Lovers of Renaissance art expecting to walk into the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Rembrandt show to see chiaroscuro grandeur are in for a surprise. The pieces on display here are not large framed images of smoky squalor. This is an exhibition of ephemera, etchings reproduced on tiny scraps of paper, each tacked into its own frame.

Culled from a private collection in California, the show is titled Sordid and Sacred: Beggars in Rembrandt’s Etchings. We’ll address the business about sordid and sacred in a moment, but the second part of the title is undeniably true. The show consists of 35 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, executed between 1629 and 1654. The majority of the images are from closer to the earlier date, when the artist was 23 and still living in his hometown of Leiden, with fame and (temporary) fortune still three years and 20 miles away in Amsterdam.

These pictures represent a narrow slice of Rembrandt’s output, but it’s such a rich and detailed one that we long to know more about this particular genre. The show’s catalog informs us that these prints were sold for pennies at the market. We also learn that the Dutch culture of the day was unforgiving in its distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Those in the latter category were left to fend for themselves and were officially open to scorn. Indeed, these mendicants often played their roles with gusto by exaggerating their physical defects.

Unfortunately, the exhibition leaves unanswered some crucial questions. Who purchased these inexpensive scraps of authentic Rembrandt at the market? Why was there a demand for images of the poor? How many prints did Rembrandt produce? Was it a cheap way of making money off of his brand, the way Martha Stewart sells her name in Kmart?

In his accompanying essay, Gary Schwartz is surprisingly defensive, as though responding to the charge that Rembrandt’s images could be mistaken for racist kitsch. He writes, “It would not then have been out of line with the convictions of his society, with Netherlandish artistic tradition or classical art theory had Rembrandt depicted beggars as contemptible or loathsome creatures.” But Rembrandt, of course, can do no such thing, can he? Schwartz worries over the problem before pointing to one of the exhibit’s few late etchings, “The flight into Egypt: crossing a brook” (1654). In it, Joseph is leading a donkey and his holy family while leaning on a cane. “An artist who looked down on a figure such as the Beggar leaning on a stick could not have depicted a holy saint in the same guise,” Schwartz concludes triumphantly. This atypical but nicely evocative etching is, by the way, the show’s only “sacred” image.

That evidence aside, Rembrandt needs no defense. One would have to look very hard at these images–some as small as a postage stamp–to see mockery and contempt. Instead, we just see beggars.

Granted, several are presented in vulgar contexts, such as the lithograph entitled “Man Making Water,” in which we see a bum letting loose a blast of piss against the ground. A more tasteful and much more elegantly executed comic tableau is titled “The Rat Catcher.” Large by the standards of the form, it shows said exterminator collecting a fee at the door of a house. The man carries a long staff, at the top of which is a basket from which dead rats hang. This man’s usefulness as an exterminator is doubtful, however, for a live rat sits on his shoulder and another scurries around the basket. The medieval folktale The Pied Piper of Hamelin comes to mind, as we wonder if rat-catching was, at some level, a nuisance racket akin to modern day squeegee men. Perhaps the “rat catcher” is being paid to go away.

In Rembrandt’s day, there was little point in feeling sentimental about the poor, for the misery index in early modern Europe was quite high. (These were the days in which being healthy was merely defined as surviving childhood.) Rembrandt himself was born into middle-class comfort, but even as he achieved fame for his work, he endured a series of personal setbacks that are unimaginable to us today. His first three children died in infancy, his first wife died before she was 40, and he was finally, near the end of his life, forced to sell everything he owned to settle his debts. Rembrandt famously invented the genre of the suffering artist as he memorialized the steady progress of his own travails through his indelible self-portraits.

Fittingly, the show includes one magnificent self-portrait of Rembrandt as a young man. Dylanesque in his cocky self-assurance, his gaze pierces through the interfaces of copper, acid, ink, paper and glass to bore directly into us. He’s a young buck here, but one whose life would grow more wretched and closer to the other subjects on display in this informative (and tiny) window into the 17th century underclass. It’s a gallery of life’s losers, rendered without sentimentality or special pleading by one of history’s great artists.