Oud Holland

Review of: ‘Rubens, Rembrandt and drawing in the Golden Age’ (2019)

August 2022

Review of: Victoria Sancho Lobis, with an essay by Antoinette Owen and contributions by Francesca Casadio and Emily Vokt Ziemba, Rubens, Rembrandt and drawing in the Golden Age, New Haven [Yale University Press] 2019

Of all the disciplines within art history, the field of research in Old Master Dutch and Flemish drawings is one of the most conventional. When researching drawings that predate 1800, the first and foremost question remains: who created the drawing? Matters of authorship and attribution may be complicated by the lack of signed drawings and can often only be resolved by specialists who have been studying drawings for many years. This, effectively, causes the discipline to be fairly closed off. Furthermore, publications about such Dutch and Flemish drawings tend to be traditional in nature. In addition to the predominantly monographically-oriented articles in the journals Master drawings, delineavit et cculpsit and Oud Holland, collection and exhibition catalogs on drawings, often describe a group of them from a specific period or relating to a particular theme. A catalogue of Old Master drawings traditionally opens with an introduction about the history of the collection, followed by a series of entries in which drawings are individually discussed. Such object-based publications are of great importance in presenting collections of drawings to a wide audience and making them accessible for further study – particularly because drawings are often stored in museum depots, and therefore, form an invisible and often forgotten part of a museum’s collection.1 This format for publications on Old Master drawings is, however, somewhat predictable.

Fortunately, the study of old Netherlandish drawings has broadened in recent years. More attention is being paid to functions and iconography, while material-technical research on paper and the use of drawing materials has gradually become more common.2

The book under review is consistent with this trend. Rubens, Rembrandt and drawing in the Golden Age was published in conjunction with an exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2019-2020.The exhibition and publication mark the latest in a series of major initiatives dedicated to exploring important areas of the Art Institute’s drawings collection, which include publications devoted to American, British, French and Italian works on paper (p. 8). This is also the first time that the Netherlandish and Flemish drawings from the collection, have been highlighted so extensively. The main author of the catalogue and curator of the exhibition is Victoria Sancho Lobis, a specialist in Northern European drawings who was a curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago, and who currently serves as Director of the Benton Museum and Associate Professor of Art History, at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Cover of Rubens, Rembrandt and drawing in the Golden Age.

Left Hendrick Goltzius, Two male heads after the antique, the sons of Laocoön, red chalk, 16x25.2 cm., Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, inv. no. 2014.983

Middle: Jacques de Gheyn II, Two studies of a Roma woman and a Roma boy in a large hat, pen and black iron gall ink on tan laid paper, 23x26 cm., Two Studies of a Roma Woman and a Roma Boy in a Large Hatinv. no. 1959.2

Right: Lambert Doomer, Horseman and hunter in the woods of Doorwerth, near Arnhem, pen and brown ink and brush and brown and grey washes, 23.3x41.1 cm., inv. no. 2017.20

Sancho Lobis wrote this book with two main explicit objectives in mind (p. 9). First, she aims to present the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of Netherlandish and Flemish drawings from 1550-1700. In this respect, the book ties in with the traditional organisation of a collection or exhibition catalogue of drawings. The format, however, differs from the traditional catalogue due to her second objective: introducing the history of Dutch and Flemish drawings from this period. The book seeks to provide an ‘alternative narrative of Netherlandish art’, Sancho Lobis writes, in which drawings take centre stage, for a change –not paintings – as is the case in the dominant art-historical narratives for early modern Dutch and Flemish art (p. 22). This is an ambitious objective, though simultaneously refreshing, as an introduction to Dutch and Flemish art of drawing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries does not, at least to my knowledge, exist.4 A total of 110 drawings from the Art Institute of Chicago were selected, and instead of being described one by one in this book, they have been grouped – thematically – based on their particular roles.

In the first chapter, Sancho Lobis begins with the basics: who were the artists that drew and why? Which materials and techniques did they use, and for whom were their drawings intended? In the following chapters, she focuses on the various purposes of drawings in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the Netherlands. The topics covered successively are as follows: drawing as an essential component of an artist’s training; drawings by Dutch artists in Italy; drawing from live models in the workshop, creating figure studies; drawings depicting Biblical and mythological scenes ‘from the spirit’ (uit den geest); and drafted designs for prints, paintings, stained glass and book illustrations. This is followed by a comprehensive chapter about landscape drawings – ranging from studies for personal use to autonomous works of art. The book concludes with a brief chapter on the afterlife of drawings in the collections of later collectors. These drawings were stored in portfolios or albums, framed, folded, or provided with collectors’ marks or annotations. Several drawings in the book received conservation treatment, while others were subjected to material technical examination. The subsequent results have been incorporated into the book. The technical analysis of a drawing by Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), for example, has been included as a case study – a winter scene in pen and brown ink and various watercolours – that provides insight into his use of materials and working method (pp. 35-41). The appendix about paper types in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Netherlands (written by Antoinette Owen), and an extensive glossary with terms related to drawings and prints and paper conservation, tie in well with the introductory, generalised nature of the book. It also includes an appendix with photographs and descriptions of watermarks that were found in the drawings.

