“Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference”
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rewards to be reaped; we just have to put on our thinking caps.
The focus of “Drawings by Rembrandt” is “the problem of attribution,” that is, learning to discern what is or probably is from Rembrandt’s hand and what isn’t. The reason why such an investigation is still necessary lies in the fact that Rembrandt operated a studio or workshop for nearly 40 years (first at Leiden, then in Amsterdam), and over the course of these four decades had a multitude of students. Some of them went on to achieve brilliant careers of their own and their names – such as Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol – may be familiar to the casual viewer. Jan Lievens, who is also included (and who was the recipient of a major retrospective this past year in Milwaukee), was more of a colleague than a student.
We could refer to the lot of them as Rembrandt and His Disciples. There are 15 artists with whom Rembrandt is paired, often with three or four examples by one of the students – and in every instance a drawing by the Master is placed besides a similar drawing by his apprentice. Of the 100-plus works on view, more than 70 are or were attributed to Rembrandt, and many of these have since been reassigned to other artists.
Back to the studio
As no one was prescient at the time, and did not anticipate that scholars would be scratching their heads 350 years later, almost all of the drawings produced were unsigned and undated. But why are they so hard to tell apart? Well, back then, one learned and honed one’s skill by copying the masters; that is, by imitating existing works and especially their teacher’s style and technique.
“Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils” represents 30 years of scholarship, and the exhibition is the brainchild of Lee Hendrix, the Getty’s Senior Curator of Drawings, and former guest scholar Peter Schatborn. They’re not the first to delve into the bottomless pit of authenticating every scrap of paper with even half a sketch on it, and for a little bit of background in the matter there’s a catalogue essay – “The History of the Attribution of Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils,” by Schatborn and William W. Robinson – that is greatly more interesting than it sounds. What could have been deathly dull is herein rendered appealing and accessible.
The essay states that the catalogue (and the show itself) “takes as its starting point the work by [Otto] Benesch, [Werner] Sumowski, and their successors,” and the methods for considering what’s authentic and what isn’t are carefully explained.
So how do we tell the difference? Well, it’s sort of like deciphering handwriting, in which one must do three things, over and over: Compare, compare, compare. This means, using an autographed version or confirmed original as the starting point for each artist, that one examines every single detail or stylistic flourish. In other words, the scholar-detective looks at line and color and hatching as well as how the artist delineated eyes, fingers, or feet and just about any other item that could be used as the basis to compare the work of one artist with that of another.
Some of the distinctions may be hard to follow, even after they’ve been pointed out. Sometimes, although the Rembrandt example may not look so appealing, the authors will explain why it’s a better work.
There are other questions as well: Were the pupils’ sketches after Rembrandt’s work made at the same time, or were they made later? Were the corrections on the drawings made by Rembrandt, an assistant, or by the pupil himself?
Occasionally we can see that Master and disciple made their sketches at the same time. For example, they often worked with live models, and in at least one instance – judging from the angle the model was depicted – we can tell where the artists were sitting in relation to one another. Of course, what will forever remain a mystery is what they discussed as they sat there with their sketchbooks. Since the models were often young women, did they flirt with them? Did they all go down to the tavern afterwards and have a few beers? Or did they simply get on with the next drawing?
As Holm Bevers writes in the catalogue, “Rembrandt’s workshop seems to have functioned more like an informal private academy, which sought to set itself apart from the rigid apprentice system of Holland’s predominant painting guilds.” It was possibly modeled on the Carracci academy in Bologna, which meant that conversations and debates about art were commonplace.
It wasn’t a studio into which just anyone could enroll. Rembrandt didn’t teach beginners; those who studied with him had acquired some training elsewhere. Also, in Holland at that time, the usual term of apprenticeship lasted three years and studying with Rembrandt wasn’t cheap as he’d already earned a reputation as a skilled artist. It may have been a lucrative supplemental source of income for him, but Rembrandt went through his own share of hard times. It should be pointed out that people who lived during those years rarely survived into old age. Rembrandt (1606-1669) may have made it into his 60s, but he also outlived his wife and mistresses and all of his children.
There are magnifying glasses in each room and it is advisable to make full use of them. The fascination here – one can still detect the pressure of the stylus on the sheet of paper – is similar to gazing through a microscope and seeing miniscule creatures in a drop of water.
As noted, the authors and curators can be tough on Rembrandt’s pupils, who are now being critiqued once more, 350 years after being critiqued the first time. I even feel sorry for some of them! Imagine if, a few centuries from today, a couple of androids take issue with one of your doodles, made while you were on hold with the phone company, and all because you’d taken a class some years earlier with David Hockney.
You never know who’ll be looking in!
The catalogue for the show is one of four books on Rembrandt and his work that the Getty has just published, including Rembrandt Drawings, by Seymour Slive, who authored the catalogue for the Jacob Ruysdael exhibition at LACMA in 2005. These are available in bookstores or through Getty Publications at (800) 223-3431.
Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference is on view through February at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. The show, which is non-traveling, is comprised of loans from over 30 institutions and private collections, with six pieces from the Getty’s own reservoir. A related show, Drawing Life: The Dutch Visual Tradition, is also on display. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free; parking is $15. See the website for related events. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER