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The Questions at issue

There are about three thousand drawings which may or may not be by Rembrandt if we include all the 'school drawings' which have a serious claim on our attention. Rembrandt's output as a draughtsman dwarfs by its sheer quantity the canon of his other work, the paintings and etchings. The taste of our own age has led us to an ever greater interest in the processes of art than in its finished products: a part of the significance of the Rembrandt drawings lies in the manner in which they allow us a foothold in Rembrandt's own act of creation. On this all agree.

Rembrandt's work has attracted more in the way of scholarly attention than has that of any other artist. Professor Slive of Harvard gives his opinion: 'The general agreement of generation after generation of Rembrandt specialists about the authenticity of the bulk of his drawings, as well as about the main line of his development from his first bold efforts in Leyden to the majestic works of his last years, is one of the best proofs of the validity of stylistic criticism.' (Slive, 1964, p10.) It would seem to be extremely rash for a sculptor, an outsider, to enter this sacred grove of scholarship and to claim to throw an entirely new light on the whole subject, one which invalidates stylistic criticism. My boldness rests on the strength of my case. Slive has clearly changed his opinion since he wrote the above as he recently stated that he believes in only 800 Rembrandt drawings, where Benesch’s catalogue contains nearly 1500.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Rembrandt's biblical and mythological drawings were literally drawn from life - that is, from real people dressed in real costumes and 'produced' by Rembrandt in his studio, using the vast supply of theatrical properties that was itemised in the inventory of his possessions taken at the time of his bankruptcy in 1656. My maquettes are simply the easiest way of recreating Rembrandt’s original live production. My view of Rembrandt is based on a study of his drawings and it is amply supported in the documents of his life and by his contemporaries.


Rembrandt's Creative Philosophy is in Tune with the Advanced Thinkers of his Age.

The sixteenth century in Europe saw a fundamental change of attitude to tradition which laid the foundations for modern science. It started before Rembrandt's birth in such figures as Galileo and Copernicus, and it continued to flourish throughout Rembrandt's life and beyond it. This was the time of Newton, of Harvey and of Kepler; Descartes was a fellow Amsterdamer. These new thinkers laid aside the constructed cosmology of the medieval world and in its place they built a new world order based on scrupulous observation and analysis. It is my contention that in the visual arts Rembrandt personifies this change of attitude more forcefully than does his hero Caravaggio. It was Rembrandt who changed the course of art.

My image of Rembrandt is of an artist who put a great deal of creative effort into the production of the tableaux vivants from which he and his students then worked, each from their own individual stand point in the studio. All very much as we would expect to find in any life-class over the last four centuries; the only surprising thing is the elaborateness with which Rembrandt made his preparations: “he would spend a whole day or even two arranging the folds of a turban until he was satisfied.”


The Establishment view

In contrast to my image of Rembrandt as the great producer/observer, establishment scholarship seems ever more concerned to see him as a part of the 17th century academic art where invention was still admired, invention very much in the classical mould. I would have thought it was enough to glance at Rembrandt’s etched version of Diana in her Bath (1633) to see that he is serving us a very different viewpoint. To chose to call this bag of a woman ‘Diana’ is a calculated insult to the virgin goddess and all that she stands for in high Art. Rembrandt stayed six months with his classical master Lastman before he and his friend Lievens took off to set up their own studio in Leyden. Lievens had studied with Lastman for several years and was ready for the move but Rembrandt in spite of three years previous training with a provincial master, Schwannenburg, was still a raw apprentice.


Diana - Rembrandt's truth to nature versus classical art


A Review of Changing Attitudes towards Rembrandt

The history of Rembrandt scholarship is not one continuous tradition. During the first part of his life we can trace a meteoric rise to fame which never got quite far enough to earn him sitters of the first rank within Amsterdam society. After 1642 the year of The Night Watch and of his wife Saskia's death, the tide of fashion turned against him. He took his son Titus' wet nurse as a mistress - "he was inclined by nature to have dealings with people of humble origin" (Roger de Piles) - not only did this earn him the disapproval of those who might have commissioned works but it was a thoroughly unhappy union that ended when Rembrandt had her put away in an asylum and kept her there for 20 years - (though we would probably judge her to have been disturbed rather than insane).

His difficult character also made itself felt in other ways "he worked in tatty dirty clothes cleaning his brushes on them"... “not even the foremost monarch on earth would have managed to be granted an audience but would have had to come back again and again until he had finished his work" (Baldinucci), "he had no idea of the importance of social rank" (Sandrart). Add to this his slowness in completing his work - the Stadtholder (The Prince of Orange) had to wait six years for the last in a series of paintings which was delivered still wet and with a bill that was considered to be twice what was just, and one sees that Rembrandt was considered a dangerous man with whom to have dealings.

