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My investigations of Rembrandt's drawings started from a sense that scholars were making bad misjudgments about the quality of the works they were scrutinizing. Great masterpieces of drawing, it seemed to me, were being attributed to students whose capacities were very ordinary and did not even resemble Rembrandt's. My investigation was stimulated by a fierce sense of disagreement on grounds of connoisseurship. The word aesthetic with its overtones of pleasure is quite unsatisfactory in the case of Rembrandt. His drawings do often give pleasure but more often they are rough and workmanlike: they do not seek to please. I find it easy to understand the strictures of his contemporaries who found his works crude and unfinished. The fact is that Rembrandt's drawings are unlike those of any old master who preceded him, they are more experimental and therefore necessarily less consistent. They are personal documents made for his own use, not show pieces. They therefore tell us more about his priorities than do the drawings of any other great master. Truth to nature was his watchword. They compel interest.

Because they are about priorities (and Rembrandt's priorities vary from drawing to drawing) we have to redirect our vision. Rembrandt's art has an educational and a moral dimension that is even more important than its aesthetic dimension. We do not value his art so much as a collection of objects capable of moving us, though there are plenty of those. We value more for the whole thrust of his artistic thinking, which is highly original and has done more to inform artistic priorities in successive centuries than any other artist. Fore strangely, while scholars have spent most of their time reducing Rembrandt's stature, artists of my generation have come to value him higher than ever before.

Rembrandt's drawings do not always resemble the finished product of other masters. Because he was anxious to maintain maximum flexibility for as long as possible his finished drawings tend to look like rapid sketches. In the drawing Christ Raising a Sick Woman for instance the drapery that covers 90% of the surface and the hands which are of great importance here have not received the attention to detail we would expect as normal in a Raphael nor for that matter with anything like the brilliance we will find in Rembrandt's own best studies of drapery. In this case Rembrandt's interests are clearly elsewhere.

What Rembrandt has left us here is a drawing that has received a lot of his attention; one that he has changed in crucial respects many times, but which to the uninitiated gives the appearance of being a rather clumsy sketch. It is not so much a structure as a machine which Rembrandt has tinkered with until its action unfolds with uncanny precision.

We are watching a miracle of art as well as a miracle of healing. We can see Christ's gentle confidence as he eases his patient to her feet. We can also feel her uncertainty in the angling of her left wrist and the rather feeble way her head sinks between her shoulders. But we can also see that the miracle is going to work. Christ is going to rock back and as he does so the placing of her foot, knee and buttock is such that there is no choice but that they must unfold and the miracle will take place. To see this does not require faith in Christ's spiritual power, it is revealed through the laws of physics as everyman understands them. Clearly the power of the drawing is not derived from a study of anatomy but from the observation of the particular balance of the two models that Rembrandt posed in his studio for the drawing. The alterations are the result of Rembrandt’s empathetic imagination working on the cold reality in his studio. It is his ability to read every mark on the page spatially and to relate every point in space, one to the other to create two precisely interlocking figures that carries this drawing to the summit of artistic achievement. The imagination works best like this “anything else was worthless in his eyes”.

One can very easily see that Rembrandt did not arrive at this deeply satisfactory arrangement at his first attempt. Christ's head has been moved forward, all the hands have been adjusted and Christ's rear foot has been changed radically twice. If you cover the final position of his left foot in such a way as to read the darkened heel behind as that which is intended, you will see Christ's gesture change from quiet confidence to athletic effort. In this drawing Rembrandt teaches mankind to read the body language by which we understand each other. There is little in art before Rembrandt to indicate such awareness of this profound level of communication through space relationships.

I hope by this example I have shown how important positive connoisseurship is to the understanding of Rembrandt. What some may at first have thought to be a clumsy sketch has turned into a major masterpiece of drawing. It required no special knowledge of art, in fact had you come to this drawing with the usual criteria of scholarship today and started by questioning the quality of line according to Wolfflin's criteria you would almost certainly have awarded this drawing remarkably low marks. Rembrandt scores high when we compare his art with our own experience of life. Any other criteria would have appeared fatuous to him..

