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Until the last quarter of the 19th C the chief ambition of the ambitious artist was to become a “history painter”. That is to become an illustrator of the human interaction and visual expression at touching moments. This was certainly the case with Rembrandt's ambition. He persisted in that ambition his entire life although there was clearly little market for that form of art in Puritan Holland.

In my opinion it is his superlative achievement in that respect that marks him out as a uniquely special genius. It is surely he who laid the foundations for our interest in body-language and psychological expression. It is here that the experts' Humpty Dumpty effect on Rembrandt needs to be reversed. Eisenstein in the cinema and his followers in method acting are among the many who have acknowledged Rembrandt as their chief guru.

Critics of the late 19th C were right to draw our attention to other forms of art but in ridiculing sentiment as a means of expression they have done grave and lasting damage to art and the human condition. This could be rectified by a thorough reappraisal of what Rembrandt stood for and which works can reasonably be assumed to be his. I am in favour of a much greater Rembrandt even when masterly work includes inferior passages that were invented, which he himself would have designated as “worthless” because not observed from nature.

Necessary Revisioning

My approach owes a great deal to Brancusi. He has made us all more aware of the abstract element in art. I think it would be true to say that no artist can be considered even of the second rank without subscribing to a tradition of form. Form is a vital ingredient of art. Form is nature simplified so that the human mind can comprehend and manipulate it.

Rodin very seldom subscribed to the simple Greek idea of the head. He followed a different tradition of form that we might designate as Roman (see Chapter 2). It made its way into Europe following ancient Roman conquests. Many great artists have followed the Roman tradition, possibly subconsciously. Rodin would have received its influence not only from the Roman work that abounds in Europe but from many French devotees from Gothic times onwards – Clouet and Houdon were masters of the Roman tradition, and in his own time – the mature Degas, Lautrec and Van Gogh stand out as relying upon it. Today's art critics and historians need to become more aware of this second tradition of form, which is, if anything, more prevalent than the Greek tradition because it is much more useful for analysing the complexities of nature. Because the Greeks saw all heads as eggs, their heads inevitably lack individual character.

More important than form is the development of a sense of structure. Structure is the logic with which multiple forms are held together. In sculpture structure is usually to do with the way the building blocks defy gravity. In archaic figures, for instance, the structure is the same post and lintel architecture as the temples they adorned. Classical form is based on the simplified geometry of cylinders and cuboids which underlie Greek classical sculpture. Their structure is defined by what we all know of the human body – what it can do, and what it cannot do. This is the form that art historians more or less understand. But Rembrandt found that the classical Greek tradition had descended into a stale academicism, moreover, it was too crude spatially to deal with the subtle psychologically explicit space-relationships that animate his dramas. The documents of his life give ample testament to his determination “to be taught by nature and no other law.” (for the full story see The Documents of Rembrandt's Life)


Rembrandt’s greatness as a draughtsman rests on his extension of the Roman tradition. Rembrandt studied the solid that was so exquisitely defined by the geometry of Holbein and the Romans and extended that geometry to include the intimate space that is so essential in reading psychological situations in the physical world. (See this video) Rembrandt not only owned 30 Roman portrait busts, he filled two books with studies of them! Alas, these books have been lost but clearly Roman portraits meant a lot to him. I came to Rembrandt studies through my interest in his drawing, fortunately unblinkered by the prejudiced stories of the experts.

If Rembrandt scholars could understand that this structuring of space is where Rembrandt’s greatness lies; we could return to the complete great master we once knew. Rembrandt’s style of “handwriting”, which so dominates Rembrandt studies today is quite irrelevant to his greatness. Added to which my Burlington Magazine article of Feb. 1977 demonstrated that their understanding of the development of Rembrandt’s style of handwriting is absurdly wide of the mark (See Hagar video). Forty years after my publication, instead of correction of those grave mistakes, we have the fantasies of the Getty catalogue Rembrandt and his Students, Telling the Difference (2009). A demonstration of the sad truth that the scholars still have no idea of how to distinguish a genuine Rembrandt drawing from his students. (See Hagar and the Angel  or Fake Drawing Praised).