Furthermore, late seventeenth-century criticism of his work is often very strident. J. van Sandrart wrote of him 'he did not hesitate to oppose or contradict our own artistic laws - such as those of anatomy and the proportions of the human body - perspective, the study of classical sculpture, the drawing and pictorial composition of Raphael, as well as the academies which are so important to our profession. He asserted that one should let oneself be guided by nature alone and by no other law.' (Lecaldano, Rembrandt Paintings, 1973, p.8.). "certain details are painted with the utmost care, whilst the rest of the picture looks as if it has been painted with a white wash brush, without the slightest regard for the drawing" (Houbraken). It is not in the least bit difficult to see how the man and his work slipped from favour in spite of his immense gifts.


The Modern Treatment

Because so many of his signed works have been deattributed by recent scholarship, he has been regarded as a thoroughly slippery character, who would do anything to turn a quick buck. During the showing of the travelling exhibition Rembrandt and his Workshop (1991-2) he was most often compared to Andy Warhol in the press. On the contrary I have found his business dealings in art to be clear and above board. When he retouches a plate which was originally worked by his colleague Lievens he writes that on the plate. When someone else works up the etching of The Good Samaritan from his painting he writes ‘Rembrandt inventor’. When he is asked what he has got in stock – he describes a landscape by a pupil as ‘with a few touches from me it could pass as a Rembrandt’. This all seems to me to indicate an trustworthy attitude to his art. I find this limited area of trustworthiness quite understandable, he stuck to his guns artistically in the face of fashion and lost out heavily as a result.

It was not until the end of the last century that Lippmann and Hofstede de Groot made the first serious attempt to catalogue Rembrandt's drawings, published (1904). Because they were connoisseurs and had not yet got mixed up in the post Darwinian passion for the evolution of an artist's style their catalogue is still useful. Benesch made the current catalogue, which is marred by his reliance on style as a method of dating a drawing; so that drawings clearly of the same material subject are often separated from one another by many theoretical years. Also he judges negatively: he will not allow Rembrandt to have weaknesses. He loves “bold strokes” and wont accept cautious drawing from Rembrandt. Yet one sees in his etchings that Rembrandt could be cautious at any time in his life. This preference for boldness has gone so far as to dismiss obvious preparatory drawings for etchings, which use much the same marks as on the plate and are often superior in draughtsmanship to the final etching.

Benesch does not see Rembrandt’s frequent greatness that cannot be confused with his students even when the drawing contains second or third rate passages that are also by Rembrandt but Rembrandt working by construction. I know of no other artist who is so concerned to differentiate between that which is genuinely observed and that which was invented. He seems to deliberately make a poor job of invention, which was “worthless in his eyes”.


Few signposts

Rembrandt himself left signed or dated only a handful of his drawings. These, along with a few more drawings (whose quality is such that we cannot doubt them, and which can be linked with signed and dated etchings or paintings) form the few fixed points in an immense field whose boundaries are constantly fluctuating. The method adopted to bring order to this apparent chaos of work has been to place stylistically similar drawings in relation to these few fixed points of reference.

It is generally accepted that an artist's style changes or evolves over the years: certainly Rembrandt's style as a painter passes through quite recognisably different phases. Style would seem a reasonable basis on which to proceed - but only if no better basis is available. It is my contention that the groups of real people (dressed in real costumes, carrying real musical instruments, weapons, water bottles, staffs or whatever else was appropriate to the occasion they were seeking to portray) give us an incomparably surer basis than does 'style' which for the scholars means nothing more than handwriting and therefore depends to a large extent on the various pens Rembrandt used. I explain the serious changes in style by the change in stimulus from which Rembrandt was working: from life at his best, from an inadequate reflection, or from construction. I shall discuss later the overwhelming evidence that points to the presence in Rembrandt's studio of real people and real artefacts.

The catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings produced by the late Otto Benesch has not yet been superseded. It was reissued in 1974. Benesch argued that 'free inventive composition was the strength of old art in contrast to that of our century where the artist is mainly dependent upon a model'. (Benesch, 1960, p.18) I dissent from this statement partly because it is plane wrong and partly because it places Rembrandt firmly among the ancients. If another motive were needed for my research - apart from sheer curiosity - it would be that I wish to place Rembrandt where I and many other artists feel he truly belongs: as first among the moderns. He was very much influenced by Galileo’s scientific revolution that had turned its back on time honoured theory Rembrandt was determined to discover the essence of human expression by experimenting with actors which he then recorded.