The technical details such as measurements and use of materials, inscriptions, marks, provenance, exhibitions and literature have been incorporated in the ‘catalogue of drawings’, listed alphabetically by artist name. The designer cleverly chose to print this ‘catalogue of drawings’ on orange paper, making it easy to distinguish from the rest. One drawback, however, is that this unillustrated catalogue does not contain references to the images of the drawings in other parts of the book. And because these appear scattered throughout the book, the reader is forced to search the pages for them or consult the index first. Conversely, browsing the catalogue is sometimes necessary because the captions accompanying the illustrations do not include drawing techniques or measurements, even though that information would contribute to a better understanding of the depiction.5

The orange colour of the catalogue portion is repeated in the flyleaves, the chapter titles and the page numbers. This colour was undoubtably chosen because it corresponds perfectly with the colour of the cover, which shows a detail of Two male heads after the antique by Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617), executed in red chalk (cat. 33). It is a good choice as the fresh orange gives the book an appealing appearance, particularly in combination with the more than 200 colour images, and the spacious areas left for texts. The broad margins do result in smaller images. Those who wish to study the drawings more closely are advised to consult the museum’s online catalogue while reading, as this allows them to zoom in for a detailed view.6 The titles of the chapters and paragraphs are apt and at times particularly original. For example, ‘The smell of stone’ (p. 92) is about the Dutch interest illustrators had in antique sculpture in Rome, and ‘The mobile studio’ (p. 247) is about seventeenth-century artists who set out to draw the local landscape.

Thanks to her extensive knowledge of the art of drawing, Sancho Lobis has managed to convincingly present the various motivations of artists for making drawings: from study drawings in the workshop and on their travels, to design drawings and meticulously detailed works that were intended for the free market. Writing ‘an alternative narrative of Netherlandish art’ based solely on one collection does, however, pose constraints due to the occasional absence of relevant examples to illustrate a particular development. Lobis resolves this by not striving for a complete overview; choosing instead to focus on certain areas within the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago – and thus, within the sixteenth and seventeenth-century art of drawing.

For example, in the chapter ‘Under the master’s watchful eye’, she concentrates on the apprentices’ drawings in the workshop of three important artists: Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651), Rubens (1577-16740) and Rembrandt (1606-1669), with most of the focus on Rembrandt and his apprentices, as that narrative can be properly illustrated with drawings from the collection. In the chapter ‘The imperative of Italy’, which covers drawings made on artists’ travels to Italy, she focuses mainly on Hendrick Goltzius and Rubens. Other Italy-goers, such as Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1667) and Jan Asselijn (c. 1610-1652), do not enter the discussion until the chapter covering landscape drawing. Within the chapter ‘From imagination’ – about figure studies and the depiction of scenes from the Bible and mythology – she reviews drawings by, among others: Goltzius, Bloemaert, Cornelis Dusart (1660-1704), Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674), Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), Jacques Jordaens (1593-1678), Jan van Huysum (1683-1749) and the eighteenth-century artist from Bruges, Jan Anton Garemyn (1712-1799). Creating a coherent narrative that incorporates drawings by such a wide variety of artists, is no easy feat. The author describes them in the overarching themes ‘figure’, ‘composition’ and ‘arrangement’, which is indeed effective.

