Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it's also caused centuries of confusion. For 300 years, scholars have been mixing up the works of Rembrandt van Rijn with those of his more than 50 pupils. But recent decades have seen progress in our ability to distinguish between the master and his disciples — and a new exhibit makes the differences plain.

Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils

Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils

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Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils

I don't know about you, but I walk right past sketches when I'm at a museum. I head for the color: the oils, the big things. But in a large, dimly lit show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles — the lights are down to preserve the 400-year-old works on display — it's the sketches that are the main attraction.

That's because the sketches are by Rembrandt, or at least most of them are. Experts once thought they were all Rembrandts, but 30 years of international scholarship have determined that some of the drawings were made by the Dutch master's students. The show is called Telling the Difference, and learning how to see the difference is the whole point of the exercise.

"A sketch," says curator Lee Hendrix, "is putting your thoughts on paper." And Rembrandt van Rijn was the most brilliant artistic thinker of the 17th century — perhaps of any century. He drew compulsively.

"It was an end in itself," Hendrix says. "For Rembrandt, drawing was a way to work through subjects." Illustrating biblical stories or contemplating a portrait, the painter gave careful thought to the tale being told, the nature of the person to be depicted.

"I mean, he was one of the greatest dramatic artists who ever worked," Hendrix continues. "I think of Rembrandt as a kind of Shakespeare."

The Mark Of A Master: Quick, Strong Strokes

He was certainly the most famous artist of his day, and lots of people wanted to study with Rembrandt. To get into his studio in Amsterdam, they had to be good.

Of course, you do wonder why such a successful artist would take in pupils in the first place.

"The students actually provided a fairly lucrative income," Hendrix says. "Plus, he was able to get them to participate in [making] paintings that he could then sell."

Some 50 pupils studied with Rembrandt over 40 years; the Getty's exhibition presents sketches by a few whose work was once thought to have been made by the master. In some cases, it's easy to tell the difference.

"Here you have a very famous drawing, by Rembrandt, of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels," Hendrix says. "She's sleeping. [It's] a drawing that was probably made very quickly — you can see these dynamic strokes on the paper."

Next to that: not a Rembrandt. A sketch of a man, resting his hand on his arm; he doesn't seem quite asleep, but he's reclining. A pupil's done this one, his brush and brown ink filling in all the spaces carefully, laboriously. It has none of the speed and confidence of the Rembrandt. It feels worked over.

"Over and over again, one of the telltale signs of the student is that they are more 'finished,' in conventional terms, than Rembrandt's drawings."

Flecks of light; flashes of white paper behind the ink. A pouring of sun, achieved by the absence of ink. Knowing when to stop. Those are the signs of the master's work. His students, as this exhibition demonstrates, went over and over their work. Their lines are careful, tentative.

A few of those students, Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, Nicolaes Maes among them, went on to have solid artistic careers. Some became more famous than their teacher — for a while. Rembrandt's career had its ups and downs, but through it all, for most of his 63 years, he kept teaching. And making art.

"Rembrandt was one of these artists who just couldn't quit," Hendrix says. "He drew and painted up until his death. ... His activity was dwindling, but he remained there until the end, drawing and painting."