Panovski, an influential 20th C professor of art history, cautioned his students not to fall in love with the artists - the subject of their studies. This sounds like good advice but it has been taken so literally that there is no indication in the Getty catalogue that today's scholars have any idea why Rembrandt has been regarded with such awe by artists for so long and in spite of the absurd reduction in his accepted works.

Expert recalcitrance has deprived generations of artists of the true Rembrandt, clearly the greatest master of human expression, body-language, and much else. If our visual culture has any relevance this must be rectified by public outcry because my persistent badgering has proved inadequate to the task.

On the cover of the Getty catalogue we see two very similar drawings of Hendrijcke, Rembrandt's mistress posing to find the pose for his painted masterpiece Bathsheba in The Louvre. The similarities between the drawings include: same model, same pose, same paper and ink used very similarly, same size of figure on the page. These two drawings have been separated on the whim of Mr. Schatborn, recently of the Rijksprinttenkabinet. He has re-attributed the better drawing, which I regard as a defining master-work by Rembrandt, to a minor student (Arent de Gelder) See Getty article. This exhibition had the support of two cultural entities we should be able to trust but the exhibition was culture-crushing rather than “ground-breaking” as the catalogue suggests. Nothing in it deserved serious consideration, the sheer lack of common sense and the arrogance in relation to previous scholarship is breath-taking. Nothing in it can compare with what I have to say about “telling the difference”. (click here for complete discussion of the two drawings)


Wading Woman

Rembrandt's painting of a Wading Woman in The National Gallery (London) is a good example of his use of the Roman three dimensional geometry investigated in chapter 2. It allows an analysis which is clear and simple. The paint is put on very broadly. The fact that the original oak panel on which it is painted shines through in some places suggests that it was painted fairly quickly. This was probably the way the mature Rembrandt normally started a painting. But in this case the start was so engaging that there was no temptation to take the painting any further. It is a sketch and a masterpiece of spatial unity. One understands exactly where the elbows are, where her head is and just how much space there is between the neck-line of her shirt and her cleavage. This is a portrait of Hendrjike Stoffels, the last love of Rembrandt’s life. He conveys the warmth of sensual love perhaps more potently than any other artist without the slightest lasciviousness. His Bathsheba, painted from the same model is the only comparable work. Here the luscious paint remains in touch with the physical reality in spite of the bravura of the performance, nor does the bravura smack of egocentricity as it often does with lesser artists. One feels every stroke of the brush as a precise caress. It is rare for such alla prima painting not to carry the message “Am I not a master” but magically Rembrandt avoids this. I can only guess to what extent these qualities are dependent on the geometry I am about to describe. If the geometry helps one understand the particular quality of this sketch that is sufficient.

We can discern that the neck-line of the chemise as it passes over her shoulders creates an isosceles triangle laid diagonally in space. Her elbows and her knee creates a larger, identical triangle parallel to the first. The carpet hanging behind her and the point at which the reflection of her leg hits the edge of the canvas suggests a third triangle. I even feel the suggestion of a fourth that would span the space from her chin to the back of her head. It is just suggested but the suggestion allows us to feel the volume of her head more palpably.

We cannot know whether Rembrandt was consciously aware of the geometrical links he was creating. I am prepared to believe that Roman geometry communicated itself to him subconsciously. I would put it no stronger than that. The soul has a longing for structure, The arts offer structure, whether it be in music, in poetry or visually. We don’t have to understand it, or give it a name. We need to feel it and when we feel it, we are satisfied by it. What is certain is this painting exercises a special power over most viewers and it has a simple geometric structure that may help one to understand its fascination.

Roman geometry such as has been demonstrated in Chapter 2 has been used by many artists to define solid volumes. The Wading Woman shows how Rembrandt uses geometry to define space as well as solid. This is his contribution to the art of drawing and the secret of his success in conveying human feelings. He understood that we read drama or psychological relationships through the space relationships of the actors, where previous artist had relied upon gesture and facial expression, which help but are not central. We understand what is happening on stage from the last row of the balcony through the pose and the relation of the actors in space where the face is but a blur. Rembrandt collaborated with the theatre in Amsterdam on several occasions and clearly shared with them an interested in how sentiment is conveyed.

