BY ALEXA SUSKIN
The adage “those who can’t do, teach” could not be applied to the master artist and teacher Rembrandt van Rijn. In the Getty Center’s current exhibition “Drawings by Rembrandt and his Pupils: Telling the Difference,” now on view through February 28th, the drawings of Rembrandt and some fifteen of his pupils are examined on an individual level to determine their authorship and find stylistic clues of the master’s teaching methods.
It is believed that Rembrandt’s taught over fifty artists in his studio, from 1634, until his death in 1669. Some of his pupils including Ferdinand Bol, Nicolaes Maes, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Arent de Gelder and Govert Flinck, are showcased along with their master in this exhibition. By showing side-by-side comparisons of works depicting the same subject, the sometimes-minute differences between the works of Rembrandt and those of his pupils are made more apparent. “Telling the Difference” is a centuries-old problem. In Rembrandt’s close-knit workshop many finished paintings would have been touched by many hands. However, in these drawings, most quite small and many unfinished, the individual hand of each artist is rendered in its most pure form.
As a teaching tool Rembrandt and his pupils would sketch the same model or the same scene. Rembrandt also made drawings for his students to imitate. In a drawing by his pupil Contantijn Daniel van Renesse, Rembrandt is depicted in the center sketching a reclining female nude, while his pupils peer over his shoulder at his technique, and strain to look at their own drawings and their subject at the same time. In contrast, Rembrandt is all ease and confidence as he draws on his propped easel.
Rembrandt’s drawings are sparse depictions, a few lines and shadows to indicate form, light and shade. Perhaps this was a result of his sheer artistic genius, or due to the volume of sketches he undoubtedly created in his studio. The real mastery of his art, however, was his ability to create tone and energy with just a few marks of his pen. By comparison, many of the works of his pupils are carefully drawn, detailed and modeled.
In a drawing by Nicolaes Maes of an “Old Woman Asleep,” the cross-hatching to depict shadows on her dress and headdress is delicately rendered, and her face is gently modeled with fine lines and shadows. A drawing by Rembrandt of nearly the same subject shows great energy in the lines that make up his “Old Woman with a Large Headdress’” costume. Though the drawing is little more than a carefree sketch, the overall effect is no less evocative than Maes’s more finished drawing, but it conveys a livelier tone. In the exhibition, these two drawings are placed next to one another, making the contrast between them quite evident.
Low light and dark wall coverings in the exhibition space heighten the details of the drawings. Each pupil and Rembrandt pairing is given its own space for study, with several works by each displayed. For the most part the pairs of drawings are of the same subject, occasionally even the same model or landscape, so it is clear they were executed concurrently. A projection on one wall of the exhibition showcases details of works by Rembrandt and his students, breaking down the drawings into lines or single forms, to highlight the small discrepancies between the works.
Very few of these drawings are signed, so the burden is left to scholars to use visual clues to determine works by Rembrandt from those of his pupils. Rembrandt’s superior handling of line, even in his barest sketches, is often apparent. His mastery of light and shadow, often indicated by the use of wash, is also indicated in the exhibition as one of the trademarks of his drawings. His depiction of nuanced gestures, often showing a figure in the midst of a motion, is also characteristic.
Although many of his students became masters in their own right, most of the sketches shown here reveal them at the nascence of their development. We find carefully constructed compositions, deliberate lines and shadows, and a lack of spontaneity and artlessness that is present in the works of their master. They are beautiful and technically proficient drawings, but show that the students were still in the process of learning from Rembrandt’s artistic genius.
“Drawings by Rembrandt and his Pupils: Telling the Difference” is an important exhibition for scholars and art lovers who will benefit from the immense research done by curators Holm Bevers, Lee Hendrix, William W. Robinson and Peter Schatborn. Recent scholarship to develop the systematic criteria to authenticate Rembrandt drawings is an important development for lovers of the Dutch Golden Age, and this exhibition showcases these advances in an exceptional manner.
“Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference”
is now at the J Paul Getty Center, December 8, 2009–February 28, 2010 [Exhibition website here]