Who done it? In the case of Rembrandt, it’s a persistent question. ¶ Hundreds of paintings formerly attributed to the 17th century Dutch master have been demoted in the course of a massive research project funded by the Dutch government and investigations by specialists around the world. And the work goes on. ¶ A separate effort to determine who actually made unsigned drawings ascribed to Rembrandt is no less daunting -- or intriguing -- as an upcoming exhibition reveals. ¶ “Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference,” opening Dec. 8 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, contains 103 drawings, 53 of them by Rembrandt. Of the 50 works presented as the work of other artists, 27 were once thought to be Rembrandts. ¶ Who decides? ¶ “Most people think it’s like the pope, just sitting up there pronouncing what’s Rembrandt or not, but it’s not that way,” says Lee Hendrix, the Getty’s senior curator of drawings who organized the show with Peter Schatborn of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Holm Bevers of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett and William W. Robinson of the Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass. ¶ “This is the culmination of 30 years’ work. It’s been a world effort, and many people have contributed. Up until now all the scholarship has been dispersed in museum catalogs and articles. This exhibition brings it all together and lays it out in lucid terms so that anyone can understand. We are demystifying the process, saying this is the way it was done and you can do it too.”
The show -- which will appear only in Los Angeles -- pairs works deemed to be by Rembrandt with drawings of the same or similar subjects by 15 other artists, including one whose name is unknown and Jan Lievens, a Rembrandt compatriot who was not his student. All the pairs are arranged with the Rembrandt on the left side. Most of the pupils’ works come from periods spent in his Amsterdam studio, a lively center known to have attracted more than 50 students over nearly 40 years of operation.
An introductory section offers clues to identifying Rembrandt’s style, such as his sketchy and suggestive line, selective detail and precise rendering of light. His work is further distinguished by its intense emotional impact, dynamic composition, expressive faces and eloquent body language. But figuring out exactly which works are his can be a challenge.
“He was one of the most famous artists in the world, so he had lots of students who paid to learn to draw and paint in his style,” Hendrix says of Rembrandt van Rijn, who lived from 1606 to 1669 and evolved from a chronicler of exterior appearances to a highly expressive interpreter of human character and interior life.
“It was a money-making venture. He and his pupils would draw from a nude model in the studio or go out into the landscape together. When he died, thousands of drawings were left and, even then, there was confusion about who made them. For a long time they were mostly thought to be by Rembrandt.”
A chapter in the exhibition catalog tracks the lengthy history of attributing drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils. One major contribution, a six-volume catalogue raisonné by Otto Benesch published in the 1950s, lists about 1,400 drawings by Rembrandt.
The connoisseurship of major artists’ work is an endless project, but Rembrandt has had an unusual degree of scrutiny. The Rembrandt Research Project, devoted to paintings, has incited considerable controversy, and a precise number of paintings securely ascribed to him has yet to be established.
There is no final word on the drawings either, but the Getty show reflects the work of a younger generation of scholars who have winnowed the drawings to a few hundred.
They started by assembling all the relevant material and identifying a core group of signed drawings and studies made for autograph paintings and prints.
The definitively confirmed works provided a standard for rigorous comparison with questionable drawings, partly by establishing distinctive stylistic traits. Multiple interpretations of the same subject came under particular scrutiny as scholars learned to identify the individual artists’ visual vocabularies. Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, for example, often abbreviated facial features, jotting down the eyebrows and nose as a T-like squiggle.
Other identifiers are techniques, stylistic elements and subjects that pupils took from Rembrandt and made their own, Hendrix says. For Van den Eeckhout, it was drawing with a brush. For Carel Fabritius, it was a proclivity for dark contours and hatching. For Nicolaes Maes, portraits of old women.
The exhibition was inspired by a 2004 lecture by Schatborn, when he was a guest scholar at the Getty. In turn, the show has sparked a Rembrandt celebration with six related exhibitions running more or less concurrently in Southern California institutions.
Schatborn, who will give a lecture Dec. 13 at the Getty, says he’s “extremely pleased” to see “Telling the Difference” come to fruition. The challenge was to choose pairs of comparable drawings that reveal striking artistic discrepancies, at least on close observation, he says.
“The public often has no good idea about attributions and, in this way, we hope they will understand what it is all about, when an artist like Rembrandt has his pupils make drawings in his style.”
Many museums, including the Getty, own works once thought to be Rembrandts and now ascribed to others. “We don’t take that as a tragedy,” Hendrix says. “When I walk through the exhibition, I don’t see drawings being demoted. I see a more vivid picture of what actually went on in that studio. With all those young artists, and then Rembrandt himself, it must have been a super art school when Amsterdam was at the height of its international importance.”