It is Benesch who receives the brunt of my criticism because it is his work that still forms the basis for the contemporary view. Furthermore, he has had the courage to be far more explicit about the way in which he reaches his conclusions than are his heirs. In my opinion Benesch's successors are compounding - and not correcting - basic fallacies in Benesch's view and in his methodology. While I respect the immense labour and scholarship which he invested in The Complete Catalogue of Rembrandt's Drawings, while I share his love for Rembrandt the draughtsman, I must state my conviction that Benesch's method is too rigid and based on beliefs which are fundamentally and demonstrably mistaken.

His colleague, Jakob Rosenberg tells us that Rembrandt 'clung' to certain themes such as The Dismissal of Hagar 'throughout his working life' (Rosenberg, 1968, p.171). These drawings are discussed in Chapter 6, (pls. 33 a-n). I regard it as exceedingly unlikely that Rembrandt did any such thing. The Abraham of these drawings is recognisably the same old man and he is dressed in the same turban and wears the same robe, in every drawing in which he appears. Hagar (the handmaiden who is being dismissed is carrying the same water-bottle, kit-bag and handkerchief in practically every drawing. Furthermore, she seems to have rolled up her skirts in the same way each time. Ishmael, her son, is similarly supplied with the same clothing, bow and quiver of arrows each time, wherever he appears. I am convinced that Rembrandt made these drawings in the presence of living models for the group. The accepted dating of these drawings covers a time span of nearly twenty years. See Chapter 6.

I cannot believe that Rembrandt would have been able to reproduce exactly the same actors, the same groupings, the same stage-properties, at intervals sometimes over a twenty-six-year period. It is surely much more credible that Rembrandt commanded a wide range of drawing styles at any one time. I believe that the drawings of this series followed each other, and that they were all made from one studio set-piece during one period (of months, perhaps) in Rembrandt's working life. They should all date from around 1637, the certain date of the etching.


The Inadequacies of Stylistic Analysis

The appearance of any drawing relates very directly to the medium used by the artist. Rembrandt himself habitually used chalk and charcoal. He very occasionally drew with a black-lead or with silver-point. He often used bistre (an ink made from wood soot) and he used Indian ink, and he applied these with the quill, the brush, the reed pen, and on occasion even smudging with his fingers. When we consider these different media in relation to the different papers used, we find that the paper texture will have further influenced the nature of the marks made by the artist (a great part of what the theorists classify as 'style'). The study of work by living artists will persuade us immediately that there may be an enormous variation in appearance between drawings produced at any one sitting - as the simple consequence of using different media. I shall argue later that there are a number of other acceptable explanations for differences in quality and style, and that these need have had little or nothing to do with Rembrandt's artistic maturation - or with his physical decay.

Benesch believed that he could date a Rembrandt drawing to within one or two years. His method is largely based on the most minute analysis of technique. Of the drawings of the early 'fifties he says 'The pen-work has a greater importance than ever because it remains clearly visible and never drowned in shadows. It consists either of thin, whizzing lines, recalling the structure of some etchings, or of stronger ones with larger intervals, or of vibrating bands of delicate short hatches, interspersed with slightly curving hairlines.' (Benesch, 1947, p.26)

These three descriptions of the different marks a pen might make when moved rapidly across a page in different ways could perhaps be considered as possible grounds for dating a drawing; but there is no reason why we should accept Benesch's clear belief that they constitute objective criteria for so doing. Benesch frequently attempts to raise the status of such descriptions by investing them with mystical significance. Certain drawings ' vibrate in the trembling life of radiance which lend them not only the fluorescence of colour, but also a diaphanous quality as if the life of the soul would sublimate the bodies. Awe and majesty, love and faithful devotion are expressed by those long and ray-like lines in a most touching way.' (Benesch, 1947, p.27)

While I am pleased that Benesch should have found himself so moved by the drawings, I cannot find that such poetic descriptions offer us any firmer basis for chronology than do the curious calligraphic analyses which precede them. If this is connoisseurship it fails because it gives us no inkling of what it is about these whizzing lines that gives rise to such enthusiasm; nor does it acknowledge the geometric purity which is a unique feature of Rembrandt’s best work. His geometry of space as well as solid, shows us how space relationships are as important as gesture in expressing human relationships.

