Three men being beheaded; the executioner with raised sword is about to behead a man kneeling at l, at centre the body of a man lies with head severed, to r two officers lead another man to execution. c.1640 Pen and brown ink


© The Trustees of the British Museum

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Department: Prints & Drawings

Registration number: 1860,0616.130

Bibliographic reference
Royalton-Kisch 2010 32 (Rembrandt)
Benesch 1973 479
Hind 1915-31 55

Dutch Roy XVIIc

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Object types
drawing (scope note | all objects)

paper (all objects)
drawn (scope note | all objects)
Production person
Drawn by Rembrandt (biographical details | all objects)
1640 (circa)
Schools /Styles
Dutch (scope note | all objects)

Three men being beheaded; the executioner with raised sword is about to behead a man kneeling at left, at centre the body of a man lies with head severed, to right two officers lead another man to execution. c.1640

Pen and brown ink, corrected with white; framing lines in pen and brown ink.

Verso: see Inscriptions.

Watermark: Basel crozier in crowned shield, resembling Voorn 1 (1640) and Tschudin 226 (1637), but with letters 'HD'.

Inscription Content: Lower right, in pen and brown ink (possibly by Antonie Rutgers Az., 1695-1778)*: 'Rembrandt fect: ['t' is in superscript]'; verso, in graphite: '5 [in a circle]'; '16 [underlined]' and lower left 'No.219 [?] /Pf20'.

* See Haarlem, 1997, p.308 (and Lit. under Curatorial Comment).

Height: 153 millimetres
Width: 226 millimetres (chain lines horizontal, 26mm apart)

Probably trimmed along right edge; greyish stains where attached to mount; slight foxing.

Curator's comments
Entry from Martin Royalton-Kisch, ‘Catalogue of drawings by Rembrandt and his school’, 2010, Rembrandt, cat. no.32.
The subject of the drawing is uncertain. The executioner and his victim on the left resemble, in reverse, their counterparts in Rembrandt's etching of 1640, 'The Beheading of St John the Baptist' (Bartsch 92, Hind 171). Yet the Baptist is bearded and the figures' poses are far from identical. The relationship is further weakened by the presence in the drawing of the second figure being led to execution and the decapitated corpse in the centre.
This last feature is repeated in a sketch now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Lehman Collection, Benesch 478), where it is joined by two further severed heads. Some scene of multiple execution could have been the intended subject but a definitive identification remains elusive. The drawings might represent the 'Beheading of the Tarquinian Conspirators' as related by Livy, II, 4.[1] Yet it has been pointed out that in the Museum's drawing, the same models were employed for the executioner and prisoner in both the main groups.[2] Thus a single execution such as the Baptist's, represented in three stages, could equally have been in Rembrandt's mind.
The New York drawing repeats the left-hand figure group but seen from the side. It appears to have been made by another artist, perhaps Ferdinand Bol, at the same sitting as the present sheet. This suggests that they were made from the life, perhaps in some studio re-enactment, rather than the imagination.[3] Two other related sketches appear on both sides of a sheet in the Rijksmuseum (Benesch 482);[4] on the verso is a rapid outline of the two main figures on the left of the British Museum's sheet, in which the condemned man's knees point to the right rather than the left; on the recto is a slight sketch of the executioner, largely obscured by a later drawing of the 'Entombment'. These studies may have immediately preceded the British Museum's drawing, in which the details are more precise. A further sketch of a 'Kneeling Man' (Bayonne, Musee Bonnat; Benesch 477) is a study for the 1640 etching of the 'Beheading of St John the Baptist'.[5] In style it resembles the present drawing which should be dated to the same period.
The subject of the etching was treated by a pupil, probably Ferdinand Bol, in a drawing formerly in the von Hirsch collection (Benesch 480). This may be by the same hand as the Lehman study in New York referred to above.[6]
Finally, it has been noted that the right hand group resembles the three central figures in Rembrandt's earlier red chalk drawing of 'Christ shown to the People' in Dresden (Benesch 135).[7]

