Introduction II

The character and range of the British Museum’s collection

No single group of drawings could claim to represent a draughtsman as resourceful as Rembrandt comprehensively. His works on paper exhibit a wide range of styles and are marked by experiment, with the result that certain types of drawing are extremely rare. The British Museum, for instance, has none of his silverpoint drawings or of his late studies of the nude. [1]  Yet such lacunae are uncommon and the collection is equipped to display a broad spectrum of Rembrandt’s skills and interests, often with superlative examples.

His chief interest was in the human figure, which he often studied from the life. Time, opportunity and purpose must have conditioned the degree of his figures’ detail, and they vary from the three almost fastidious Studies of a bearded Man on Crutches (Cat. no. 7), to the less self-conscious Star of the Kings ( Cat. no. 38) and to shorthand notations such as those of children learning to walk of the mid-1630s from George Salting’s bequest ( Cat. nos 1314). The economy and verisimilitude with which they encapsulate essential gestures, movement and character, despite their superficially untidy style, have few precedents or heirs in the history of art until the 19th century.

Rembrandt continued to make such drawings later in his career, mainly in black chalk or pen and ink. The Museum has four of the most cursory examples in black chalk to have survived (Cat. nos 40–43). They contrast with such highly finished studies as that of an Elephant ( Cat. no. 19) of around 1637–41 in the same medium, though it is combined, unusually, with charcoal. A group of sketches of character, pose and costume executed at the end of the 1630s in iron-gall ink, the acidity of which eats into the surface of the support with time, on sheets of paper that have been prepared with light brown wash, is represented by three examples, one of them double-sided (Cat. nos 25–27). To the same phase belong the two drawings of pigs ( Cat. nos 2021) and the perhaps slightly later Sketches of an old Man with a Child ( Cat. no. 28), which in the suggestive pathos with which it characterises its narrative – with the child finally removing the old man’s hat – rivals almost any work by Rembrandt.

The date assigned to these drawings is fixed in part by two other sketches in the collection that relate to datable works of c. 1639, that for the portrait of Maria Trip currently on loan to the Rijksmuseum and that for the etching of the Artist drawing from the Model ( Cat. nos 2324) [2]  They are executed in a similar style and in the same iron-gall ink medium. Like the variety observed with the black chalk drawings, their distinct purposes demonstrate that Rembrandt’s choice of instrument was not restricted to isolated categories of drawing. This is further confirmed by the Lamentation ( Cat. no. 9), an exceptional drawing in which the brush, loaded with oil-paint, is employed in an unresolved sketch on paper. The design was repeated on another sheet, later stuck onto canvas, which forms part of the related oil painting in the National Gallery, London (NG 43). The scars borne by these works from having been cut, rejoined and reworked bear witness to an almost obsessively perfectionist trait in Rembrandt’s character. Solutions were sometimes reached only after extensive revisions, and in this particular case Rembrandt may have abandoned his quest, as no more finished version of the composition is known.

His preferred medium was pen and brown ink, often in combination with brown wash. Every kind of subject came under the scrutiny of his pen but the collection represents his main preoccupation with the human figure extraordinarily well. In his religious and historical subjects, of which the British Museum possesses many examples, [3]the figures are for the most part drawn less spontaneously. Works of this type were made for practice, according to Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten, but they seem also to have been used to instruct apprentices, as is witnessed by the many pupils’ copies that survive. The expressions and postures adopted, as Rembrandt’s early biographer Arnold Houbraken noted, are clearly informed by the knowledge he had gained from the study of everyday life. As Rembrandt himself wrote in a letter of 12 January 1639, to the Prince of Orange’s secretary, Constantijn Huygens, he sought to imbue his compositions with the ‘most natural emotion and movement’.[4]

Less obviously, perhaps, they were also informed by a thoroughgoing analysis of the works of the great masters of the Renaissance. The inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions drawn up in 1656, before their dispersal by sale, reveals that he owned large quantities of prints and drawings, and even some paintings, by and after Raphael, Michelangelo, Lucas van Leyden, Palma Vecchio, Giorgione, Rosso Fiorentino and Holbein, to name but a few. His so-called ‘precious book by Andrea Mantegna’ may have contained the drawing of the Calumny of Apelles now in the British Museum (see 1860,0616.85), of which Rembrandt made a remarkable copy ( Cat. no. 46), translating the Italian master’s severely linear style into his own more painterly manner.

Rembrandt had earlier devoted three sheets to a critique of the composition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, known to him through engravings and drawings. In the example in the Museum’s collection ( Cat. no. 11) he erased one of Leonardo’s figures, splitting what was a single block of Christ’s disciples into two more compact groups. The Renaissance artist’s language of idealised gesture was discarded in favour of a less formal arrangement, set down in red chalk with unrestrained vigour. In the third drawing of 1635 in Berlin (Benesch 445; Inv.3769), Rembrandt’s intentions are expressed in their most definitive form: the disciples erupt in anger and disbelief at Christ’s announcement of imminent treachery among them. The lessons of Leonardo’s composition have been traced in Rembrandt’s paintings from the 1630s until near the end of his career, not least in the Syndics of the Draper’s Guild of 1662 in the Rijksmuseum (Bredius 415).[5]

Two contemporary artists also inspired Rembrandt to copy their work: his master, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633) and his fellow-pupil, Jan Lievens (1607–74), with whom he worked in Leiden at the start of his independent career. Both painters were of seminal importance to the young Rembrandt, who re-examined compositions by them in some depth in the mid-1630s. The Museum’s drawing of the Entombment over the Raising of Lazarus (Cat. no. 12) is based on a design produced by Lievens at the beginning of the 1630s. The drawing is later than the date (1630) inscribed on the sheet, which may refer to the time of Lievens’s invention of the composition. [6]  At all events, Rembrandt used Lievens’s composition, which represented the Raising of Lazarus (for Lievens’s etched version of the composition, see inv. no. D,8.69; for the print Rembrandt seems to have used, see S.28), as the springboard for an Entombment of Christ and he reworked the sheet with the new subject. Such a radical alteration is rare, but the echoes of the drawing’s design in Rembrandt’s own painting of the Entombment, now in Munich (Bredius 560, Corpus A126), suggest that he was engaged on this commission when the sketch was made and that it formed an element in the preparation of the painting. [7]


  • ^ [1] - Three nudes that were formerly attributed to him have now been tentatively given to a little-known pupil, Johannes Raven. See further below (section 3 of the Introduction) and under Johannes Raven, Cat. nos 1–3.
  • ^ [2] - They were first grouped on the basis of their technical similarity by Schatborn in Amsterdam, 1985, under no. 10.
  • ^ [3] - See Cat. nos 4, 8, 9, 32, 34, 39, 45–50, and 54.
  • ^ [4] - Rembrandt’s own words were die meeste ende die naetuereelste bewechlickheijt. Their precise meaning has been extensively discussed. For a summary, see Strauss and van der Meulen, 1979, 162.
  • ^ [5] - Campbell, 1971, 79 and 83, also saw the Leonardo as a major point of departure for Rembrandt. For a recent discussion of the Berlin drawing, see Berlin, 2006, cat. no. 7.
  • ^ [6] - The reasons for re-dating the drawing to the mid-1630s are fully set out in Royalton-Kisch, 1991I, and summarized in the catalogue entry here.
  • ^ [7] - Though begun by 1636 the painting was only delivered to the Prince of Orange in 1639.
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