Rembrandt was such an operator that everything about him seems larger-than-life -- his busy studio, his outsized reputation, his nasty bankruptcy, his unconventional affairs. His paintings, as smartly presented in "Rembrandt in America" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, seem an extension of that ambitious, wide-ranging and competitive talent.

But there was another Rembrandt, too, a small-scale guy who loved to experiment, play around, make visual jokes. A guy who studied the neighborhood beggars and merchants, a free-thinker regarding religion, a wanderer who delighted in ducking out of the shop and escaping to the country on a sunny summer afternoon. A guy who brooded about death, knew pain, accepted the inevitability of aging.

This is the man whose work can be seen in "Rembrandt's Miniature World," also at the Institute through Sept. 16. Although billed as a separate show, "World" is actually the exit gallery of the painting exhibit, the room where visitors drop audio guides and shake off their reverent awe. It's a fabulous display of 39 etchings, almost all from the institute's collection. They deserve full attention and shouldn't be blinked past as mere wallpaper, even though many visitors will be justifiably recovering from visual overload.

Small scale, big impact

The word "miniature" is grating, with its precious hint of the doll house and the tea party. There's nothing in the least twee about Rembrandt's prints. True, the etchings are small, some as tiny as postage stamps and many the size of postcards, magazine or newspaper images. But modest size does not diminish their emotional impact, psychological weight or conceptual ambition.

Consider five self-portraits, each less than 2 inches tall and wide. In them he variously wears a silly fur hat, gives a feral snarl, appears to be shouting, or angry, or surprised, or just plain goofy, with pursed lips and comically worried brows. All made in about 1630, when Rembrandt was just 24, they seem as spontaneous as doodles even though they're richly textured, with an animation that belies their size. This is Rembrandt at play, testing his skill at conveying emotions and figuring out how to use shadowy scribbles to make an image pop off the page without going muddy.

A few years later, in 1636, he etched six heads onto a plate, among them that of his wife, Saskia, surrounded by women whose faces are shadowed by hoods, bonnets, wide-brimmed hats, a hand-to-mouth as if lost in thought. And from that same year there's another intense "Self-Portrait With Saskia," in which Rembrandt appears as a dandy with floppy hat, fluffy collar and fur-lined coat peering intently as if reflected in our eyes. No mere flabby likenesses, these are penetrating images that subtly convey the look of thought as manifest in the very slightest arch of brow, line of mouth, narrowing of eye. While he often caricatured himself to amusing effect, he's at his unbeatable best in these incisive little portraits.

Fat ladies and darkness at midday

Then there are the fat ladies, none singing. Like his showier contemporary, Peter Paul Rubens, who reveled in ample opalescent flesh, Rembrandt was a realist in a time and place where heft was the norm. His "Diana," traditionally idealized as a svelte athletic maid, is a doughy middle-aged matron whose flabby arms seem ill prepared to stretch a bow, let alone to down a stag. Likewise, his "Naked Woman Seated on a Mound" is a great heap of sagging flesh, a perfect candidate for a 17th-century "Biggest Loser" reality show. Their authenticity is as rare as it is startling.

Rembrandt is famous for extremely tricky effects of light and darkness, both superbly demonstrated here. His "Adoration of the Shepherds" (1656-57) is almost lost in darkness, the shadowy visitors illuminated by the faintest lamp light as they peer into the manger. "The Three Crosses," from 1655, is one of the show's most dramatic prints, a "penetrating study of terrified humanity [that] has no equal in the iconography of Calvary," in the words of Rembrandt scholar Holm Bevers. In an earlier version of the image, shown in reproduction here, the scene is a virtual stage set washed in celestial light as the thieves writhe, crowd mills, Mary swoons and gaunt Christ prepares to die. In the institute's much bleaker version, the so-called fourth state, Rembrandt has significantly altered the etching plate, pulling in the crowd, adding a rearing horse, masking the entire scene in black streaks as if he's envisioning the moment of Christ's death when, the Bible records, the temple curtain tore and darkness covered the earth.

And yet there was a sunny Rembrandt, too. He must have been a great guy to play hooky with, as seen in "Landscape With Hay Barn and a Flock of Sheep," a pretty dike-top vista that was "a straight shot from his door," as exhibition curator Tom Rassieur helpfully explains in the label. Nearby is the famous "Goldweigher's Field" of 1651, a vast panorama of the somnambulant countryside near Amsterdam with a little town, an estate, a river, a fisherman no bigger than a nail clipping, and comma-sized women stretching linen to bleach in the fields. A mere 12 inches wide and half that tall, all sky above, it's a day immortalized on a page. Just looking at it you feel the sun warm your neck and long for a cold beer.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431