BY ALEXANDER WOLF
We can thank Rembrandt for the difficulty in discerning between his drawings and those of his students. As was common practice, his pupils imitated the master’s style as closely as possible.
Luckily, since the influential Parisian dealer E.F. Gersaint first took up the cause in the 1730′s, Rembrandt experts and enthusiasts have dedicated themselves to accurately attributing the drawings that came out of Van Rijn’s workshop, which number in the thousands.
Organized by a group of specialists including Holm Bevers, Lee Hendrix, William W. Robinson, and Peter Schatborn, “Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through February 28, is an up-to-date showcase of these experts’ substantiated findings, which have never been so stunningly displayed.
Most of the exhibition-which will not travel further than the Getty due to the value and fragility of the works- is divided into sections displaying a group of Rembrandt drawings beside related drawings by one of a core group of pupils. At first this order to the show may seem heavy-handed, or at least it did to me. But how better to demonstrate the stylistic differences- and, in most cases, shortcomings specific to each artist next to Rembrandt?
By presenting the drawings in pairs (one by Rembrandt, one by a pupil), the curators have succeeded in creating a certain rhythm to the show, and more importantly in demonstrating the gap between the earnestness of the students-some of whom produced a number of inspired drawings- and the ingenuity of the master.
In their catalogue essay titled The History of the Attribution of Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils, Peter Schatborn and William W. Robinson outline their most recent approach to the task of accurate attribution: “First assemble all of the relevant material, including drawings attributed to Rembrandt’s pupils as well as to Rembrandt himself. Next, identify a core group for Rembrandt and for each of the pupils that consists of signed drawings and studies for autograph paintings and etchings.”
Finally, “using explicit arguments and a rigorous process of comparison, introduce to the oeuvre drawings whose style and technique are consistent with those in the core group.” This logical method is not out of step with the history of procedures developed to confidently attribute these drawings; it is this last step, of course, where discrepancies have taken place in the identification of these artists’ not always distinctive styles.
The drawings by Rembrandt’s students exhibited here often seem more finished than the drawings by Rembrandt that they are paired with. Constantijn Daniel van Renesse (1626-1680) reworked one exercise in chalk, ink and wash from 1649, when he became Rembrandt’s pupil, until 1652. It is an Old Testament scene showing Daniel, a displaced Jew in Babylon, thrown to the lions. Van Renesse borrows from a Rembrandt depiction of the same scene drawn around the same time, but in terms of their approach to this narrative, Rembrandt and his student are worlds apart.
Van Renesse pictures Daniel kneeling in prayer, with several of the lions either sleeping or moping around him. The pupil’s lions are proportionately awkward; he had probably never seen a lion (Rembrandt, on the other hand, had firsthand knowledge of the big cats, as we know from his life-like sketches of North African Berber lions). Whereas Van Renesse built up layers of ink wash throughout his composition, creating an austere but fussy, washed-out atmosphere, Rembrandt used far fewer lines to render the same scene in greater suspense.
In Rembrandt’s version, one lion roars at Daniel while another affectionately rubs its face against the prisoner’s shoulder, dramatizing the scene while also hinting at his impending rescue. Later in the exhibition, a small group of works drawn by pupils, and later corrected by Rembrandt in white gouache, furthers the sense that drama realized through the composition was at the heart of Rembrandt’s teaching.
In the most exquisite comparison at the Getty, Rembrandt and his student Arent de Gelder (1645-1727) have pictured the same seated female nude, during the same drawing session, from opposite angles. In De Gelder’s version, we see her seated on an ottoman in the foreground, half of her back illuminated, with the suggestion of a stove providing the necessary warmth at right (Samuel van Hoogstraten, another Rembrant pupil, wrote in his 1678 treatise on art about apprentices who enter drawing schools “in order to draw male or female nude models from life by warm stoves”).
From Rembrandt’s perspective, the model’s sun-lit torso is focused at the center of the picture. She is comfortable (she could well be asleep) facing the floor with her feet placed one in front of the other. The distinction between Rembrandt’s drawing and De Gelder’s lies in the master’s probing of certain forms where his pupil has settled for ambivalence. The model’s little hat, for instance, is rendered by Rembrandt with a few swirls that capture the accessory’s squat shape more closely than De Gelder’s overlapping lines, which could well be overlooked as cropped locks of her hair.
In a drawing by Van Renesse entitled Rembrandt and His Pupils Drawing from a Nude Model (c. 1650), some students in this crowded studio struggle to capture the model’s pose, while others maneuver to see what Rembrandt is putting on paper- legs crossed, confidently fixed on the tablet in his lap. In his catalogue essay, Holm Bevers concludes that “even if this is not a totally accurate record, reality could not have looked so very different.”
It is incredible to imagine the increasingly clear picture of Rembrandt’s life and career that these scholars have deduced- sometimes by pouring through auction and estate records, but more often by looking long and hard at these very drawings. The Getty show therefore serves not only as a re-evaluation of which drawings are by Rembrandt and those which are by his students. It is also a fine example of an increasingly rare breed of exhibition that aims to captivate museum-goers through the wonders of connoisseurship.
Alexander Wolf is a regular contributor to Modern Painters. He has written for Old Masters, New Perspectives and The New Republic. He lives in New York City.