Raphael would make studies of individual figures and then collage the studies together to tell a story. Rembrandt insisted on creating groups so that he could savour the effect by experiment and then observe the space relationship between the actors as he drew them. This sensible procedure is denied by the scholars who want us to believe that genius had no need of physical models as reference. By believing this they miss the point that one of the most serious drives of the artist is to discover how feeling is conveyed – simply reproducing what one already knows does not lead to enthusiasm.

Reality and Reflection

I discovered Rembrandt's use of live models and mirrors in 1974. With the help of Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich's the discovery was published in The Burlington Magazine in Feb 1977. A further article was published in Dutch in Rembrandthuiskroniek (1978), with the much the same content. The Observer newspaper headed its article on my discovery The Rembrandt Revelation. It was an article that required a paradigm shift from Rembrandt the inventor to Rembrandt the observer - yet so far there has been no shift from the scholars regardless of the overwhelming evidence.

My guess is that one example of the discovery will suffice to persuade most people that Rembrandt placed models beside a mirror and drew both the models and their reflection. See this video. However, I can show nearly 100 examples of various ways in which Rembrandt used mirrors to multiply his subject matter. The mirror must have been a large reflective surface because it sometimes reflects as many as 7 people. Glass of that size (8 ft. wide) did not exist in Rembrandt's day so it must have been either made of polished metal or a composite of many smaller mirrors mounted together. This gave an inferior quality of stimulus and accounts for the fact that Rembrandt's drawings from reflections are almost always inferior to those observed direct from life. See this video.

There is a matter-of-fact quality about the drawings made from reflection that makes me feel that Rembrandt did them only because they might come in useful later. In fact it was very rare for him to work from drawings. Rembrandt needed life in front of him as a stimulus to give of his best as a painter or draughtsman. Today's scholars may not be aware that they have a strong prejudice against observation - a practical and until the beginning of the 20th C, a normal artist's behaviour. The experts want us to believe that Rembrandt's Biblical subjects were based on “an inner vision”. They were not (see my Burlington article Feb 1977).

Because Rembrandt's mirror drawings can often be linked securely to better drawings of the same subject drawn direct from life, they give us a new key with which to decide which drawings are genuinely his in spite of their dimmer quality. All agree that Rembrandt was a very variable artist, the experts talk jokingly of Rembrandt's “Monday mornings”. I am suggesting something different and more permanent: we should take his contemporaries word for it. Rembrandt like many artists was an observer who disdained to invent See this video . His contemporary, Houbraken, reports that Rembrandt believed “one should let oneself be taught by nature, ... anything else was worthless in his eyes.” There are many examples among his drawings that seem to be deliberately telling us that parts of the drawing were “worthless” because they were not observed from nature.

The best instance of this is a masterpiece in The Louvre of Isaac Refusing to Bless Esau. The Isaac is Rembrandt at his very best. Isaac has all the qualities of the feebleness of old age propped up by pillows, his blindness and fatalism are wonderfully apparent. But the body of Esau is “worthless” by comparison, it has none of the sense of physicality we find in Isaac (I explain how this came about on YouTube linked above). Esau was there but on the other side of the bed. Rembrandt saw his head and shoulders but not his body. This is a useful example because it shows us the great Rembrandt and the lesser Rembrandt on one sheet. If the scholars could take this on board we could enjoy and learn from many more works by the master (approx 2,200 drawings). I regard this as an important masterpiece in spite of the lesser quality of Esau because of the astounding quality of Isaac. The scholars have not considered this drawing since 1922 when it was deattributed. Rembrandt here demonstrates his preparedness to do “worthless” drawing perhaps on principle.

There is one other subtlety in this drawing I will not mention because if you see it you will recognise it. Then be assured you would make an excellent scholar of The New School of Rembrandt studies.

Another example of the same drop in quality resulting from no models is a drawing of Jupiter with Philemon and Baucis where Rembrandt appears to be making a genuine attempt to illustrate a story, but without the live group in front of him. The result is very unlike his normal work. We know it must be his because, realising his failure as an illustrator, he has written the story on the page. Therefore, no one can doubt the drawing is one of his though it is of very disappointing quality, his usual spatial clarity is entirely lacking and the figures poorly realised. This drawing is nonetheless important because of what it tells us of Rembrandt's character as an artist: his inability to invent.