The interested reader should himself examine the Introduction to Benesch's Rembrandt: Selected Drawings and leaf through his Complete Drawings to note how rigidly Benesch sticks to his credo of the relationship between Rembrandt's technique and his development as an artist. Benesch suggests that the young Rembrandt usually drew with chalk or charcoal; that later he used a quill, and that still later in his development he took to adding richer and richer washes with his brush. He notes that in the early 'fifties Rembrandt returned to the use of the quill and of the reed-pen without washes (Rembrandt's 'classical phase') I shall demonstrate, however, that Rembrandt was capable of producing as wide a variety of marks on paper at any one time as you or I.

The scholars have of course used the few fixed points to guide them in the construction of their chronology but there are too few fixed points. Many of the dated drawings were done in an autograph album, probably in a pub without Rembrandt's normal tableaux to work from. The scholars are prepared to reject a great drawing on the grounds that the style does not fit the date of the subject. Benesch and his followers are obliged to believe that the biblical subjects were 'drawn from imagination' because when we acknowledge the presence of a group of live models as the basis for most of Rembrandt's drawings their chronology becomes untenable. I shall return to this point in detail in Chapters 4, 5 and 6.

More recent scholars have tried to exclude the human response believing that by so doing they are becoming more 'scientific'. Alas the lack of feeling is not enough to ensure a scientific attitude. Science requires an open mind willing to look at all the evidence not just that which suits an argument. It also requires judgement and logic, if the subject of inquiry is art, considerable knowledge will be needed of the practical and mental habits of the artist being examined. If the artist main interest is with human interaction then the rigorous exclusion of this area from discussion is positively harmful.

One would never guess from reading the catalogues of the new museum curators that they might consider the appreciation of Rembrandt's work as part of their job, or that Rembrandt's chief claim on our attention stems from his profound insight into the human condition. Indeed their continuing reliance on stylistic analysis in the face of all the evidence against it tends to put one in mind of medieval theologians rather than a scientific cast of mind.

The insistence on stylistic analysis as opposed to the human meaning of the drawings is in itself enough to ensure that Rembrandt is undervalued. It is the human content that can speak to all humanity through common experience of finding one’s way in the inhabited world that gives Rembrandt the universal appeal that he has enjoyed in previous generations.

Rembrandt's art has deservedly earned him a position among the greatest heroes of art. His work epitomises for us a zenith of achievement in the visual arts; if we misunderstand his modus operandi then we misunderstand the working of genius itself. Doubtless, it would be more politic to allow art historians to continue in their well-worn paths. Perhaps they would in time, come to conclusions very similar to mine; but in my view, the subject raises general questions that are of such importance to the present state of Art that it should not be left to the snail's pace of scholarly orthodoxy to decide them. Indeed their refusal to look at the evidence available since 1974 suggests we should call in question both the competence and the willingness of art historians to debate.

As a sculptor, I come to the questions raised by the Rembrandt drawings without the weight of a hundred years of scholarship on my shoulders and with the advantage of an eye trained to observe from life as well as from art. What I have to say challenges the established views of scholarship but in no way detracts from Rembrandt's status as an artist. Rembrandt has been and remains, chief among my household gods. Though he was not a sculptor I have found his priorities in drawing and philosophy matches my needs as a sculptor precisely.

I find no cause to moderate my veneration for his art although I have stripped away many of the magical abilities that scholars have bestowed upon him. Rembrandt is very much more human than the scholars will allow, my Rembrandt has a great deal to teach us.



The Rembrandt of my thesis is much closer to the man described by his contemporaries and not far from his image in the folklore. My view of his artistic character and development has already proved far more credible to present-day artists (see Lawrence Gowing) than is the consensus view taken by the scholars. Instead of the superman whose prodigious powers of visualisation dwarf those of any other artist before or since, I find a man much easier for us to understand: his difficulties are very similar to our own. He used, and perhaps invented, ingenious solutions to some of the perennial difficulties of constructing a credible and complex three-dimensional drama on a two-dimensional surface. The scholars' image of Rembrandt elevates his abilities to an entirely different plane from the abilities of ordinary mortals - however gifted. It has therefore put his work out of our reach: we can enjoy and admire but we cannot follow a god. The Rembrandt in my interpretation is a great master who is nevertheless profoundly human. He has something to teach us about genuine creativity on every page. Perhaps most important is his acceptance of failure as part of normal life. His failures are instructive for us also, they demonstrate the free-wheeling, exploratory nature of his creativity.

Next Chapter: Chapter Two