Chapter Five


I have until now been so concerned with proving that Rembrandt used models that I have barely touched on the question of how he used them.

With the 'beheadings' we will see how Rembrandt makes an arrangement of three models and then draws the arrangement from two separate views (all in such meticulous detail that if he had intended them as working drawings from my reconstruction he could not have served me better).
Make video of Beheading
  If we look through all Rembrandt's drawings of the Story of John the Baptist we begin to understand Rembrandt's working method (see Pls.24a,b,c and Appendix B).  He seems to have stage-managed a pageant reconstruction of the whole event - from the scene at Herod's table to the final decapitation and return of Salome with the head.  The series resembles the still shots that a film director might make in preparation for the shooting of a film sequence.  The apparent rapidity of execution of some of these drawings might raise a question: perhaps Rembrandt was not the director but merely an observer of this religious pageant.  There is no doubt that he was an observer on some occasions (see van de Waal, 1974, p.74). I agree also with van de Waal that many drawings were made in the open air with the architecture of Amsterdam in the background (van de Waal, 1974, p.183).  But I am inclined for several reasons to regard this particular series as based on a studio reconstruction.  First there is the analytical nature of some of the drawings: Rembrandt could scarcely have frozen the action of a public event for the length of time needed to make two drawings.  Secondly, the kneeling figure of the Baptist occurs in isolation in numerous studies.  Thirdly, the architecture of Pl.24a is so strongly reminiscent of that in many other Rembrandt drawings, some of them of a secular nature, that I can only believe the series to have been made in Rembrandt's studio, home or workshop.

The position of the spectators in Pl.24b leads me to wonder whether they are not based on the Roman portrait busts (pl.24c).  The John the Baptist sequence is only the most extensive of many other such sequences in Rembrandt's work:  the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, the Dismissal of Hagar, the story of Joseph, the story of David, the story of Esther, the Prodigal Son, and - of course - very many sequences from the life of Christ.  The list might grow to include virtually all of Rembrandt's drawings of biblical subjects if we also allow the subjects of which only a few drawings survive.  Perhaps the most conclusive evidence in deciding whether these are 'studio' or 'public' events is the number of student works from the same tableaux.  If there are student paintings which clearly derive from the same stage-set, then we may conclude that these tableaux were arranged in Rembrandt's studio and that they were in place for a period of weeks if not months.

Each of the Biblical series listed above could merit a chapter on its own.  I will limit myself here to discussing only those matters which seem to throw light on Rembrandt's artistic character, or to challenge the ostrich position of present scholarship.  A great deal of Rembrandt research has been devoted to arguments over subject-matter: I believe that Rembrandt was flexible and capricious in the manner in which he 'turned' his drawings, and I am happy to leave such discussions to others.
Make video of JoBros

Let us consider the scale on which Rembrandt's tableaux were set up.  When we come to examine the two very finished drawings of Joseph's Brethren (Pls. 25a,b) we can note that there are a large number of figures, some of them very individual, and that they are so arranged in space and posture that we may rule out the use of a mirror for these particular drawings.  The central figures of Jacob and Benjamin in both drawings give us little reason to doubt that they are derived from the same two models.  But no sooner is this noted than one is struck by an extraordinary difference in the quality of their drawing.  In Pl.25a Jacob is drawn with the assurance we expect from Rembrandt.  Both central figures in Pl.25b are feeble by comparison: I account for the lack of quality here by suggesting that instead of drawing from life Rembrandt has copied, with minor variations, his own previous drawing.  But I think we can safely deduce that at some stage the two figures of Jacob and Benjamin were present in the scene.

We should also note that in both drawings these figures are placed in an arched recess and that the arch in Pl.25a bears a strong resemblance to the frame of the mirror outlined in the drawing of Geertje Dircz (Pl.21b).

Turning our attention to the two brothers on the right, we find that both are bearded and that each wears a hat.   The hat of the brother leaning back in Pl.25b is clearly similar to the hat of the nearer brother in Pl.25a.  It is not certain that the same two models were used for both drawings, but it seems more than likely that they were.  The erased portion of the leg in Pl.25a corresponds closely to the leg in Pl.25b.  The brother who leans on the back of their chair in Pl.25a can be identified as one of Rembrandt's regular models, but does not reappear in Pl.25b.  The large fat model, the next figure on the right, is another of Rembrandt's regular models - the innkeeper in the Good Samaritan series.  He can be positively identified twice in Pl.25b: once leaning against the wall to the left of Jacob, and again in a position close to the one he occupies in Pl. 25a.  But in Pl.25b he wears the hat and coat worn by the lean figure on the extreme left of Pl.25a!  The pattern of pleats on the back of the coat identifies it.  The lean brother appears a second time in Pl.25a (perhaps wearing the fat man's hat) to the right of his first position in the drawing.  A figure with a similar jaw and neckline is seen seated by the woman in Pl.25b.