[1] Benesch, 1947 and 1959 (see Lit. below). Dickey, 1995 and 1996, has suggested that the drawing may represent sixteenth-century scenes of Mennonite executions, noting Rembrandt's closeness to Anslo at this period (for Anslo see cat. no.31, 1848,0911.138). This identification is supported by Haverkamp-Begemann (New York, 1999, no.77).
[2] Amsterdam, 1985, p.43 and Konstam, 1978, p.24.
[3] The New York drawing's attribution has been questioned by Schatborn (in Amsterdam, 1985, p.43, n.6). The draughtmanship is noticeably slacker and less incisive, rather in the manner of Bol, although allowance must be made for the later additions in grey wash. Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1678, p.192, mentions that biblical and other stories might be acted out in the studio, and the two drawings could have been made by Rembrandt and Bol(?) respectively, while watching such a scene. Another version of the subject by a pupil is in Turin (Valentiner 280; a copy is in the Louvre, inv. no.1265); a further school drawing is in Munich (see Munich, 1973, no.1168, and New York, 1999, p.243, repr. fig.77.2).
[4] Amsterdam, 1985, no.19.
[5] A variant of the Bayonne drawing is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Benesch 859), but as Benesch pointed out, this seems to date from a decade later. Both drawings, like the etching, show St John bearded.
[6] Sold in the John R. Gaines sale, Sotheby's, New York, 17 November, 1986, lot 18, repr. in colour, as Rembrandt. The drawing differs markedly in style from Rembrandt's own works of this period, such as the 'Jacob and his Sons' (Rijksmuseum, Benesch 541, dated c.1641 by Schatborn in Amsterdam, 1985, no.17), the 'Entombment' in the same institution, mentioned above, and the present sheet. For other school drawings of the subject, see Valentiner, I, 1923, nos.279-83 (no.278 is an early version by Rembrandt himself, Benesch 101 in the Louvre; it relates to the contested etching of the subject, Bartsch 93, Hind 308, that White and Boon, 1969, I, p.171, describe as by Rembrandt but reworked by a pupil; see Exh. Paris, 1988-9, no.7, repr., where it is dated c.1635; several writers have preferred an earlier date).
[7] Scheidig, 1962 (see Lit. below).

