Seymour Slive, Rembrandt Drawings. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009. 260 pp, 197 color, 46 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-89236-976-8.
Holm Bevers, Lee Hendrix, William W. Robinson, Peter Schatborn. Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils. Telling the Difference. Cat. exh. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, December 8, 2009 – February 28, 2010. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009. 304 pp. 202 color, 3 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-89236-978-2.
The study of Rembrandt’s drawings is fraught with difficulties, and the task of separating the master’s work from his pupils is daunting at best. The famous collector Roger de Piles listed 1500-2000 drawings which he attributed to the master in his inventory of 1656. Otto Benesch’s six-volume publication of the artist’s drawings, beginning in 1954, catalogued more than 1400, and about twenty years later Werner Sumowski compiled a list of 2500 drawings, which he sorted into varied categories of authenticity. Hundreds of these drawings are now considered copies or are assigned to Rembrandt’s many pupils. While there is little agreement on the number of securely attributed works, about seventy are securely documented and about 800 are subject to scholarly debate.
Seymour Slive’s book on Rembrandt’s drawings discusses 160 drawings by the master. The author does not engage in the arduous task of separating Rembrandt’s drawings from those of his pupils and followers, but rather focuses upon works accepted “by common consent.” Most of the sheets are fully discussed in conjunction with closely related prints and paintings by the artist. The author separates Rembrandt’s drawings into sixteen subject areas that include self-portraits, portraits, figure drawings, women, women and children, nudes, animals, buildings and ruins, mythological and historical themes, religious subjects, etc. Slive justifies this organization by citing contemporary collectors who sorted their collections in just this manner. A case in point is Jan van der Capelle, who kept sheets of women and children in a separate part of his collection. Slive’s ordering of the material encourages the reader to browse through the images in each chapter, imagining what it must have been like to flip through sheets of drawings in a portfolio or album. With this thematic arrangement, however, comes the risk that the reader may lose grasp of the artist’s impressive development as a draughtsman. Slive counters this possible pitfall by situating the drawings within the chronology of the artist’s life and art.
The volume is quite handsome, printed on thick paper with many color illustrations. The drawings are of high quality, and the fine reproductions convey the subtle, exquisite effects of the varied colored papers and inks used by the artist. The author’s engaging discussion of Rembrandt’s drawing techniques deepens the reader’s appreciation of these works. When Slive relates how Rembrandt wet the red chalk with his tongue to intensify the color in Women with the Snake, the reader may well imagine this brilliant, experimental artist at work on this lovely drawing. It is unfortunate, however, that only a few of the numerous religious drawings by Rembrandt are discussed here. This is because only a comparatively small number of them are documented as “secure” works, closely related to the artist’s paintings and prints.
The challenging task of separating the master’s work from pupils is handled with diligence, good judgment, and a freshness of approach by Holm Bevers, Lee Hendrix, William Robinson, and Peter Schatborn in Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils. Telling the Difference, produced to accompany a beautifully-installed exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Two thoughtful essays at the beginning of the book address broad issues and problems related to the task at hand. Holm Bevers’s essay examines the difficulties of attribution, all of which may be traced to the working methods of Rembrandt’s studio. The basic problem is that students were taught to imitate their teacher’s style and copy his works. As was customary for that time pupils were not permitted to sign drawings produced under a master’s tutelage. We know little about Rembrandt’s teaching methods, but his studio seems to have functioned informally, much like the private academy of the Carracci in Bologna. As may be deduced from drawings depicting studio practices, the artist and his pupils drew together after the nude model and interpreted the same biblical subjects as a joint exercise. In the early 1650s there was a sharp increase in the number of biblical subjects produced by Rembrandt and his pupils.
Some uncertainty exists as to precisely how many students studied with Rembrandt, but the drawings themselves may suggest a pupil’s closeness to the workshop, as in the case of Jan Victors. When pupils left the workshop, they often developed a more individual style, which was true for Govert Flinck. The book discusses fourteen artists who were known to be in Rembrandt’s studio during specific decades. Such artists as Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, and Jan Victors were there from the 1630s, Abraham Furnerius, Carel Fabritius, and Samuel van Hoogstraten in the first half of the decade; Willem Drost, Nicolaus Maes, and Constantijn Daniel van Renesse studied there in the 1650s, and Johannes Raven and Arent de Gelder in the 1660s. Many entered Rembrandt’s studio as young men in their twenties, but others came to study after they reached maturity. Constantijn Daniel van Renesse was a dilettante who pursued drawing with Rembrandt as a pastime.
The essay by Peter Schatborn and William W. Robinson presents a concise overview of the history of the attribution of drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils. The authors discuss the varied historical approaches of such notable figures as Roger de Piles, Antoine Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, Wihelm Bürger, and Edmé François Gersaint; but pertinent to their study Schatborn and Robinson situate their own approach firmly within the traditions of Woldemar van Seidlitz, Otto Benesch, and Werner Sumowski, who established the method of comparing works to core drawings by the master.
Telling the Difference assembles a group of drawings as their core group of Rembrandts, submitting them to a rigorous comparison to the drawings of pupils. The authors discuss the drawings on the basis of style and working methods, and they incorporate recent scholarship into the discussion. Each catalogue entry focuses upon two drawings lavishly reproduced on a large scale; one work by Rembrandt on the left faces a related drawing by a follower on the right. A good number of high-quality details facilitate the comparisons. Drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils are discussed in relation to related works, which are unfortunately reproduced in small format, making it difficult to see them. In most cases the subjects of the comparisons are the same, which appropriately reflects the artist’s studio practice of having his students draw the same subject. Two drawings depicting Christ as Gardener of c. 1640, one attributed to Ferdinand Bol, are especially curious, because the head of Christ drawn by Rembrandt is not a typical type for the artist, but clearly reveals the influence of Albrecht Dürer.
Telling the Difference is worthy of praise for its fresh approach and many convincing attributions. The combined expertise of the authors is formidable. They offer many new insights into the master as a draughtsman, and are quite right in their assertion that Rembrandt used energetic, broken lines like no other artist of his time. This study, however, should also be applauded for providing a new, profound appreciation of Rembrandt’s pupils.
University of Michigan-Dearborn