Pl.25c is another drawing in the Jacob cycle and has been dated 1655/6, fifteen or sixteen years later than the previous drawings; yet the standing figure of Jacob does not look perceptibly older!  He would seem to have his hand on the arm of the same chair and to hold the same stick in his right hand as we see in his left in Pl.25a.  He is raised above the general level by at least one step; both previous drawings have steps and also a seat to the right of the steps in common with this one.  The drawing has ten men and one woman in the cast of characters.  Pl.25b has precisely the same cast, if we make allowances for the actors who appear twice.  Pl.25a has only nine men, if we take into account the likely duplication.

I draw two conclusions from all this: first that all these drawings were made on the same occasion; secondly that on that occasion there were possibly as many as eleven models present; in theatrical costumes presumably provided by Rembrandt from his collection of antique clothes.  The scale of the operation is amazing and without precedent, yet the evidence is there.  It must have been so.  We should remember that labour was very cheap, and that work of this kind may well have been rewarded with little more than a hot meal.

It is interesting that Rembrandt felt it necessary to have so may people present for the drawing.  Italian artists faced with the problem of representing a large, complex group would either construct it schematically or make separate studies from life as in Raphael's studies for the Borghese Entombment (Pl.26a) and collage these into the required grouping (Pls.26b,c).  This apparently economical procedure, which gave the artist a series of concentrated, finite tasks to perform, seems much more sensible than Rembrandt's method, which gave him so much to cope with at one sitting.  The task seems often to have daunted him.  Few parts are ever raised to the level of finish typical of an Italian drawing.  Some parts are left in a state of such sketchiness that the result would appear to be of little use.  But Rembrandt rarely used his drawings directly.  What was the point of it all? What did he have to gain from his ambitious stage sets?

Answers to such questions are probably best provided by comparing a Rembrandt group with one by a great Renaissance master.  If we take Raphael's Entombment as an example we are dealing with a work that is both excellent and typical.  In Pl.26b the drawing of the three main figures is carried to a relatively high degree of finish.  The figure carrying Christ's feet is probably the most finished of all, and it also represents Raphael at his most dynamic and most competent.  The left leg is brilliantly realised and so is the left arm, though we may have our reservations about the hand: it does not quite relate to the position of the elbow, neither does it convince us of its ability to carry weight - to do what an arm can do.  The rest of the figure is convincing enough.  Modern taste might criticise the drawing of the body of Christ and the other carrier as over-elegant and insufficiently 'real'; nevertheless, let us try to put aside these shifts in critical fashion and to look at the figures in terms closer to Raphael's own.  We are still left unconvinced by the relationship between the top and bottom halves of the carrying figure at the head end.  In such a posture one could not carry even a sack of dry leaves!  The two bearers move into the depths of the picture; we see the back of the near one and the front of the far one, the pattern of their feet confirms this reading.  But the body of Christ remains in the picture plane.  We may accept intention for achievement - but when we look critically at the relationships within this group we will find them superficial.  There is no credible interaction between these figures.  The movement of Christ's legs through the gap between the arm, the cloth and the thigh is not there.  His head does not truly rest on the bosom of the other bearer, nor does his arm pass over that bearer's arm and reconstruction of that arm's presumed relationship to the bearer's thigh would be impossible.  In the final painting there seems to be disagreement between the bearers as to where they are going. (Pl.26c)

I have been pedantically critical of a drawing which I nonetheless feel to be an unusually successful imaginative reconstruction of observed details.  Comparison with a Rembrandt drawing from life shows the Raphael drawing to be strong in the kind of detail which leaves Rembrandt apparently unconcerned - weak in exactly that respect in which Rembrandt is unique: in the realization of a dramatic and plastic totality.

Rembrandt made many drawings of this same subject (Pls.27a,b and d).  Among these I would number also those activities of the Good Samaritan which involve the moving of the body of the man fallen among thieves (Pls.27e,f), as also the removal of the body of St. John the Baptist (Pl.27c).  These drawings undoubtedly derive from the same staged reality.

