Oud Holland

Review of: 'Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings' (2019)

November 2021

Review of: Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding, Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings, Cologne [Taschen] 2019

During 2019 – the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt (1606-1669) – Taschen published two impressively large, lavish companion volumes, with colour reproductions of all the artist’s works in paint, drawing and printmaking. They are available in editions of German, Dutch, English and French.1 The publisher designates the format of these books XXL, and rightly so. Each book stands at 39.5 cm. and opens to 61 cm., when lying flat. The volume devoted to drawings and prints, under review here, weighs 6.8 kilos and comes in a sturdy cardboard carrying case outfitted with a plastic handle. One will not be consulting this book in bed or on a lap, and it is no surprise that, if one searches the internet for ‘Taschen XXL’, offers for book stands and cradles show up before the books themselves (fig. 1).

The texts and selection of canonical works in Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings are by Peter Schatborn, emeritus head of the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, for the drawings, and Erik Hinterding, currently Curator of Prints in the Rijksprentenkabinet, for the etchings. The 707 drawings,and the 314 etchings, are presented in separate sections. Each section begins with an essay on Rembrandt’s practice as, respectively, draftsman and printmaker. Reproductions of the works are grouped by subject – biblical, mythological and historical scenes, portraits, nudes, animals, landscapes and so on – although the categories for the drawings and those for etchings are not all the same. Each subject group is introduced by a brief text, followed by images of the works in roughly chronological order. The reproductions are accompanied by captions with ‘tombstone’ information (title, date, media, dimensions, repository and inventory number). Captions for prints also include the New Hollstein catalogue number,and those for drawings that are studies for paintings or etchings, add a summary reference to the catalogue numbers of the related works. Therefore, catalogue number D1, a figure study for the 1628 painting of Saints Peter and Paul, in Melbourne, is identified as ‘Study for cat. P37’, while number D2, the model for the etching Saint Paul in meditation,c. 1629, as ‘Design for cat. E73’ – P and E numbers being those for paintings and etchings, in the new Taschen volumes. The absence of extended commentary on individual drawings and prints is a conspicuous difference from the volume on paintings, which includes catalogue entries on all 329 works accepted by the authors, as well as many more comparative illustrations.4

The spacious page size and generous page count enabled the designers to reproduce many of the drawings and etchings larger than actual size, and in some instances considerably larger. This rejection of a longstanding, and widely respected convention in the publication of works on paper will understandably upset some specialists,but there are also obvious advantages to examining certain works at an enlarged scale. Some of the ink and wash landscapes have never looked better in reproduction. A good example is West gate (Utrecht gate) in Rhenen (no. D603), illustrated about twice its actual size. Other types of studies, most conspicuously the small heads and landscape sketches executed with soft black chalk, do not reproduce well when enlarged: the lines blur and darker accents become translucent, and lose their force. The etchings and drawings are printed on different papers – a white paper with semigloss finish for prints, which conveys their wiry lines and dense hatchings quite accurately, and an imitation laid paper with fine ribbing for the drawings, which is less successful. The ridges in the paper impart a false texture that distorts details and interrupts the continuity of the delicate lines, especially in the works executed with a very light touch, such as the Getty Museum’s Landscape with the house with little tower (D552), or View from the dunes to the Saxenburg estate and Haarlem, in Rotterdam (D550).

Left: Cover of Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings.

Middle: Cover and spine of Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings.

Right: Interior of Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings.

Within his texts, Schatborn repeatedly insists on a close connection between Rembrandt’s drawing practice and the production of his paintings and etchings. Rembrandt selected his subjects and the types of studies he drew, “according to their significance for his paintings and etchings” (p. 1). He not only drew for practice, but “the drawings were also indirectly intended as preparation for other works.” And, again, on the same page: “Drawings were also always intended as preparation for other works and might in some cases be used in either etchings or paintings, but they could also be created especially for that purpose” (p. 17). This last sentence will leave readers of the English edition scratching their heads, and this is not the only place where Schatborn has been poorly served by his translator and editor. Since only about 50 of the 707 drawings in this book served as direct preparatory studies for an etching or painting, the statement that, “drawings were […] always intended as preparation for other works” requires clarification. The author surely meant that many drawings served as rehearsals or practice for finished works, but this should not be confused with the function of a preparatory study, which was followed closely on the canvas, panel or etching plate.