LITERATURE (always as Rembrandt; 'etching' refers to 'Beheading of the Baptist', Bartsch 92, Hind 171, of 1640):
Vosmaer, 1877, p.602; Middleton, 1878, p.203, under no.209 (left group resembles the etching; notes the study for the latter, Benesch 477); Dutuit, IV, 1885, p.86 (an 'Execution'); Seidlitz, 1895/1922, p.82/141, under no.92 (not especially close to the etching); Lippmann, IV, no.83; Kleinmann, IV, no.11; Bell, c.1905, repr.pl.XX; Hofstede de Groot, 1906, no.892; Wurzbach, 1910, p.417; Hind, 1912/24, under no.171 (follows Seidlitz, 1895, but sees Benesch 482 as a study for the etching); London, 1915, no.55 (c.1635-40; compares etching); Paris, 1933, p.50, under no.1265 (groups with Benesch 482 and 477; notes Turin version V.280 of which a copy in Louvre); Valentiner, 11, 1934, no.543, repr. (c.1640; perhaps depicts the 'Death of St James the Great'); Benesch, 1935, p.30 (1640; compares sketch on verso of Benesch 482, now Rijksmuseum); Benesch, 1935I, p.264 (resembles etching); Amsterdam, 1942, p.11, under no.25 (relates to Benesch 482 verso); Benesch, 1947, p.28, under no.109 (relates to Benesch 478 and 482 verso; suggests subject is 'Beheading of Tarquinian Conspirators'); Münz, 1952, II, p.98, under no.209 (attribution doubtful; Benesch 482 perhaps a study for the British Museum drawing); Benesch, III, 1955/73. no.479, repr. fig.600/635 (c.1640; compares to Benesch 477, 478 and 482 verso; represents 'Beheading of Tarquinian Conspirators'); Benesch, 1959, p.311, repr. fig.5, reprinted 1970, p.214, repr. fig.176 (elaborates on identification as the 'Beheading of Tarquinian Conspirators'); London, 1961, p.22, under no.187 (groups with Benesch 485a, 'Saul and his Sons', Seilern coll., following Isarlo in 'Arts', 125, 1947); Scheidig, 1962, p.44 and no.43, repr. (successive incidents represented; for the etching; see also text for n.8 above); Krönig, 1965, pp.102 and 108 (before the etching); Slive, 1965, II, no.532, repr. (c.1640, probably for the etching); Clark, 1966, pp.67-8, repr. fig.59 (for the etching; executioner based on Leonardo's 'Trattato' as illustrated under Poussin's direction, published only in 1651, but Sandrart had a MS copy in Amsterdam in 1637; similar figure in Benesch A18, 'Two Men slaughtering an Ox', Munich); Haverkamp-Begemann, 1966-7, pp.306-7 (perhaps based on Lucas rather than Leonardo and Poussin); Gerson, 1968, repr. p.465, fig.f (of 'Beheading of Baptist'); Neufeld, 1970, p.177, n.4 (successive incidents represented; for the etching); Exh. Vienna, 1970-71, p.78, under no.126 (relates with other sheets to the etching); Campbell, 1971, p.258 (perhaps inspired by Roman reliefs); Bernhard, 1976, II, repr. p.270; Broos, 1977, p.109 (quoting Clark, 1966); Konstam, 1977, p.94, repr. p.96, fig.34 (the two groups drawn from the same models; group in Benesch 478 in same pose but seen from the side); Konstam, 1978, p.24, repr. fig.1 (as in 1977); Amsterdam, 1985, pp.42-3, under no.19, repr. p.45, fig.19b (perhaps drawn from models posed in the studio; compares Benesch 482 and 478); Alpers, 1988, repr. fig.2, 17; Exh. Berlin-Amsterdam-London, 1991-2, pp.74-77, repr. fig.19e; Dickey, 1995, pp.59-60, repr. fig.8 (Mennonite martyrdom represented); Exh. New York, 1995-6, p.180 under no.73, repr. fig.96; Dickey, 1996, pp.96-8, repr. fig.6 (as Dickey, 1995); Haarlem, 1997, p.308 (inscription possibly by 'Abraham' Rutgers Az. [i.e. Antonie Rutgers Az.]); New York, 1999, pp.243-6, repr. Fig.77.1.

execution (all objects)

Acquisition date

Acquisition name
Purchased through Walter Benjamin Tiffin (biographical details | all objects)
Purchased through Christie's (Woodburn's sale, 14.vi.1860/1529 as 'Rembrandt, Van Rhyn - The beheading of prisoners - bistre wash') (biographical details | all objects)
Purchased from Samuel Woodburn (biographical details | all objects)
Previous owner/ex-collection Antonie Rutgers (probably) (biographical details | all objects)
Previous owner/ex-collection Fouquet (?) (biographical details | all objects)

Acquisition notes
Probably Antonie Rutgers Az. sale, Amsterdam, 1 December, 1778, lot 688; 'Een Onthoofding, met zeven Beelden, met de pen getekend', sold to Fouquet; Samuel Woodburn sale, Christie’s, 10th day, 14 June, 1860, lot 1529.

Exhibition History
London, 1899, no.A34;
1938, no.55 (c.1635-40);
1956, p.26, no.2 (follows Benesch, 1947);
Amsterdam, 1969, no.60 (1640; represents 'Beheading of the Baptist');
London,1992, BM, Drawings by Rembrandt and his Circle,no.35, repr. (as text under Curatorial Comment)

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