Benesch calls Pl.27a The Entombment.  The portly assistant in this drawing is probably the same model as the innkeeper in the Good Samaritan story - whom we have already recognised as a brother of Joseph.  The group is clearly moving towards the tomb up a wide flight of steps which resembles those that lead to the Samaritan's inn.  The shape of the cave entrance in Pl.27a may well have been 'converted' from the contour of the hind-quarters of the horse, whose head we see to the right of the innkeeper.  I mention these matters not to contest Benesch's title (which I find acceptable), but simply to make clear that what concerned Rembrandt initially was the act of carrying a body.  There is no special reason for favouring either title, or for believing that Rembrandt has set himself a subject any more specific than a body being tenderly carried up some steps.  Much of the detail is unresolved.  This is hardly surprising when we consider that of Rembrandt's five models four would have been under considerable stress - it is unlikely that they could have kept such a pose for longer than twenty minutes.  Nonetheless, the struggle of the figure at the head end is sharply conveyed.  The man at the foot glances over his shoulder as he backs up the steps.  The man with his back to us, in the middle of the group, struggles up and tries to take some of the weight on his left thigh.  This is a record of how things actually looked.  Let us be objective and admit that this is not a particularly accurate record: the body has become somewhat over-stretched.  The activity of drawing has acquainted Rembrandt with the problems involved, and the drawing itself has provided him with an aide-memoir about the way the figures interact; about how one man staggering under the load of Christ's head was somehow counterbalanced by the thrusting right leg of the man in the centre.

For Rembrandt - as for many artists - drawing is a means towards experience.  For Raphael it is the means of expressing a more generalised experience.  Perhaps my feelings about the elegance of Raphael's design come in response to the separation between 'experience' and 'art' in Raphael's drawing.  In a Rembrandt drawing it is the immediacy of the experience and the acuity of observation which move us.  The only part of Rembrandt's drawing (Pl.27a) that merits comparison with Raphael's 'details' is the head of Christ.  I imagine that the drawing of this detail was completed after the bearers had put down their load, which is likely to have been a lay figure or a sack, and completed the head from one of Rembrandt's plaster casts, or perhaps a lying model.

In PL.27b we again find one vigorous man in the middle of the group taking a lot of weight on his thighs.  I believe this group to be the same models and I believe that they are ascending the same flight of steps as before; this time they are trying it a different way round!  In Pl.27e we see the vigorous lifter of Pls.27a and b, the turbaned model (the Good Samaritan of Pl.27f and g), the flight of steps and the portly innkeeper from the same drawings.  I think it likely that scientific investigation (of ink, paper and calligraphy) would uncover further evidence to link these drawings very closely.

I cannot repeat often enough my conviction that Rembrandt made drawings - almost exclusively - from things and from people that were there.  In many of the drawings we have looked at there are horses; Rembrandt's horses are as good and as characterful as are his people when drawn from life.  The school drawing Pl.27f (which I believe to be by Rembrandt) gives support to the view that three horses were present and that the drawings were actually made in an inn-yard.  It is my view that Rembrandt made the drawing of Pl.27d from the central group in Pl.27f but viewed it from the other side.  Benesch dates Pl.27d as 1633 whereas he dates the Good Samaritan series from 1640-1643. Possibly the time will come when science will be able to decide the dates by comparing inks etc.

The Entombment and the Good Samaritan drawings bear witness to Rembrandt's method of feeling his way into a subject.  When he finally paints it the feelings remain - but the facts were almost certainly re-observed from life.  Probably only one or two models were posed at any time.  They would have been propped up in the studio (in much the same way that the splendidly grandiloquent pose of Pl.28a is shown by Pl.28b to have been stabilised by a high stool).

It is not conceivable that the group in Pl.27g, the painting of The Good Samaritan, should have posed precisely as we see them.  The process of painting is too slow for that - the poses would have been impossible to sustain.  But it is equally inconceivable that the group was painted without the use of models.  It would seem that Rembrandt's achievement - as a master of both visual reality and psychological insight - rests on the thorough soaking in his subject matter which resulted from his drawing process and from his elaborate preparations for drawing.  Totality of vision is harder to sustain in a painting , for painting is a slower activity. Although Rembrandt used drawing differently from his predecessors, it was as necessary to him as it had been to them.  When we consider the entombment drawings, Rembrandt's procedures make perfect sense.;  it is feasible for a group of figures to sustain such a taxing pose for the duration of a drawing; it is not feasible for the duration of a painting.  But Rembrandt habitually drew from groups of living models whether their pose was 'difficult' or not.

I have touched on the various dramatic roles played by the models who were regularly employed by Rembrandt: there are clearly recognisable 'actors' who appear again and again, in the same or in different roles.  (Given the huge number of drawings under discussion, it is simply not practicable to illustrate each drawing mentioned: to identify those not illustrated here I shall refer the reader to their numbers under Benesch's catalogue.)