For example, during his early years in Leiden, Rembrandt drew from life, single figures of beggars and other destitute persons, and these clearly aided him in the representation of similar types in his early prints. But hardly any served as direct preparatory studies. Similarly, during the 1640s and early 1650s, Rembrandt produced nearly all his drawings and etchings of landscapes. Most works in both media represent the countryside he encountered on his walks outside Amsterdam, and a few even show the same sites from different viewpoints, but with only one controversial exception – the drawing D550 and the etching Cottage with the white paling (E185) – none of the drawings qualify as a true preparatory study for a print.It would be nice to dismiss this as merely a semantic matter, though a decade ago, disagreement about what constitutes a preparatory study led to the publication of two very different lists of Rembrandt’s documentary, or core, drawings.In this context it is worth noting that several of the works identified in this volume as preparatory studies are not included in the list of core drawings published in 2011 by Schatborn and Martin Royalton-Kisch.8

Additionally, as Schatborn notes elsewhere in the text (pp. 25-26), most of the narrative compositions catalogued here under ‘Biblical, mythological and historical scenes’, were not intended as preparatory studies for works in other media, but instead as exercises in arrangement of figures and emotional expression. They also served as models for his students, who invented their own compositions illustrating literary narratives.

Schatborn’s introductory text, which is aimed at the general reader, does not address the question of authenticity or how he arrived at the 707 works presented here as the complete body of drawings by Rembrandt. During the past 50 years, Schatborn has led an effort to revise the canon of Rembrandt’s drawings as defined in the six-volume catalogue raisonné by Otto Benesch, which was published in 1954-1957 with an expanded, second edition, edited by the author’s widow, in 1973.Benesch’s catalogue has remained the standard reference, but soon after the publication of the second edition Schatborn noted that, “there is considerable disagreement as to the attribution of a large number of Benesch’s Rembrandt drawings.”10 In the following decades, he and other specialists – Werner Sumowski, Jeroen Giltaij, Martin Royalton-Kisch and Holm Bevers – demonstrated that the Benesch corpus of 1.384 works is far too generous, inflated by the inclusion of many sheets of good quality, which are attributable to Rembrandt’s pupils. The 707 drawings endorsed by Schatborn in this volume, represent a 50 per cent reduction of the Benesch corpus.11 (A concordance of Schatborn numbers and Benesch numbers is provided).

Does this drastic reduction in the number of Rembrandt’s surviving drawings call for a commensurate revision of our understanding of his drawing practice?

That the study of the nude model played a role in the training offered in Rembrandt’s workshop is well documented in literary sources and archival documents – the 1656 inventory of his possessions lists an album full of drawings by him of male and female nudes – and by the survival of dozens of drawings. Benesch attributed to Rembrandt six studies of male nudes and nearly forty of female models. Schatborn rejects all the male nudes and retains only six of the female nudes, including one that is a pupil’s drawing with possible corrections by the master. While Rembrandt participated with his students when they drew from models, he must have staged these sessions primarily for the pupils’ benefit. Schatborn published his conclusions about Rembrandt’s studies of nude models long ago, and they have also been incorporated in publications as Rembrandt and his pupils: Telling the difference, and Rembrandt’s naked truth.12

