Introduction II

The character and range of the British Museum’s collection continued

Rembrandt’s interests extended far beyond his own tradition, as is witnessed by the six drawings in the Museum copied from Indian miniatures (Cat. nos 56–61). The drawings are late – perhaps as late as the 1660s – and the artist’s reasons for making an extensive series of such copies, thought originally to have consisted of more than 25 drawings, remain a mystery. The exotic costumes appear to have been the focus of his attention, and he frequently dispensed with the backgrounds and other subsidiary details of the original compositions, many of which survive in Vienna. [8] The restrained touch in these works contrasts with the bold style of most of Rembrandt’s late drawings, suggesting that he was influenced by the originals even though he made no effort to replicate their style, and despite having chosen an oriental paper on which to copy them. No other collection affords the opportunity to study so many of them together.

A further rarity in the collection is the early Self-Portrait of about 1628–29 ( Cat. no. 1). The celebrated ipsographic branch of Rembrandt’s art was usually undertaken on panel, canvas or etched on copper – as represented in this catalogue by the extensively touched proof of a Self-Portrait etching ( Cat. no.7a). The drawing ( Cat. no. 1), which concentrates on the artist’s stare and open-mouthed expression, already exhibits many of the stylistic hallmarks of Rembrandt’s more mature draughtsmanship – the descriptive reticence, delicacy of line and sense of informality. The tip of the brush adds shadows that also add definition to the forms. When the brushwork merely adds tone, as in the Christ with Mary and Martha ( Cat. no. 105), Rembrandt’s authorship (of the brushwork, at least) becomes unlikely. The initial pen work in the Self-Portrait was light and tentative, but as the drawing progressed Rembrandt emphasised the strongest outlines with more powerful strokes. The final, broadest passages, executed with the brush, create a pronounced chiaroscuro that suggests that the drawing was made by candlelight, as Otto Benesch was the first to observe.

As with many of Rembrandt’s drawings, it remains unclear whether the Self-Portrait was executed in the studio. The sense that Rembrandt’s drawings so often give of having been created extempore, outside the immediate environment of his place of work, was almost unprecedented. [9] Yet the majority probably were made in the studio, even though, as is mentioned in the first section, few are directly related to his paintings and etchings. Rather, the drawings form a distinct branch of his art that runs in parallel with his work in the other two media. The occasional points of interconnection assume particular significance for establishing the drawings’ chronology, and several examples are in the Museum’s collection. They include the Diana bathing (Cat. no. 5) and the Portrait of Cornelis Claesz. Anslo ( Cat. no. 31), the outlines of which were indented with a stylus to transfer their designs to copper plates for subsequent etching. Rembrandt more often worked on his plates without preparations of this kind, and similar practices were applied to his paintings, most of which were apparently begun directly on the canvas or panel. Where related drawings exist, they were often made only after the painting had been started. The Lamentation (Cat. no. 9) can be mentioned again in this context, as Rembrandt returned to it after continuing to wrestle with the composition in the National Gallery’s related oil-sketch. This explains how a dense coat of oil paint came to cover much of the initial work in pen and brown ink.

Further examples of this sequence of work are provided by the Maria Trip and the Artist drawing from the Model (Cat. nos 23and 24). There are good reasons for believing that both were made in an attempt to resolve particular compositional difficulties that Rembrandt encountered after he had begun the works to which they relate. In the case of the Maria Trip, an X-radiograph of the painting reveals that Rembrandt originally depicted a balustrade that ran across the whole foreground. He clearly considered this motif unsatisfactory and probably drew the study, in which the balustrade is curtailed, as a trial for the changes he was contemplating. The painting was then completed without further alterations but as it has since been cut down, the drawing uniquely preserves a sense of the proportions that he originally intended.

The problems Rembrandt faced in his etching of the Artist drawing from the Model were less easily corrected. The print exists in two states but was never finished (Bartsch 192, Hind 231; for the first state, see 1895,1214.111, and for the second, 1973,U.995). It has been suggested that the image was always intended to be left unresolved, but we believe that most of the evidence, including that provided by the drawing ( Cat. no. 24), in which the composition is complete, argues otherwise.