Connoisseurship has got itself a bad name among recent art historians. It is due to the fact that connoisseurship is an increasingly rare quality among them. What seems like a natural gift to those who have it may seem like magic to those who don't.

I believe that Rembrandt scholarship has gone off the rails because there is no longer the necessary understanding there to steer it. On its own, connoisseurship is dangerous because one can never discount the forger whose sensitivity is greater than the connoisseur's. Equally, science that is not guided by connoisseurship would not be able to make sense of its findings, would indeed hardly know where to begin. (Many of my contentions could be tested scientifically.) We must put our hope for the future in connoisseurs who have the humility to modify their hunches when they come into conflict with established fact among which I include the factual evidence presented in this book.

Another more difficult requirement is that the connoisseurship has to be as broad in its sympathies as Rembrandt's art. An example that fails on this count is provided by Kenneth Clark, one of the best connoisseurs of his generation. He rightly says of the drawing The Finding of Moses “the loops and flourishes are purely calligraphic and have no underlying sense of structure” and is relieved to be able to attribute the drawing to Rembrandt's student Ferdinand Bol. But Bol's other drawings and his painting of the same subject demonstrate conclusively that he is quite incapable of learning from Rembrandt’s instructive example, let alone drawing it himself.

I guess this drawing was made by Rembrandt to show Bol how the maidservant might have balanced precariously on the muddy bank in order to retrieve the infant Moses; but if it was such a lesson - it was lost on Bol. His maidservant slides clumsily into the river. Had Rembrandt paid as much attention to the plastic form as we would normally have expected from him the main focus of the drawing - the balance - the spatial organisation - might have been lost on us. Note how clearly the nervousness of the figure behind is conveyed through gesture. Sketchy as it is, her state of being is conveyed with wonderful clarity by placing, her feet, her bottom, her hands, her head in an unmistakable relationship to one another. Untypical as it is, by deattributing this drawing from Rembrandt’s corpus we have sadly reduced his range of interest and response.

Comparing this drawing with the study for the Holy Family (Pl.34b) we see immediately that both were drawn from the same reality. As far as Mary and the cradle are concerned she reaches out with the same gesture as the maidservant. Rembrandt has made two separate studies with separate interpretations from two different points of view from a model who could have only held such a pose for a matter of minutes. I would argue that the control over space that we find in this drawing is such that the author must be Rembrandt, none of his students had such a gift. Again a forensic laboratory could help I am sure.

Rembrandt scholarship started to go wrong when it became over confident and tried to invent a stylistic development for Rembrandt. Attention to the evidence of the model groups should have ruled this out from the start but Benesch had little practical experience of drawing or knowledge of studio procedures. Had he had more, or at least the willingness to consult those who had, he could not have gone so far with his misconceptions. The fact that generations of disciples have chosen to follow him down the same road that has led to the near destruction of Rembrandt, calls in question the usefulness of the study of art history as constituted at present. If the art of Rembrandt is to influence our lives in future scholars must change. They are contributing mightily to the decay of human response.

The art of drawing is concerned with marks on a surface. The quality of those marks will change according to the implements and the particular qualities of the materials used. The handwriting of the particular artist is a secondary factor, it too may change as a result of experience. But to rely on these secondary factors when you are in contact with a mind as distinctive and volatile as Rembrandt's seems to me to be an admission of failure - of incomprehension. Rembrandt had a uniquely characterful way of noting down volumes; his shorthand is unlike anyone else's, but far more important from the point of view of understanding the artist or deciding which works are genuinely his is to get a sense of his priorities, his artistic beliefs, his character, his habits and the breadth of his interests. In this scholarship has failed grotesquely.

The 'Catch 22' of the situation is that in deciding which works are his we are at the same time unavoidably defining his character. Fortunately there are also the commentaries of his contemporaries to guide us and these leave little room for doubt as to what kind of artist he was.

Next Chapter: Chapter Three