Far more significant to our understanding of Rembrandt’s practice has been the attribution to pupils of most of the sketches of biblical, mythological and historical subjects that make up part of Benesch’s volume I, all of volume III and much of volume V. These are independent compositions, mostly executed in ink or ink and wash, that were not studies for paintings or prints but were executed for practice and instruction. Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1628) advised young artists that, “[t]he way to become certain and assured in composition is that one should become accustomed to making many sketches and drawing many histories on paper”, and he exhorted to masters, “when they look over the drawings of their pupils, to improve them by making studies of the same subjects.”13 Van Hoogstraten’s recommendations evidently reflect the training he received in Rembrandt’s workshop, where pupils were encouraged to draw narrative histories, often taking a work by Rembrandt as their point of departure, and Rembrandt sometimes redrew a subject, to show them how to improve their efforts. Benesch misunderstood the function of these studies. If he saw two or more contemporaneous drawings illustrating the same text, he assumed that they represented variant ideas by Rembrandt and attested to his persistent search for the most effective figural arrangement and expressive gestures to tell the story. In Benesch’s Rembrandt corpus, drawings of this type make up nearly one-third of the total; about 475 of the roughly 1.400 he catalogued. A critical examination of these sketches by Schatborn and others concluded that most fail to meet the technical standard we expect of Rembrandt – and are in fact the work of pupils responding to the master’s challenge to invent compositions illustrating an event in the Bible, or ancient literature. In the Taschen volume, Schatborn retains about 110 of those included by Benesch, and he adds only three, which were unknown to him. As in the case of the nudes, the re-attribution of so many of these drawings to pupils underscores the extent to which the role of drawing in his workshop was to support instruction, as opposed to supporting the production of his paintings (pp. 19, 25-26).

Left: Rembrandt, Diana bathing, c. 1631, black chalk, some brush in brown on paper, 18.1 x 16.4 cm., The British Museum, London, inv. 1895,0915.1266..

Middle: Rembrandt, Woman sitting half dressed beside a stove, print, 22.5 x 18.6 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. RP-P-OB-256..

Right: Rembrandt, Nude woman, seated by a stove, c. 1661-1662, pen and brown ink, with brown wash and opaque white, over traces of black chalk, on light brown account-book paper; framing line in brown ink, 29.2 x 17.5 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. RP-T-00-227.

Given the myriad challenges present in determining the authorship of Rembrandt’s drawings,14 there will never be complete consensus about the exact size and content of his drawn oeuvre. The canon presented by Schatborn – the product of five decades of research – is far more consistent and more authoritative than the Benesch corpus and will provide a basis for further study. A lively dialogue has already been begun with Royalton-Kisch, who has studied Rembrandt’s drawings nearly as long as Schatborn has. After retiring in 2009 from his position as Deputy Keeper in the Department of Prints and Drawings, in the British Museum, Royalton-Kisch started the website ‘The drawings of Rembrandt: a revision of Otto Benesch's catalogue raisonné’ (rembrandtcatalogue.net) – to which he began posting in 2012. His goal is not only to revise Benesch’s canon, but to add entries on drawings unknown to Benesch, or wrongly rejected by him. Thus far, he has published – in Benesch’s number order – revised and expanded entries on more than 500 works catalogued by Benesch, as by Rembrandt. He meticulously cites the published opinions of other specialists, so one can easily follow where he and Schatborn have agreed or disagreed. While Schatborn wasn’t able to add commentary and present arguments for Rembrandt’s authorship of a drawing; Royalton-Kisch often elaborates at length on the reasons for his conclusions, and the degree of certainty or doubt about the strength of an attribution. A quick check reveals Schatborn and Royalton-Kisch disagree on about 10 per cent of the drawings that were catalogued by Benesch, and about 20 per cent of drawings presented by Benesch.

Matters of attribution that characterise the study of Rembrandt’s drawings, have hardly been an issue in the study of his prints. Ever since Edmé-François Gersaint’s (1694-1750) posthumously published a catalogue in 1751, the number has been rather consistent. The predominant issue in print studies, has been Rembrandt’s technique. Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719) put to words, what must have been a common opinion among admirers of Rembrandt’s prints: “one cannot imagine in which way they were done.”15 The question became of urgency for scholars and printmakers in the nineteenth century and remained an important topic during the twentieth.16 Another salient line of research that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, is the iconography of Rembrandt’s prints.17 Hinterding, together with Jaco Rutgers – the compiler of the New Hollstein volumes on Rembrandt and therefore without a doubt the most important specialist – presents his views on both subjects in the section on prints.18 Rembrandt’s technique, materials, experimentation and marketing are discussed in the introductory essay, while matters of iconography are presented in shorter sections that introduce: biblical and mythological scenes, nudes, genre scenes, landscapes, self-portraits, portraits, tronies, study sheets and an assorted section of various ‘Etchings reworked by others’, mostly containing tronies and self-portraits.