Scholars recognise two different Christ types: the tall bony character we have seen in Pl.23a, preaching to the people, is associated with the drawings made in Rembrandt's early career; the other, a smaller and altogether less alarming figure, has his hair parted in the middle, and appears in Rembrandt's more mature period.  Rembrandt painted six portrait studies from the latter model.  In Rembrandt, of course, whenever we recognise 'types' we can be certain that they were drawn from individual people.  Because these two men are so recognisable and because they play only the role of Christ the reader will have no difficulty in identifying them.  The old dame with the pointed nose and pointed chin is equally easy to identify; she appears no less than twenty-five times in Rembrandt's drawings.  Another familiar figure is that of a short muscular figure with a round-back to his head whom I recognise for certain in fifteen drawings.  He modelled for Tobias.  He is characterised by his great energy, but he is to be found in an untypically quiet mood as Jacob in Pl. 20b.  He may well be the energetic bearer in Pls.27a,b,d and e, although we cannot positively identify him in every case.  The old man whose beard tends to divide in the middle (whom we have seen in the part of Isaac) is also difficult to identify positively.  There are so many old men with beards in Rembrandt's Amsterdam, and Rembrandt is not always consistent about likeness.  There is, for instance, no great resemblance between Isaac in Pl.20b and Isaac in Pl.20d, although we know them to be the same model.  I believe that Abraham in the story of Hagar is also played by this same model, as is the father of the Prodigal.  He is most readily recognisable by his stooping body frame and his bold gestures.  The reappearance of the same models, and the variety of the roles they play, reminds us yet again of Rembrandt's readiness to transform a mundane reality into a compelling iconography.  The identification can also be useful in dating drawings.  The fact that the old Isaac very often appears in drawings with the old dame and the round-headed youth suggests that they posed together over a period and, if one can very positively identify one or other of these models in one drawing, then the chances are that the drawing is contemporary with the others.  Quite often groups of models - such as those round the bed of Jairus' daughter - can be identified with certainty in drawings which have been dated years apart.  (See for example Pls.29a and b, dated by Benesch c.1632-3 and c.1660-2 respectively.)

I believe that Rembrandt took positive delight in the fertility of his invention:  in the ways in which he would interpret any one scene.  The variety of his interpretations of a single scene can come as something of a shock.  The models playing the parts of Christ and Jairus' daughter in Pl.30a can be transformed in an instant into Tarquin and Lucretia (Pl.30b).  Two other bearded models play the parts of David and Nathan (Pls.31a and 31b); we see them at the same table as Christ and Nicodemus in Pl.31c.  They are most easily recognised by a pointed nose and bulging eyes in the case of David and a squarish forehead in the case of Nathan.

We have noticed the abandon with which Rembrandt switches hats from one head to another.  There are some hats of which he seems particularly fond: Rebecca's wide-brimmed hat with tassels around the edge appears in at least eighteen drawings (although sometimes without the tassels).  An ermine collar and a mayor's chain also appear frequently (for example Pls.31a,b).  Other items of Rembrandt's wardrobe which make frequent appearances include a highly decorated knee-length coat trimmed with tassels, a turban and plume, a square-ended sword and scabbard, and a large parasol.  The fact that these items and many others appear also in the paintings helps us to recognise them in the drawings.

There is no doubt of Rembrandt's gift for 'likeness', when he cares to use it.  Often he chooses not to: in the case of his women he frequently seems more concerned to disguise than to portray them.  There are many paintings in which the identity of the sitter is uncertain, and the drawings are even less reliable.  Pen and ink is in some respects an awkward medium for pursuing a likeness.  Media such as chalk, charcoal or pencil respond more flexibly to the minute adjustments and readjustments which are necessary to successful portraiture.  

Very marked differences in characterisation can be expected between a student rendering of a model and Rembrandt's own - even in a painting (and painting is a very flexible medium).  I find it far easier to accept that Bol's painting of a pink, flabby young man with a hawk was painted from the same model as Rembrandt's sallow, bony version of him, than to believe - as has been suggested - that Bol's painting was based on Rembrandt's.  (See catalogue of National Gallery exhibition, Art in 17th Century Holland, 1976.)  A student copying from his master's artefact will tend to copy those characteristics most useful to him - the overall colour harmony and the shapes: these Bol ignores.  Bol's painting is in pinks and browns; Rembrandt's in yellow, blue-grey and black.  There remains the possibility that Bol may have wished to disguise the fact that the Rembrandt painting was his source: but, if this were so, he would surely have disguised the features: the model's nose, mouth and whiskers, the hawk on his fist, would have been easy enough to change.  The features and the hawk are practically all that these two pictures have in common!

The paintings of his students give us an insight into the mundane nature of the reality which Rembrandt himself transforms.  The relationships between Rembrandt's own works and those of his students have been explored in practically all respects except for those which might prove most enlightening:  it is an area of research from which we might still learn much but it will depend on a change of mind-set..