Rembrandt, 1641, etching on laid paper
Overall: 5 3/4 x 8 1/16 in. (14.6 x 20.5 cm)
Gift of Jean K. Weil in memory of Adolph Weil Jr., Class of 1935; PR.997.5.105
Rembrandt produced landscape etchings at two different moments in his career: once in the 1640s, the other in the 1650s, with his earlier cycle constituting more detailed studies of nature and the environment. In The Windmill (1641), Rembrandt illustrates his mastery in etching by depicting the so-called Little Stink Mill—an actual windmill that stood on the De Passeerde bulwark, site of the Passeerder rampart along the city wall of Amsterdam—named after the unpleasant smell it produced. The mill was owned by the Chamois Leathermakers Guild, who used cod liver oil at the mill to soften tanned leather. Although drawing en plein air was not yet a common practice, it is likely that Rembrandt first sketched the mill and its surrounding landscape on site and furnished it later with details in his studio.
In this epoch, windmills were not only literal symbols of Holland; they constituted crucial tools and visual elements of daily life in Amsterdam. Mills were used to grind corn and barley, as well as pump to water to prevent flooding on the mainland. In this etching, Rembrandt specifically depicts a windmill in possession of unique character and an idiosyncratic persona; it is both identifiable as a landmark and generalized as an entity, an integral aspect of the Dutch landscape and Dutch national identity. In The Windmill, therefore, Rembrandt transforms a landscape into the very portrait of Amsterdam itself.
Rembrandt’s fascination with windmills and their singular contribution to the landscape of Holland continued in his painting of The Mill (1645), a depiction of Rembrandt’s father’s windmill on the banks of the Rhine river.