Rembrandt's need of a reference in the outside world as a stimulus is not unusual among artists but in Rembrandt's case the gap in quality between observed and imagined/invented is unusually great because of the outstanding quality of his observation and perhaps his need to demonstrate to his students that invention was not recommended. At Harvard, in an attempt to shoot down my explanation of Rembrandt's attitude a questioner claimed “In the 17th C they did not need still lives in front of them” when I asked him how he had come to such an idea he answered “they often painted flowers in one vase that were not in season together” NK “Flowers wilt, flower painters pick their blooms one at a time” - General consternation among the scholars! This shows how scholars will find reasons, however absurd, to show how in the olden days artists were so well trained they had no need of models or flowers to work from!

Unfortunately, my discoveries invalidate most of the last 100 years of Rembrandt scholarship. It is easy for me to convert the unprejudiced observer but I have not won over any Rembrandt specialists nor any of their senior students. They refuse to even talk to me. I was once invited to participate in a symposium on Rembrandt in Leiden. My supporters felt I had won hands down; I have never been invited since. Not quite true; I made so many points as a paying member of the audience at a symposium at the Wallace collection that the head curator was more or less obliged to offer me a chance to make my whole case as a lecturer. An event to which none of the established scholars came.

This matters because Rembrandt's work has steadily been eroded by the scholars who misunderstand him entirely. Furthermore, their judgement is so poor that they have dismissed many flawed masterpieces in spite of the true greatness they contain (as in Isaac and Esau above).

They have built a creative personality for Rembrandt which is contradicted by his own statements and by those who knew him. They want him to be an inventor where we are told over and over that “he would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes” That is he relied on drawing or painting from observation of life. This would account for why he painted so many self-portraits: as his mirror image was always available when models were not. This reliance on observation is contrary to modern beliefs about art. Today's experts believe that great artists did not need models. They have cut down Rembrandt to make him conform to their mistaken beliefs – their beliefs are contradicted by a mass of evidence in The Documents and in the works themselves.

This matters to artists because Rembrandt is the old master who has most to teach observers today. As a student of art in the 1950's I was probably in the majority in believing this. Now because of the doubts that have been created by scholars, students no longer look to him for guidance. They cannot be sure whether they are looking at a Rembrandt or a minor student. In my opinion art has gone off the rails mainly because of this unjustified down-grading of Rembrandt, both his work and his philosophy. He was a magnificent signpost to artists that has been all but destroyed by recent scholarship.

When I spoke of my discovery at Harvard, the world centre of Rembrandt studies in 1978, I was received with the utmost hostility and no scholar has taken the slightest notice since. The scholars have rejected evidence that more scientific thinkers have accepted not simply as theory but as fact. My efforts to make the debate more public have been successfully thwarted. The scholars are not to be trusted with our cultural inheritance.

Ammunition for Rebels

The chances are that if you have been a student of Rembrandt in a department of art history since 1977 you have been misguided away from Konstam's view as unworthy of debate. For those who dare to challenge their teachers on Rembrandt as observer rather than an imaginative inventor here are some pointed questions to ask.

  1. How do you reconcile the many statements from those contemporaries of Rembrandt who said such things as “he was taught by nature and by no other law” “he had a wonderful talent for reproducing concrete subjects” (Roger de Piles) “He would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes” (Houbraken), with Benesch's suggestion that he drew his biblical and mythological groups “from an inner vision, as if he had seen them in reality”?
  2. How can one continue to believe in Benesch's system of dating drawings when he separates drawings such as those for the Hagar series by as much as 20 years when they are clearly drawn from the same group of live models? (see link to Hagar)
  3. Surely Konstam's mirror demonstrations (Burlington Feb.1977) are a much better explanation of the abrupt changes of style and quality found in all three categories of Rembrandt's work - the paintings, drawings and the etchings.
  4. In the inventory of 1656 of Rembrandt's possessions we find many plaster casts of limbs hands and feet also a head painted by Rembrandt himself to resemble life. Does this not indicate an artist requiring reality, or an adequate substitute as a stimulus - an observer rather than an inventor?
  5. Baldinucci wrote that as a portraitist Rembrandt needed 2 or 3 months of sittings... surely this indicates an artist deeply attached to the appearances of nature.