Hinterding’s introduction is a variant on a text he published in Dutch in 2011.19 It is concise and comprehensive and will be much used by students. Hinterding convincingly argues Rembrandt etched, inked and printed his own plates, and shows how he experimented with different kinds of paper, using the papers as a marketing tool to create normal and deluxe editions. Based on the instructively selected plates, he describes how Rembrandt evolved as a printmaker, by setting new goals and finding entirely original solutions to problems he encountered. He shows that while the young, inexperienced Rembrandt needed many states to achieve his ambitions, by his later years he had learned to employ multiple states to prolong the life of the copper plates, and to simultaneously serve as a marketing tool. Both ideas were unprecedented. Rembrandt’s own innovative use of drypoint, which enabled him to add more tone to his prints than regular etching had allowed for, made his later copper plates more vulnerable to wear. His quest for tonality, followed from his desire to capture different materials and textures and render nuances of light and shadow, after he realized that dense etching alone resulted in a flatness he wished to avoid. Another aspect of Rembrandt’s work – his lightly sketched etchings – relating to his drawings more so than to his paintings, receives much less consistent attention. Still, Hinterding regularly highlights how Rembrandt the painter and Rembrandt the draftsman, are related to Rembrandt the printmaker, because each was preoccupied with similar issues. Surprisingly, this is a relatively recent approach that offers new perspectives and deserves to be explored further.20

The introductions to the iconographical themes are too short to explain how Rembrandt engaged with pictorial traditions, to elaborate on the functions of the different genres, or to provide new information for individual prints. Instead, Hinterding relates the prints to Rembrandt’s drawings and paintings, which is a helpful approach when space is limited – because too often these media are separately discussed. For example, Hinterding compares the development of biblical prints to the similar evolution in Rembrandt’s paintings, from more expressive action in the early period to inward contemplation in the later works, while the nudes are connected to Rembrandt’s practice of studio drawing. In his discussion of the tronies, Hinterding refers to paintings and drawings that represent the same individuals, and he argues that the old man and woman who appear so often in his work are most likely Rembrandt’s father and mother, posing as models. He also points to Rembrandt’s immediate social circle as the source for most of his portrait etchings, although he does not note that the clientele for such prints was different from that for his biblical subjects, genre scenes and landscapes, which must have been intended for a wider audience. The study sheets are seen as crabbelinge (scribblings, or informal exercises), comparable to drawings on paper, and the small number of impressions indicates these were not made for publication. Hinterding briefly discusses the history of the interpretation of the large group of genre prints, which mainly date to the early years of Rembrandt’s career. They have been understood as either satirical, which best fits the tradition of images of beggars, or serious and empathic. Hinterding sides with those scholars who defend the latter view. Similarly, he presents the discussion about the function of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in period costumes as exotic tronies or as self-aware attempts to align himself with older colleagues like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

The final section, ‘Etchings reworked by others’ (E298-E314), presents several prints Hinterding attributes to Rembrandt’s workshop. Although Rembrandtesque in appearance, with the artist’s own summary etching under the work of another artist and printed on paper from batches that he used as well – they are, however, not by his hand. Hinterding gives them to Rembrandt’s one-time collaborator Johannes van Vliet (1610-1668). Much more needs to be said about this intriguing category, but a book like Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings, is not the place for the in-depth study of these and other studio products, such as flawed and experimental works like the beggar prints E101, E104 and E105. Hinterding’s introduction makes abundantly clear that one of the things that set Rembrandt aside from all other printmakers before him, was his use of states. Understandably, the different states are not described or illustrated in the catalogue. Here, one state of each print has been selected, usually from the Rijksmuseum. Two states are shown for the prints that have been fundamentally altered, such as the Three crosses from 1653 (NH 274), for some counter proofs, such as the portrait of Jan Wttenbogaert from 1639 (NH 172), and for those which Rembrandt worked up with black chalk, like the Self-portrait in a soft hat and patterned cloak from 1631 (NH 90) from the British Museum and the Louvre. The concordance with the New Hollstein volumes duplicates the inclusion of the NH number and state number given for each print, though the concordance with the Bartsch numbers is quite handy.

