States of the Copper Plates
After Rembrandt inspected an etching and pulled trial proofs, the etching plate was considered to be in its first state. If he was pleased with the trial proofs he would then pull an initial stock of prints for sale. If Rembrandt was displeased with the trial proofs he would make changes to the plate and pull a second set of trial proofs, and thus the plate would be in its second state. Every time changes were made to a plate and prints were pulled, it was considered to be a subsequent state of the plate.
Sometimes Rembrandt etchings only appeared in one state, meaning there was no more work done to the plate after he began making impressions from it. However, it often took many years for Rembrandt to finish a plate to his satisfaction. It was not uncommon for there to be as many as four or more states of the same etching, and collectors from Rembrandt’s time and after were eager to obtain prints of the various states. An example of an etching that Rembrandt took several years to complete is “The Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate (B.73),” which went through ten states (including trial proofs, according to Biorklund) before Rembrandt considered it finished.
The changes associated with each state vary from minor to drastic, and were achieved on the plate in a variety of ways. Etched lines can be rubbed out with a burnisher or scraped off, outlines can be strengthened, highlights toned down, lines can also be added or deepened, etc. While some changes are made to improve upon the etching artistically, reworking can be done to strengthen worn spots or generally weak plates so more quality impressions can be pulled.
As previously stated, Rembrandt himself created various states of etchings, but after his death more states were also created on a majority of the plates that survived. This reworking was generally skillfully done and was needed so that good impressions could continue to be pulled. The first wave of new states after Rembrandt’s death came from C.H. Watelet who did a thorough job reworking the plates, making them look as close as possible to their original appearance. As the plates passed from P.F. Basan, August Jean, August and Michael Bernard, and Alvin Beaumont, they were retouched and re-bitten as they showed signs of wear.