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Degas visited museums and private collections while in Italy, and spent time with other French artists who were living there. One of these, the printmaker Joseph-Gabriel Tourny (1817–1880), probably encouraged Degas’s growing interest in the medium of etching and in the works of Rembrandt—the preeminent practitioner of etching up to that time. Degas made a direct copy of an etching by Rembrandt, which, together with another print, a self-portrait by the Dutch artist, inspired his portrait of Tourny.
Degas’s compositional borrowings, as well as his adoption of the multi-stage process of creating an image on the etching plate (prints made at each stage being referred to as “states”), indicate his active desire to learn from Rembrandt’s example.
This image is often said to represent Rembrandt’s student Ferdinand Bol, though the identification is not certain. The sitter is dressed rather elegantly in velvet and fur, but his expression is withdrawn and distant. Degas probably copied this print when he saw a version in a Roman collection in November 1857.
Degas captured the slightly melancholy expression of Rembrandt’s sitter remarkably accurately in this copy. He also reproduced the general outlines and volumes of the composition, though without working up this experimental image to the degree of finish of the original. Because Degas copied directly onto the etching plate, the image is reversed during printing.