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Variety is Rembrandt's hallmark. Because of his unpredictability, it is difficult to pin down the essential elements of his art; yet I believe that the attempt should be made.

I have demonstrated how the quality of Rembrandt's drawing fluctuates according to the substantiality of its sources. I have repeatedly argued that Rembrandt as a draughtsman is deeply responding to what he actually has in front of him. Yet - a particular drawing can seem to contradict this. In The Death Bed of David (Pl.20c), for example, although we can be virtually certain that the four figures represented were all present in the studio (because we see them in reflection as well as in reality), the difference in quality between the realisation of the two central and the two peripheral figures is such that it is difficult to believe that both pairs could have been drawn by the same person. Nevertheless common sense and the handwriting more or less obliges us to accept that all are by Rembrandt and that all are from life. However we may try to explain such variations in quality, the fact remains that Rembrandt is capable of making drawings from life that are poor by any standards.

We must not be too rigid in our expectations. In the drawing The Finding of Moses (Pl.34a) Kenneth Clark quite rightly criticises the formlessness of the figures attributing the drawing to Rembrandt's student Ferdinand Bol. Other scholars are similarly dubious about the drawing for the same kinds of reason. They expect Rembrandt to be consistent in his standards and objectives. He is not. In this magnificent drawing he takes liberties otherwise unknown in art before our century. Concern for plasticity and volume, is all but sacrificed because on this occasion Rembrandt's interest is focused elsewhere. The essence of this drawing is - balance. The precarious balance of the servant girl reaching out over the mud, her footing unsure. We must read this drawing in terms of space. It is not necessary for Rembrandt to fill out the volumes as the relation of arms to torso of the reaching figure, and the manner in which these are balanced over the fulcrum of the squatting leg were sufficient to his purpose.

Rembrandt relies here again on spatial organisation to 'carry' a drawing - to an extent beyond that of subsequent draughtsmen (with the possible exception of Giacometti, a modern draughtsman who shares this concern). The Finding of Moses is an extreme example of the method, and it deserves careful study. I believe that this drawing should not be doubted. When we compare it with Rembrandt's study for the Holy Family painting in Leningrad (Pl.34b), we see immediately that Mary reaches for the cradle with the same gesture as that of the maidservant we have been studying, because both were drawn from the same reality; only - the draughtsman has changed his position. We may deduce that Rembrandt has made two sketches from a pose that can only have been held for something like ten minutes. The neurotic gesture of the figure of the near companion in the Moses drawing has been achieved by placing hands, head, bottom and knees in their spatial context with superb accuracy. That the psychology and drama of the situation is successfully conveyed with such spare means is due to that accuracy. His spatial certainty enables Rembrandt's shorthand to be read back without difficulty.

I would argue that it is this control over space that is the single attribute which - if present - endorses any particular drawing as the master's own work. Not one of his pupils had this gift. I doubt that it can be faked. We have already seen how unreliable are the calligraphic criteria on which the Rembrandt scholars have largely based their judgments. Moreover, once published they become the stock-in-trade of the forger.

The misleading nature of Rembrandt's calligraphy when taken as a guide to dating is clearly demonstrated in the dates assigned to the two drawings of Jairus' Daughter (Pls.29a,b) - 1632 and 1660 respectively. The two drawings are placed to span almost the whole of Rembrandt's working life as a draughtsman: yet the number of features they have in common should surely lead to the conclusion that they were drawn on the same occasion from the same seat in the same studio but with a different pen.

Let me enumerate some of the features common to both drawings. Seven models are present in each case (although there is the hint of an eighth figure in Pl.29b): the bed has a curtain draped over its top right-hand corner. The draughtsman's viewpoint is the same viewpoint. (Rembrandt moved house three times between 1632 and 1660.) The 'subject' appears to be the same in both drawings. Jairus' daughter is supported by a very large bolster on top of a larger one and it has stitching, neatly drawn in Pl.29a. In Pl. 29b we find the stitches suggested by the cross-hatching. In both drawings there is a figure at the foot of the bed. There is nothing in the subsidiary figures that positively identifies them as the same figures, but by using further drawings we can identify fairly certainly both the central figures and the weeping woman. Jairus' daughter wears a particular cap which seems to have a stiff piece over the forehead. The same cap is worn by Lucretia in Pl.30b, lying in the same bed which, this time, has a striped headboard. The latter drawing is not accepted by Benesch, but I can find no cause to doubt its authenticity.

The same bolsters and cap recur in Pl.35a (dated 1655). Again, there are seven models present. One of these could well be the model for the Christ in Pl.29b, and to his left stands the figure of a woman who could be the same model as the woman to the left of Christ in Pl.29a. Christ's head seems to have been drawn from the same model as before and this guess is confirmed when we compare the two gestures used in Pl.35b (Christ as Gardener). The two gestures belong to the one model. Many death-bed scenes can be linked to this one tableau by similar means. Yet scholars have scattered the dates broadcast throughout Rembrandt's long working life. We find, again, that the identification of models, sets, props, et cetera, a more reliable guide to dating Rembrandt's work than is the 'calligraphic evidence'.

My method requires a change of focus: instead of looking at the lines and accents (so dear to modern criticism) I look at the figure as a whole and weigh the marks on the paper against the three dimensional reality which they aim to convey. Rembrandt's drawings respond to such straightforward treatment, any other treatment seems wrong-headed. My method looks first at the gesture, next at its spatial coherence, and its relationship to other figures and objects. Next , at the aptness with which the 'form' of the drawing fits its dramatic content (its 'story'; the down-to-earth integrity of the conception). Virtuosity or first-time certainty of execution are things we may expect to find in Rubens or Van Dyck; Rembrandt, however capable of virtuosity is not beguiled by it, his drawing is distinguished by the persistence with which he pursues his objectives, often at the expense of virtuosity (see commentary on Pl.36a below).

When we come to reflect on Rembrandt's own character we are consistently reminded of his lack of interest in impressing others. He seems to have had little desire to please or to excite admiration with his drawing. Drawing for Rembrandt was a method of private inquiry. If others were offended, as were many contemporaries, by his 'badly finished pictures' (Andre Felibien) then so much the worse for them! (as quoted Lecaldano, 1973, p.10.)

Many drawings in Benesch's catalogue are described as 'student drawings corrected by the master'. In many cases I question that description. I believe that many are Rembrandt's own drawings, and that they were corrected by himself. In some of these drawings the flagrant disregard for what precedes the correction seems nothing short of brutal: if such brutalities were perpetrated on his students then Rembrandt as a teacher was not the cheerful extrovert of the folklore. Baldinucci described him as a 'first-rate practical joker' who 'laughed at everyone' (Lecaldano, 1973, p.9). Houbraken (ibid. pp.11 and 13) gives examples of these jokes: finding a student and model naked in one of the cubicles Rembrandt took on the guise of the Archangel and chased them out of Eden with his stick! His students in return used to 'paint in his way, coins worth one or two bits or a shilling, so that he would try to pick them up'. These are not descriptions of a relationship between a domineering pedant and his pupils.

In the case of Job and His Comforters (Pl.36a), a drawing of the most refined sensibility is all but defaced by subsequent alterations. It is my belief that these alterations were made by Rembrandt to his own drawings as a result of re-posing the models.

Slive describes the bearded man (Pl.37a) sitting at a desk covered with books as: 'erroneously identified by Hofstede de Groot as a preliminary study by Rembrandt for his portrait of Anslo. The relationship of this weak school-piece to the painting is superficial.' (Slive, 1965, p...) . Two other drawings worthy of very careful study are not even recorded in Benesch's catalogue. In fact, comparison with the Portrait of Anslo (Pl.37c), shows the two to be very closely related. The table and its contents, with its still-life candles and book, seems to me to be almost identical in both works.