These two drawings lack the pentimenti, or revisions, found, for example, in the pen-and-ink sections of the Lamentation ( Cat. no. 9), in which Rembrandt was still evolving the composition. Similar revisions are to be observed in a preparatory sketch for another print, the Portrait of Jan Cornelisz. Sylvius ( Cat. no. 37). Almost burying in a flurry of lines, Rembrandt begins to articulate the gesture employed in the etching (Bartsch 280, Hind 225; see 1973,U.984), in which the sitter’s right arm is thrust beyond the fictive oval frame that surrounds him. The stylistic similarity of the red chalk sketch of the Sacrifice of Isaac ( Cat. no. 10), in which the flurry of lines still wrestles to define the postures of the main protagonists, provides one reason for adhering to Otto Benesch’s view that the drawing preceded both the painted versions of the composition of 1635 and 1636, now in St Petersburg and Munich (Bredius 498, Corpus A108 and the latter’s Copy 2, fig. 6). We therefore believe that the drawing is indeed by Rembrandt himself, an opinion by no means universally held. [10]

 Clearly, the purpose of a drawing can radically affect its appearance. The late study of a Coach (Cat. no. 55) is also related to a painting but contains only a few corrections, and for good reasons – it was probably made from life. A similar vehicle appears in the background of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback in the National Gallery, which probably commemorates the sitter’s presence in the procession at the entry of William III into Amsterdam in 1660. The patron could have requested the artist to include the coach in the painting.

Rembrandt’s pentimenti are also clearly observed in the corrections he made to drawings by his pupils. His former student, Samuel van Hoogstraten, described and recommended this activity to all masters of a workshop. If his advice was widely heeded, it compounds the problems of identifying those drawings that Rembrandt himself retouched. In the present catalogue, two are so described (Cat. nos 71and 72), but with different degrees of confidence in this judgment. Rembrandt could have corrected his own drawings; his pupils may have corrected their own drawings; and if Rembrandt’s pupils also corrected their own pupils’ drawings, the modern cataloguer has to contend with an especially difficult array of possibilities. Any judgment often has to be made on the basis of only a few strokes of the pen.

The stylistic variations we have charted, at their most extreme between preparatory drawings and those made as works of art in their own right, exist at every period of Rembrandt’s career. The contrast between the Portrait of Jan Cornelisz. Sylvius ( Cat. no. 37) and the Esau selling his Birthright to Jacob ( Cat. no. 34) clarifies these variations further: vigour is replaced by delicacy of line, and generalised indications – for the head, or the hands – are supplanted by a greater attention to detail.

The Esau and Jacob is a distinguished example of Rembrandt’s abilities as a narrator. The story is from Genesis: the hunter, Jacob, recognisable by his weapons, succeeds in persuading the exhausted and ravenous Esau to exchange his birthright for ‘some bread and a pottage of lentils’. Their agreement is signalled by the handshake and their eyes meet in an expressive exchange as Esau falls on his food. If their features and characters seem sharply defined, they are delineated with minimal means, with a few, carefully judged strokes of the pen. Rembrandt concentrates on the gestures and expressions. The table and background are barely indicated, yet the image is finished in all essentials. The same drawing style is found in the Three Studies of an old Man in a high fur Cap ( Cat. no. 33), suggesting that the artist drew it as an independent work of art and not merely as a sketch for his own use in the studio.

The narrative economy of Rembrandt’s style was further refined in the 1650s. In the Absalom before David (?) (Cat. no. 47), subsidiary details are almost entirely suppressed. The Christ walking on the Waves (Cat. no. 48) is more elaborate, but succeeds in focusing attention on the main encounter between Christ and St Peter. The omission of the central section of the boat’s hull, leaving the paper untouched at this point, suggests Christ’s radiance, while the apostles behind are grouped so as to remain secondary to the main action. Nothing is left to accident and the drawing, despite its reticence, is a complete statement of the subject.