To summarise, the publisher has done well to invite Schatborn and Hinterding to compile the catalogues of Rembrandt’s drawings and prints, so that the most recent insights find their way to new audiences, for them to decide to agree or disagree. Just who the audiences of this physically unmanageable prestige-object will be, remains a little unclear, but it is to be hoped that many find their way to this up-to-date introduction of Rembrandt’s graphic work.

William W. Robinson
1 The companion volume devoted to Rembrandt’s paintings is: V. Manuth, M. de Winkel and R. van Leeuwen, Rembrandt: The complete paintings, Cologne 2019.

2 Text on the dust jacket claims there are 708 drawings, though I count 707. There are 700 D numbers and seven late additions represented by “a,” “b” and “c” numbers: D94a; D420a-c; D421a; D466a; D598a.

3 E. Hinterding and J. Rutgers (compilers) and G. Luijten (ed.), The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts 1400-1700, Rembrandt, 7 vols., Ouderkerk aan den IJssel 2013 (in cooperation with the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

4 See: C. Brown, ‘Review of Rembrandt: The complete Paintings and Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings’, in The Burlington magazine 162, July 2020, pp. 630-32.

5 J. Turner, ‘Review of Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings’, in Simiolus 42, 2020, no. 1-2, pp. 146-56.

6 For Schatborn, the drawing D527 is the only direct study for a landscape print Cottage with the white paling (cat no. E185), but the drawing is rejected and attributed to Constantijn van Renesse by Martin Royalton-Kisch, rembrandtcatalogue.net (not in Benesch, Benesch C041).

7 P. Schatborn, ‘The core group of Rembrandt drawings, I: Overview’, Master drawings 49, no. 3, 2011, pp. 293-322. M. Royalton-Kisch and P. Schatborn, ‘The core group of Rembrandt drawings, II: The list’, Master drawings 49, no. 3, 2011, pp. 323-46. P. Schatborn and S. A. C. Dudok van Heel, ‘The core group of Rembrandt drawings, III: Supplement’, Master drawings 49, no. 3, 2011, pp. 347-51. For Gary Schwartz’s more expansive view of the core group, see:http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/301-rembrandt-s-core-the-drawings/ and http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/302-did-rembrandt-really-not-use-drawings-for-his-paintings-and-etchings/#more-149

8 See note 7 above, for the core list. The following were not on the 2011 list of core drawings, usually because Schatborn and Royalton-Kisch did not agree on their attribution or function as preparatory studies. D5 (Benesch 101), related to the etching Beheading of John the Baptist E298. Royalton-Kisch (rembrandtcatalogue.net Benesch 101) has some doubts about the attribution of the drawing (“Rembrandt?”). D28 (Benesch A20). Related by Schatborn to the painting P57 John the Baptist preaching. Royalton-Kisch (rembrandtcatalogue.net Benesch A20) doubts the attribution of the drawing (“Rembrandt??”). D47 (Benesch 93) designated by Schatborn a study for P15, Blinding of Samson. Royalton-Kisch (rembrandtcatalogue.net Benesch 93) is uncertain about a direct relationship to the painting. D48 (Benesch 363). Related to Concord of the state, P123, but not on Core list. Royalltoin-KIsch (rembrandtcatalogue.net Benesch 363: “clearly a preliminary idea” for the foreground horseman in Concord of the state. He and Schatborn decided not to include it on the core list because of the problematic drawing on the verso) D78 (Benesch 737) Study for E 149 The Spanish gypsy woman “Preciosa” .D80 (Benesch 567). Design for P 67 The holy family. D82 (Benesch 581). Design for the lost painting Circumcision and presentation in temple, known from a copy in Braunschweig. V. Manuth, “’Rembrandts Beschneidung Christi in München: Entstehung und Funktion’, T. Wilberg-Vignau (ed.), Rembrandt-Zeichnungen In München: Beiträge zur Austellung Rembrandt auf Papier—Werk und Wirkung, Munich 2003, pp. 114-124. D90 (Benesch 1071) as a study for E 51 Christ preaching (The hundred guilder print). D334 (Benesch 423 recto). On the 2011 core list as a study for the etching E89 The artist drawing from the model (Pygmalion), but the caption in the Taschen volume does not include a reference to the print. D527 (Benesch C41). Here designated as a study for the etching E177 Cottage with the white paling, but not on the 2011 core list because Royalton-Kisch does not accept the attribution to Rembrandt (rembrandtcatalogue.net “Not in Benesch” Benesch C41: “Renesse? Rembrandt??.”).