I have one observation about a specific drawing, namely Two male heads after the antique, the sons of Laocoön by Goltzius, of which a detail is depicted on the book’s cover. I would like to propose another date for that image than the one stated in this book. In his 1961 monograph about Goltzius’ drawings, Reznicek regarded the image as a free study of one of the two heads of the sons of Laocoön. Based on the style, he dated the drawing late in Goltzius’ oeuvre and remarked that according to Arnoldus Buchelius (1565-1641), the artist owned a bronze cast of the sculpture, after a copy by Bandinelli (1488-1560).7 In doing so, he suggested Goltzius used this copy as an example. As Reznicek did before her, Sancho Lobis also puts forward a later date (c. 1605) and suggests that Goltzius may have been inspired by the aforementioned cast, or another example (pp. 104-105).8

I believe it is more likely that this study in red chalk belongs to the large group of study drawings that Goltzius made during his stay in Rome in 1590-1591 and did not occur much later.9 Given their lifelike quality and chiaroscuro treatment, the heads appear to have been drawn from the original sculpture, as opposed to a bronze cast. Thanks to a drawing of the Laocoön in the Teylers Museum, we know that Goltzius did indeed study the famous sculpture in person.10 In Rome, Goltzius made drawings in black and white chalk on blue paper and second versions of some of these studies in red chalk. The latter were frequently executed in great detail for the purpose of printmaking at a later date, which is indeed what happened with three of them.11 The drawing in Chicago is, however, not intended as a print design but as a study drawing, which to my mind explains the free use of the red chalk (and not the fact that the drawing would have been made much later). Two other Roman drawings in red chalk are also more freely executed, while Goltzius also applied black chalk more freely in some of his Roman studies, particularly in the background.12

Notwithstanding this small observation, Rubens, Rembrandt and grawing in the Gold Age is a compelling book with a refreshing concept. Thanks to the multitude of topics covered in the book, with a core focus on the purposes of drawings between 1550 and 1700, this book can rightly be referred to not just as a collection catalogue, but also as a welcome introduction to the various roles of sixteenth and seventeenth Netherlandish and Flemish drawings. This book deserves not only to be consulted by specialists in search of a specific drawing in the Art Institute of Chicago, but also by a wider audience of art afficionados and students.

Yvonne Bleyerveld, Senior Curator of Drawings and Prints at the RKD, The Hague; Endowed professor of ‘Art on Paper and Parchment’ at the Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University


Translated from the Dutch to the English by Wendela van den Broek.

1 It is good to note that the increasing number of online catalogues contributes significantly to accessibility of museum’s drawings collections. Drawings that have yet to be published but can already be found online can provide specialists on drawings with some wonderful discoveries.

2 See for an excellent overview of the state of research up and until 2016 Judith Noorman, ‘Drawn into the Light. The State of Research in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Drawings’, Wayne Franits (ed.), The Ashgate research companion to Dutch art of the seventeenth century, New York 2016, pp. 321-337. Two exhibition catalogues about drawings with a refreshing point of view are: J. Noorman and D. de Witt (eds.), Rembrandt’s naked truth. Drawing nude models in the Golden Age, Amsterdam 2016; G. Luijten, P. Schatborn and A. K. Wheelock Jr, Drawings for painting in the age of Rembrandt, Paris 2017. In addition, in 2017 the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NICAS) and the Rijksmuseum initiated the project Drawing out Rembrandt, in which material-technical examination was conducted with several partners of Rembrandt’s ink drawings, in order to develop a new way of looking at drawing as a process, see: https://www.nicas-research.nl/projects/drawing-out-rembrandt/

3 From 28 September 2019-5 January 2020.

4 A good introduction to the seventeenth century, northern Nederlandish art on paper – not only drawings but also printmaking – is provided by E. Runia, The glory of the Golden Age. Dutch art of the 17th century.drawings and prints, Amsterdam 2000.

5 This applies to the drawings from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Drawings from other collections are occasionally illustrated, in which case, the drawing technique and measurements have been included.

6 See: https://www.artic.edu/collection.

7 E. K. J. Reznicek, Die Zeichnungen von Hendrick Goltzius, 2 vols., Utrecht 1961, vol. 1, no. 422. See for the bronze cast idem, no. 209.

8 Giltaij also followed Reznicek’s theory and dated the drawing c. 1610, see J. Giltaij, Le Cabinet d’un amateur. Dessins flamands et hollandais des XVIe et XVIIe siècles d’une collection privée d’Amsterdam, Rotterdam/Brussels 1976-1977, no. 62.

9 Most of the Roman drawings can be found in Teylers Museum in Haarlem, see: Y. Bleyerveld and I. M. Veldman, The Netherlandish drawings of the 16th century in Teylers Museum, Leiden 2016, nos. 84-137 (entries and a comprehensive introduction on this group of drawings by I. Veldman).

10 (note 9) no. 99, also depicted by Sancho Lobis, p. 104.

11 Bleyerveld/Veldman 2016, p. 103.

12 See, for Roman red chalk drawings that have been more freely executed idem, nos. 95-96.

Yvonne Bleyerveld, ‘Review of: Rubens, Rembrandt and drawing in the Golden Age', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2022.