The same applies to the majority of Rembrandt’s landscape drawings, of which the Museum has an extensive series (Cat. nos 62–70). Yet a complete statement can still vary in character from the deliberate touch of the Bend in the Amstel River at Kostverloren ( Cat. no. 67) to the wispy calligraphy of the Farm seen through Trees on the Bank of a River (Cat. no. 68), or from the understated Landscape with Cottages, Meadows and distant Windmill (Cat. no. 64) to the more elaborate and broadly penned Road passing an Inn surrounded by Trees ( Cat. no. 70). Landscape became a chief concern in the drawings of Rembrandt’s middle years, from around 1645–55, and in around 1648 he responded to the influence of Venetian landscape draughtsmen, above all Titian and Domenico Campagnola. Though often thought to have been made as a relaxation, many of Rembrandt’s landscape drawings may equally have been inspired by economic necessity and immediately sold. The majority were drawn in the vicinity of Amsterdam and could have found a ready market among local collectors. In the present collection, however, Rembrandt’s slighter, less obviously marketable landscape drawings are represented more strongly.

At first sight, this description also seems appropriate for the Museum’s portrait drawings. Yet although portraiture forms a major constituent of Rembrandt’s production as a painter and etcher, portrait drawings made by him were rare. Those already mentioned – the Maria Trip ( Cat. no. 23), the Portrait of Cornelis Claesz. Anslo ( Cat. no. 31), the Portrait of Jan Cornelisz. Sylvius ( Cat. no. 37) and the Self-Portrait ( Cat. no. 1) – are exceptions, and apart from the latter they are all preparatory for other works. The sketches that he made of members of his household, including Saskia (seen in bed in Cat. no. 15) or the study of a Woman in Dutch National Costume ( Cat. no. 16) are only related to portraiture at a tangent. His subjects’ physical or physiognomic appearance was not his chief concern. In the late drawing of a Young Woman seated in an Armchair ( Cat. no. 52), the pentimenti and the Renaissance costume suggest that it was also made with a particular biblical or historical subject in mind and not as a portrait. Only in the Young Woman sleeping (Hendrickje Stoffels) ( Cat. no. 51) does the collection possess a finished portrait, albeit of an unconventional kind. But here again, the main interest is not in portraiture in the sense of a record of likeness. Taking the exceptional step of using the tip of the brush throughout, Rembrandt experimented in the realisation of an image with yet fewer strokes than usual. The white of the paper becomes as suggestive of form and atmosphere as the touch of the brush. This lends the drawing a luminous and experimental character that may partly explain why, as noted above, it subsequently sank into obscurity. It was a style that his pupils, whose works are represented in the collection in considerable strength, could not closely imitate. [11]

Returning from this late drawing to the Self-Portrait of 25 years before, some stylistic features seem to have remained constant: the understated description, the delicacy of touch and the slight sense of impatience with subsidiary details. Similarity is however not to be confused with uniformity, and as the British Museum’s collection reveals, Rembrandt is the most unpredictable draughtsman, reminding us of the famous remark made by Gainsborough of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned eight of the drawings in this catalogue: ‘Damn him! How various he is!’.


  • ^ [8] - See the comparative illustrations in Benesch and in Exh. London, 1992, cat. nos 62, 63 and 67. Exceptionally, Rembrandt included the landscape behind the Four Orientals seated under a Tree (Cat. no. 56), one of the most elaborate drawings in the series.
  • ^ [9] - Artists such as Parmigianino and the Carracci produced such drawings only as a much smaller proportion of their total oeuvres.
  • ^ [10] - Doubts are expressed in the Corpus of Rembrandt’s Paintings – see here under Cat. no. 10.
  • ^ [11] - The nearest attempts were made by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (see Van den Eeckhout, cat. nos 9, 10 and 11 [and the attributed drawing, no. 18] and Sumowski, 3, 1980, under no. 782xff.).
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