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Art review: 'Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference' @ Getty Museum

December 13, 2009 |  9:30 pm
Rembrandt Bust of an Old Man c.1629-30 For artists, drawing is thinking made visible. Pencil, crayon, chalk or ink put to paper is a way for the brain to connect to the hand through the eye. As artistic thought evolves, so does the image on the sheet. And the more that thought deepens and matures, transforming the general into the specific and lifelessness into dynamism, whether subtle or bold, the more profound and moving a drawing gets.

Seventeenth-century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn is famous for many things, one of which is establishing a popular taste for paintings that depict old men and women. The work pictures people who personify a condition of seasoned thought. Is it any wonder Rembrandt developed that for himself through the lifelong practice of drawing?

An exceptional show at the J. Paul Getty Museum puts Rembrandt's drawings under a magnifying glass — literally, in fact, in galleries equipped with those hand-held lenses for close study of the artist's renderings. (Not for nothing was the microscope perfected in 17th century Holland, where seeing closely and intimately became an obsession.) The aim is to compare Rembrandt's with drawings by his most important students — 15 of the roughly 50 he is known to have taught over his four-decade career.

Getty curator Lee Hendrix and her colleague Peter Schatborn, former head of the prints and drawings department at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, have assembled 103 works. About 70 are or were at one time attributed to Rembrandt, but scholarship since the 1970s has revised those opinions. Fifty-four drawings are here identified as being by Rembrandt, with one still a matter of dispute. The show is an exercise in and demonstration of connoisseurship.

And it's deftly organized to show visitors how those distinctions between Rembrandt's drawings and his pupils' can be discerned.

Jan Lievens Bearded Old Man in Profile c.1631 Rembrandt is one of those artists about whom questions of attribution have long been raised. The drawings can be especially difficult. His students labored hard to mimic his achievement. Sometimes Rembrandt “corrected” their renderings by drawing over their work. In the casual atmosphere of the studio, completed drawings by master and pupils would often be intermingled. And Rembrandt's own work also evolved as years went by, so the standard of visual measurement is always changing.

Also, these drawings were rarely signed. Affixing a signature was common for a painting or a print — a way for an artist to say, “Finished.” A drawing, by contrast, is typically a thought still in the process of unfolding. Why sign that?

A few Rembrandt drawings are indeed signed, though, while some are definitively linked to paintings or etchings he made. These provide firm visual benchmarks for measuring which unsigned works are by Rembrandt and which are not — which are by his youthful colleague Jan Lievens, from his hometown of Leiden, or by such gifted pupils as Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius or Nicholas Maes, who flocked to his studio in Amsterdam after he became such a roaring success.

The Getty show opens with two drawings and an etching from 1646 that let you know what you're in for. All three feature the same standing male nude, and all three were once claimed to be by Rembrandt.

Now, he's thought to have made the etching by drawing directly into the plate, while the others are believed to have been made by Fabritius and Samuel van Hoogstraten working beside him from the same live model with pens, brushes, brown ink and white gouache. Succinct but informative labels point out the subtle yet inescapable differences. Superficial resemblances fall away, and three distinct artists emerge.

The introductory gallery continues with examples of Rembrandt's common materials and techniques, providing a lexicon for the remainder of the show. Then, the fun begins.

Rembrandt Houses on the Bulwark The Rose c.1645-50 The exhibition is organized into 15 individual sites, one for each friend or student, with works mostly shown in pairs. A Rembrandt is always installed on the left, with a similar work by another artist to its right; labels below articulate the distinctions.

Happily, this isn't a game of “guess the Rembrandt,” but a skilled study in artistic nuance. And more often than not, nuance, refinement and delicate elaboration are what differentiate Rembrandt from the other mostly gifted, finally inferior artists.

That's odd to say in the vicinity of a wonderful artist like, say, Fabritius, who marries Rembrandt's dark contours to his own inventive use of a slippery, zigzag line that dissipates into atmospheric light. But there you have it.

Abraham Furnerius A House on the Bulwark The Rose c.1645-50 Sometimes it's simple to see the difference. Rembrandt and Willem Drost might go out into the countryside together to sketch, but they come back with drawings of the same scene that couldn't be more different. The hatch marks on a cottage thatched-roof differ from the hatch marks on a wall in the Rembrandt — variations in mark thickness, line spacing, pen pressure, etc. — but essentially they're  uniform in the Drost.

For Drost, a hatching is a hatching. For Rembrandt, a hatching is a roof, a wall, a doorway, a shadow, a pattern of dappled light — which is to say, a panoply of different things.

Drost's drawing is lovely, an astute description of a place. Rembrandt's is different, a description of what it's like to be in a place where the breeze rustles trees, light moves across the landscape and your eye moves in and out of tactile space, rather than reading the surface of objects.

It happens again in the juxtaposition of Abraham Furnerius's stolid, handsome view of houses on an  Amsterdam street and Rembrandt's of a similar site, shimmering with tonal gradations that capture a sense of clouds passing across the sun. The Furnerius is like a marvelous moment plucked out of time. The Rembrandt peels like an onion, one impossibly thin and translucent layer at a time.

Midway through the show you might start feeling adept at identifying Rembrandt, and wondering why anyone might mistake that spotlighted rendering of Daniel in the dark lions' den by Constantijn Daniel van Renesse, or the frieze of Middle Eastern men by Arent de Gelder, as something by their infinitely more brilliant teacher. But if you do, go back to the first room and have a long look at the chalk drawings of old men by Rembrandt and Lievens.

Most were made when the ambitious young artists were in their early 20s and working off each others' energy in provincial Leiden, 30 miles southwest of Amsterdam. You'll start to get the hang of which artist is which — until you come upon one bust of an old man that is still an object of dispute.

Between 1629 and 1631, Rembrandt was Picasso, Lievens was Braque, and their work was engaged in tight conversation so close as to be virtually indistinguishable.  Scholars have spent a lifetime looking at them. The unanswered conundrum is a sobering moment in a magnificent show.

--Christopher Knight

Photos: Rembrandt van Rijn, "Bust of an Old Man with Folded Arms," circa 1629-30; Jan Lievens, "Bust of a Bearded Old Man in Profile," circa 1631; Rembrandt van Rijn, "Houses on the Bulwark 'The Rose,' Amsterdam," circa 1645-50; Abraham Furnerius, "A House on the Bulwark 'The Rose,' Amsterdam," circa 1645-50. Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum, Brentwood


Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, to Feb. 28. Tue.-Fri. and Sun. 10-5:30, Sat. 10-9. Closed Monday. Free. Parking: $15.

Related:

Rembrandt Rembrandt or not?
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