Here we have here the preliminary stages of a very important Rembrandt portrait; the drawings make that portrait by far the best documented of all such works and yet modern scholarship has chosen to ignore them completely. Pl.37a may not be one of Rembrandt's strongest drawings, but to describe it as 'weak' is sheer nonsense. It exhibits the masterly grasp of space that I consider Rembrandt's hallmark. The handling of the bent leg and of the outstretched arm are typical to a degree. By contrast, it is astonishing to examine some of the drawings which have been accepted and praised by 'the choosers'. The drawing, Boy Drawing at a Desk.

A genuine late portrait, such as that of The Syndic in Pl.39a, is a very different matter. The realisation of the head and hand are so austere that - though they read well enough - they cannot move us. The realisation of character is entirely dependent upon unity, the very unity which is so lacking in the Boy Drawing at a Desk. In The Syndic it is the pose which conveys the character: precisely where that carefully calculated (and altered) hat is placed in relation to the solidly-constructed chair. The shoulder is edged into position - and there we have it; a frail old man turns rather querulously to survey us; the utmost austerity of means suffices - because of the sureness of the grasp of space. The aged Rembrandt was not the man to try to impress by means of 'masterful verticals and horizontals'. Like the later Michelangelo drawings, late Rembrandt drawings rely on judgement and vision alone. Virtuosity has no place in them. Each essential element in The Syndic has been repositioned at least once - the hand seems to me to have been repositioned five or six times.

 

The Unworthy Wedding Guest

The Unworthy Guest drawing can be taken as another lesson in Rembrandt's geometry of space. At first sight the group of stewards binding the unworthy guest may seem clumsily drawn, even schematic. I nonetheless believe that they were drawn from life. The figure of the unworthy guest is very clearly articulated in depth across the floor; the manner in which the torso moves through the frame of the bound arms and up to the foreshortened head is masterly. The arms of the standing figure behind continue the rectilinear recession in space which we see running through the calves, thighs and torso of the guest; the stooping figures at his head and feet create solid masses whose main outlines fall generally parallel to the picture plane. These figures are only sketched, but the one at the head has a rhythmic vitality that convinces us that he is in ernest. The means by which this forceful design is achieved are very simple. Rembrandt sees the way in which forms overlap: how the guest's thighs obscure three-quarters of his stomach and how his shoulder obscures the head. He defines sections of the guest's shoulder, chest and hips. The top of a boot or the bottom of a sleeve is used to define how those forms are angled to us. The two main figures at the table on the right in The Unworthy Guest are achieved by the same basic means. They are so beautifully realised that they need no commentary. The essential difference between the geometry of The Unworthy Wedding Guest and that of the Boy Drawing at a Desk of which I have been so critical, lies in the fact that one is a construction in space and fits the subject brilliantly, whereas the other is a surface grid which does not fit the subject at all.

One of the special qualities of Rembrandt's drawings is the sense they give us of being in direct contact with the movement of a highly volatile, creative mind (Insert a comparison of the host figure with that of Belshazzar). I also take pleasure in the way in which Rembrandt deliberately seeks to avoid the manual dexterities often associated with the art of drawing. He uses marks available to anyone who can wield a pen. He asks us to respond to vision - not to gasp at virtuosity. We have seen how Rembrandt seems most fired by direct contact with life. I would now like to turn my attention towards another constant source of inspiration to Rembrandt: the work of other artists.

Rembrandt drew frequently from the works of other artists and with great concentration. He possessed about thirty Roman portrait busts and these represent by far the most costly section among his huge stockpile of works of art. Roman portraits were once the most respected and the most pervasive classical influences throughout Europe (during Rembrandt's lifetime and for a century after his death). I have mentioned already two lost albums of drawing from sculpture made by Rembrandt. We can infer that he loved and learned from Roman art.

Rembrandt's geometry is freer than Roman geometry. The latter seems to fit its subject like a carapace, whereas Rembrandt's knits solids and spaces together, in a continuous web through which his actors can move with freedom and accuracy. If we analyse a drawing by Holbein we can see the way in which spatial accuracy underpins a drawing. (insert an analysis similar to sculpture book.)

