his reputation as one the greatest practitioners of the technique. He repeatedly turned towards the beggar as his subject, and these depictions of impoverished people are the focus of The John Villarino Collection of Rembrandt Etchings, which features 35 exquisite works by the artist. While they were executed between 1629 and 1654, the majority were created during the early 1630s—when Rembrandt first took up printmaking.
During the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, Dutch society viewed beggars and vagrants as contemptible, a view that was often echoed in artists’ portrayals. Hieronymus Bosch’s (circa 1450–1516) vagrants, for example, are difficult to distinguish from his demons; Adriaen van de Venne (1589–1662) often depicted impoverished and disabled persons in violent situations. Rembrandt’s work strikes a different tone—these small, intimate portraits imbue their subjects with a sense of humanity, individuality and sanctity. He drew inspiration from the French artist Jacques Callot who etched images of beggars in his 1622-23 series Les Gueux, which was among the first to break with tradition in the representation of the homeless.
In Rembrandt’s oeuvre, we see how his depiction of beggars overlaps with his portrayal of religious figures, further giving them a sense of sacredness. The first homeless figures he depicted were Mary, Jesus and Joseph in their Flight into Egypt (1627). As the art historian Gary Schwartz wrote, “This constellation of images. . . shows how essential Rembrandt’s etchings of beggars were in his formative years as an artist. The way he imagined the beggar is inextricable from the way he imagined himself, the way he imagined Christ, the way he conceived of imagery itself.”
As a collector, Villarino initially focused on etchings and lithographs by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In 1995 his attention turned toward Rembrandt as he recognized the profound influence the Dutch artist had on the works of later artists.
Villarino would have been the first to admit he initially knew very little regarding Rembrandt’s work. Nevertheless, he had a sharp eye for craftmanship and quality, having been a prominent Hollywood construction coordinator for more than thirty years, working with acclaimed directors such as Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, on films like Edward Scissorhands (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Waterworld (1995), Cast Away (2000), The Polar Express (2004), Avatar (2009) and many others. Villarino was captivated by a small etching of one of Rembrandt’s beggars which he encountered at a Beverly Hills gallery years ago. “I saw his eyes, and the look was, ‘I’m going to conquer the world’,” said Villarino. The figure in the etching that would lead Villarino to amassing this collection, over decades, turned out to be Rembrandt himself, in the guise of a beggar seated on a bank (see lot 89). The works in the John Villarino Collection were the subject of a recent traveling exhibition, Sordid & Sacred: the Beggars in Rembrandt’s Etchings, which from 2006 to 2019 traveled to museums throughout the United States.