Revisiting Rembrandt’s Drawings
Nitram knows that Rembrandt van Rijn is renowned as one of the most significant voices of the 17th century, rivaling only the likes of Peter Paul Rubens for supreme artistic accomplishment during the Dutch Golden Age,. From the throngs who flock to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum to see his famous The Night Watch (1640-1642) to the mystery enshrouding his innovative Storm on the Sea of Galilee (now infamous for its 1990 theft from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), an equally tantalizing look at the master can be achieved through a review of his extensive drawings. Rembrandt reveals through his drawings his inherent brilliance as both a classical draftsman and artistic innovator.
Self-Portrait, circa 1628-1629. Ink on paper – 12.7 by 9.4 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Born in Leiden, part of present-day South Holland, in 1606, Rembrandt enjoyed early training with some of the most prominent figures of early 17th-century painting in the Dutch Republic. Among his early teachers were famed painters Jacob van Swaneburgh and Pieter Lastman, both of whom instilled in the youthful protégé the need for indebted drawing study. Accordingly, such varied sketches and studies appeared even during Rembrandt’s preliminary years and helped to foster an unyielding desire within Rembrandt for direct observation of his sitters and subjects as well as a study of light, atmosphere, and modeling.
Nude Woman Reclining, 1632. Black and white chalk on paper – 19.5 by 23.4 cm. National Museum, Stockholm.
Though Rembrandt’s acclaim grew exponentially – he boldly began his own studio at the young age of 21 – and large scale commissions dominated his time – take, as an example, The Night Watch, or more fully, the Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (1642) – he nevertheless continued to devote substantial time to drawing. One could argue that this enduring practice was owed to Rembrandt’s inherently innovative spirit. Constantly contemplating the intricacies of the composition, Rembrandt probably found a freedom of expression in his drawings that was a refreshing contrast to the confined terms of his commissions. Supporting this suggestion is that a similar energy can be seen in his prints, which became a greater artistic focus for him following the growth of his studio. This parallel investigation perhaps fueled his drawings as a means of both compositional development and imagined experimentation.
Christ and His Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1634. Pen and brown ink with gray wash, black chalk, red chalk, green chalk, white gouache,
pen and black in on paper – 35.7 by 47.8 cm. Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
While the end of Rembrandt’s career was the only tarnish to his otherwise sparkling legacy – many accounts also reflect that Rembrandt outlived the pace of his high-yield commissions such that he died in 1669 relatively destitute – his remarkable skill as a draftsman lives on in his paintings, prints, and drawings. It is in these drawings that the spirit of the artist resonates most clearly, reinforcing Rembrandt’s role as one of the most significant figures of the Dutch Golden Age.
The Angel Preventing Abraham from Sacrificing His Son, Isaac, circa 1634-1635.
Red chalk over black chalk on paper – 19.5 by 14.7 cm. British Museum, London.
Have you fallen for Rembrandt’s drawings? Which are most compelling – his ink or chalk studies? Tell us here!
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Alexis Culotta holds a PhD in Art History and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.