In The Unworthy Wedding Guest we can recognise a crystalline structure that defines the group on the left: when we look at other works by Rembrandt that are resolved in more detail (the paintings and etchings), we can find the same kind of solid geometry as that implicit in the drawings and in the more finished works it is more easily recognised.

The Wading Woman in the National Gallery (Pl.41) provides a clear example of the way in which this geometry holds up. The neck line of the woman's garment is an isosceles triangle laid diagonally in space. A parallel but smaller triangle is to be found with its angles at her chin and the two outermost limits of her hair; a larger triangle has angles at her elbows and the forward knee; the near side of a yet larger triangle is defined by the reflection of that knee and the outer edge of the robe which is thrown over the base of the triangle. I do not suggest that Rembrandt consciously constructed such a geometry; I suggest only that he responded to the geometric resonances which he felt in the Roman portraits and that he sought such resonances in his own work. That is, he created intuitively the qualities he admired intuitively in the work of others; an artist does not necessarily analyze. Artistic intuition is often no more than silent obedience to half-divined laws.

Rembrandt's copies of Mogul miniatures adopt the refined mode of execution of their originals and are all that one could wish for from such a contact. They show the broad sympathies of Rembrandt - the direct and earthy realist - who can nevertheless be seduced and transformed by contact with the miniature charms of the Orient.

Rembrandt was quickly bored by copying. However. his copy of Mantegna's Calumny of Apelles (see plS.42a,b) is an example of how his interest flags when reality is not the stimulus. The copy is reasonably accurate in the recording of shapes and lines but falls far short of the original. The subtlety of Mantegna's drawing of the right arm and leg, of the figure of Envy with the hand and foot slightly turned out against the general direction of the limbs, sets in motion a rhythmic flow which sweeps through the whole figure in a way which has seldom been equalled. This is quite lost in Rembrandt's version. It would appear that Rembrandt never saw this figure as a whole. The parts are acceptable, but they have been assembled into a clockwork puppet. My guess is that Rembrandt traced his copy just before his bankruptcy so he could keep it.

The translation from three dimensions to two dimensions requires an act of understanding. The straight copying from one two-dimensional surface to another can easily become mechanical, although it need not necessarily do so. The loss of touch we have observed here is even more obvious when Rembrandt copies his own drawing, such a task is even more repetitious. We have already seen this in the two drawings of Abraham (Pl.33k and Pl.33n) in Chapter 6.

 

Connoisseurship

In the preceding chapters I have been critical of recent Rembrandt scholarship. At the same time I have tried to be explicit about my own criteria. Yet there is something I wish to add. As a sculptor, I have had to learn to work from my own drawings. In the process of drawing and of reading drawings for their three-dimensional content I have had to question how and why a drawing works. I have built my own method of drawing on what I have found in Rembrandt, Holbein, and others. Among contemporary draughtsmen I have found Giacometti particularly useful because his obsession with space directed me to Rembrandt’s special quality.

The activity of drawing seems to me to depend on the division of an area into smaller areas, in such a way as to offer a description of the three-dimensional world. Whether this is done with areas of colour or with areas of tone or by the use of line alone is immaterial. It is through the size and shape of the areas of paper related to the planes (out there, in the real world) that we read a drawing. To discuss the quality of line on its own, without reference to the area which that line contains, seems to invite misunderstanding. It has been a recurring source of error in modern criticism. At the age of 80 I recommend Rembrandt’s values, rather than modern values, to future generations.

The recognition of crudities in the drawing of Isaac Refusing to Bless Esau (Pl.43), and the failure to compare the deeply evocative image of Isaac with the physical and psychological corporeality of a fatalistic, old, blind Jew, has led generations of Rembrandt scholars to reject this masterpiece.

Rembrandt the great imaginative creative genius drew from life. We cannot understand his art unless we compare it with life. This book requires no change in the status we accord to Rembrandt as an artist but it does require an adjustment to our own views: a complete change in our view of the role and nature of the imagination in art. I hope the book also demonstrates how works of art can sharpen our perception of life.

Next Chapter: Chapter Eight