9 O. Benesch, The drawings of Rembrandt: First complete edition in six volumes, London 1954-1957. O. Benesch, The drawings of Rembrandt (Second edition), E. Benesch (ed.), London and New York 1973.  

10 P. Schatborn, ‘Review of The drawings of Rembrandt (Second edition)’, in Simiolus 8, no. 1, (1975-76), p. 34.

11 Benesch catalogued drawings on the recto and verso of a sheet, under the same catalogue number. In the Taschen volume, recto and verso of the same sheet are given two catalogue numbers, sometimes widely separated because the subjects are different. If Schatborn had catalogued rectos and versos under one number, the total he accepts as authentic would have been 663 instead of 707.

12 H. Bevers, L. Hendrix, W. Robinson and P. SchatbornDrawings by Rembrandt and his pupils: Telling the difference, Los Angeles 2009, pp. 13-19. and cats. 41-43. J. Noorman and D. de Witt (eds.), Rembrandt’s naked truth: Drawing nude models in the Golden Age, Amsterdam 2016, pp. 30-43, and 143-55.

13 S. van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de hoge schoole der schilderkonst: Anders de zichtbare werelt, Dordrecht 1678, pp. 191-92.

14 P. Schatborn and W. Robinson, ‘The history of the attribution of drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils’, in Drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils: Telling the difference, Los Angeles 2009, pp. 31-41. W. Robinson, ‘Review of Holm Bevers, Zeichnungen der Rembrandtschule im Berliner Kupferstichkabinett: Kritischer Katalog’, in Master Drawings 58, no. 1 (2020), pp. 115-16.

15 A. Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, Amsterdam 1718-1721, vol. I, p. 271.

16 For example: C. White, Rembrandt as an etcher: A study of the artist at work, New Haven and London 1999. E. Hinterding, G. Luijten and M. Royalton-Kisch, Rembrandt the printmaker, Zwolle/Amsterdam 2000. R. Fucci, Rembrandt’s changing impressions, Cologne 2015.

17 Recent examples are: S. Dickey, Rembrandt: Portraits in print, Amsterdam, 2004. P. van der Coelen, Rembrandts Passie. Het Nieuwe Testament in de Nederlandse kunst van de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw, Rotterdam 2006. C. M. Rosenberg, Rembrandt’s religious prints: The Feddersen Collection at the Snite Museum of Art, Indiana 2017. 

18 Hinterding and Rutgers 2013 (note 3).

19 E. Hinterding, ‘The incomparable Reinbrandt: Rembrandt als onafhankelijk prentmaker in zeventiende eeuws Amsterdam’, in E. Kolfin and J. van der Veen (eds.), Gedrukt tot Amsterdam. Amsterdamse prentmakers en uitgevers in de Gouden Eeuw, Zwolle 2011.

20 For Hinterding, it seems to follow from his participation in the exhibition and catalogue on the late Rembrandt, see: J. Bikker (et al.), Rembrandt: The late works, London, Amsterdam, New Haven 2015. In the recent study of the early Rembrandt, this more integrated approach has been abandoned, see: C. Brown (et al.), Young Rembrandt, Oxford 2019.
William W. Robinson, ‘Review of: Rembrandt: The complete drawings and etchings’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2021.