Museum Home Past Exhibitions Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference

December 8, 2009–February 28, 2010 at the Getty Center

Interactive: Try telling the difference between drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils.
Interactive: Try "telling the difference" between drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils.

Telling the difference between drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils is a centuries-old problem. A popular teacher with more than 50 documented students, Rembrandt taught all of them to draw in his style. Together, they produced thousands of drawings, and even immediately after Rembrandt's death, there was confusion about who made them. In the last 30 years scholars have made major strides in their ability to recognize Rembrandt's drawings from those of his students.

This exhibition features drawings by 15 of Rembrandt's pupils in close comparison to drawings by the master himself. We now know that the body of drawings once regarded as by Rembrandt includes many differentiated personalities of great artistic merit in their own right. See our online interactive to be guided in a close comparison of drawings by Rembrandt and 10 of his students.

Rembrandt and His Pupils Drawing from a Nude Model / van Renesse
Rembrandt and His Pupils Drawing from a Nude Model, Constantijn Daniel van Renesse, about 1650. Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Rembrandt's Workshop

Drawing played a central role in Rembrandt's teaching methods. The master made drawings for his students to imitate, and he and his pupils sketched the same models and landscapes side by side. The stylistic similarities between Rembrandt's drawings and those of his students are the result of these teaching exercises.

Rembrandt's close working relationship with his pupils is most vividly depicted in this sheet, made by a talented amateur who came to Rembrandt's studio for drawing lessons. The composition shows Rembrandt (at center) huddled with five students drawing a female nude. Compared to the confident Rembrandt, who draws with the aid of a board casually propped on his knee, the seated man wearing glasses strains to look and draw simultaneously. Meanwhile another eager pupil peeks over Rembrandt's shoulder to follow his example.

Cottage and Farm Buildings with a Man Sketching / Rembrandt
Cottage and Farm Buildings with a Man Sketching, Rembrandt, about 1641. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena

Rembrandt and his pupils also made sketching trips in and around Amsterdam to capture impressions from nature. In this etching, Rembrandt evoked these outings by including a seated draftsman in the right foreground. The exhibition presents drawings of this same cottage and farm buildings from slightly different vantage points. Previously these studies were thought to be by Rembrandt himself. They are now considered to be instances of the pupils and the master drawing the same site side by side.

Telling the Difference between Rembrandt and His Pupils

Two pairs of drawings by Rembrandt and two of his pupils depicting similar subjects demonstrate how his students carefully imitated the master's style.

Christ as Gardener Appearing to Mary Magdalene / Bol
Christ as Gardener Appearing to Mary Magdalene, Ferdinand Bol, about 1640. Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of Mr. Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, 1930

Ferdinand Bol began his artistic training in his native Dordrecht. He left for Amsterdam in 1636 and by the following year was in Rembrandt's workshop. There are many drawings attributed to Bol, and the task of identifying them among the numerous sheets in Rembrandt's style of the 1630s is difficult.

Bol worked in a Rembrandtesque style during the 1640s, but during the 1650s, he changed to an elegant style favored by the Amsterdam elite. He garnered many prestigious commissions over his long career.

Christ as Gardener Appearing to Mary Magdalene / Rembrandt
Christ as Gardener Appearing to Mary Magdalene, Rembrandt, about 1640. Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. De Bruijn- Van der Leeuw, 1949

If we compare gestures and expressions in the images shown above and at right, we can see the subtle differences between teacher and student. In both of the drawings, Christ, newly risen from the grave, is discovered by a shocked Mary Magdalene.

In Rembrandt's drawing (at right), Christ is at the center. In Bol's image (above), Christ stands off to the side. In Rembrandt's, he somberly speaks and gestures, and his anchored feet lend him imposing stature and power. In Bol's, he nonchalantly leans on a wall with his legs crossed, as if in pleasant conversation.

Old Woman Asleep / Maes
Old Woman Asleep, Nicolaes Maes, about 1655. Frits Lugt Collection, Institut Néerlandais, Paris

One of the most innovative Dutch painters of his generation, Nicolaes Maes produced paintings of women engaged in household chores that combine Rembrandtesque handling of paint and light effects with original narrative compositions ranging from solemn to gently humorous. More than 100 drawings by him survive, many related to his paintings. Like other Rembrandt pupils, Maes occasionally combined red chalk with wash for a rich pictorial effect.

Old Woman with a Large Headdress / Rembrandt
Old Woman with a Large Headdress, Rembrandt, about 1640–43. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

Maes was especially receptive to the Rembrandtesque subject of old women. His image (above) is drawn with less energy than in Rembrandts drawing, which is rendered with forceful lines that change directions. Maes's fine handling of the face and headdress is only slightly more delicate than the finely spaced strokes of thin, parallel-hatched lines of her dress, creating a more uniform finish.

Audio: Curator Lee Hendrix compares these two drawings.

Elements of Rembrandt's Style

The close working relationship between Rembrandt and his pupils is one reason for the difficulty in attributing their drawings. Another reason is that, unlike paintings and prints, drawings in Rembrandt's time were rarely signed, and later inscriptions to "Rembrandt" were often wrong. Now scholars have identified core groups of drawings that can be securely attributed to Rembrandt or to different artists who studied with him. The core groups, in turn, provide the standard against which more hypothetical attributions can be tested.

Seated Female Nude (detail) / Rembrandt
Seated Female Nude (detail), Rembrandt, about 1660. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Clarence Buckingham Collection
See the full image.

To verify their attributions, scholars closely investigate characteristic visual traits in Rembrandt's drawings. These traits comprise the artist's style—his handling of line, rendering of expressions and gestures, and description of light.

One clue to Rembrandt's style is his extraordinary depiction of light. Due to the active play of light and shadow on his figures, they inhabit a convincing sense of space. In Seated Female Nude at left, Rembrandt varies the direction and thickness of the wash to render the dramatic and complex play of daylight and shadow over a seated nude.

Audio: Compare this drawing to a similar nude by Rembrandt's student Arent de Gelder.

Daniel in the Lions' Den (detail) / Rembrandt
Daniel in the Lions' Den (detail), Rembrandt, about 1649. Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, 1906
See the full image.

Another key feature of a Rembrandt drawing is a consistent description of nuanced expressions and gestures—even in the sketchiest of his drawings.

In the image at right, Rembrandt depicts an Old Testament story. He dramatically portrays a terrified Daniel praying for his life after being thrown in the lions' den. Rembrandt's firsthand study of lions allowed him to depict the different temperaments of the wild beasts. The feline at right threatens Daniel with an enormous, open mouth, while another affectionately rubs his head against Daniel like a docile house cat. The contrasting actions of the lions emphasize the unpredictability of these wild animals, heightening the emotional charge of the image.

The Mocking of Christ / pupil of Rembrandt
The Mocking of Christ, pupil of Rembrandt, about 1650–55

More Work to Be Done

The exhibition ends with an anonymous pupil in order to show that there is still much work to be done.

Until recently, this drawing was accepted as a Rembrandt. A comparison of this drawing to one of the same subject by Rembrandt reveals strokes that are coarser, less nuanced, and lacking in the atmosphere typical of Rembrandt. But it is still unknown which of Rembrandt's many students created this composition that follows his master's model.

Generations to come will study the drawings of Rembrandt and his many pupils. And in looking closely and "telling the difference" they—like we—will discover the enormous richness of observation and imagination contained in this extraordinary body of drawings.

Works by Rembrandt in the Getty Museum's collection
Drawing Life: The Dutch Visual Tradition
Rembrandt in Southern California