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.
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Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils

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Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils

Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils

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An exhibit of work in the style of Rembrandt attracted the curiosity of our special correspondent, Susan Stamberg. It's a show of drawings and sketches, some by Rembrandt himself and some by his students. The exhibit is called Telling the Difference.

SUSAN STAMBERG: I don't know about you, but when I'm at a museum, I walk right past sketches. I head for the color - the oils, big canvases. But this large and dimly lit Getty show - the lights are down to preserve these 400-year-old drawings and sketches - really makes visitors pay attention.

LEE HENDRIX: A sketch is putting your thoughts on paper.

STAMBERG: And Rembrandt van Rijn was the most brilliant artistic thinker of the 17th, or maybe any other century. Curator Lee Hendrix says he drew compulsively - Landscapes, people, their faces sketched to reveal expressive emotions.

HENDRIX: For Rembrandt it was an end in itself. Drawing was a way to work through subjects. I mean, he was one of the greatest dramatic artists who ever worked. I think of Rembrandt as a kind of Shakespeare.

STAMBERG: The most famous artist of his day, lots of people wanted to study with Rembrandt. But they had to be good to get into his Amsterdam studio. You do wonder why such a successful artist would take pupils.

HENDRIX: The students actually provided a fairly lucrative income, and Rembrandt charged - his prices were actually fairly expensive for that time, and of course he was so famous, that the pupils were willing to pay that, plus, he was able to get them to participate in paintings that he could then sell.

STAMBERG: Some 50 artists studied with Rembrandt over 40 years, and this exhibition presents a few of them whose work was once thought to have been made by the master. Sketches were rarely signed. Many of the pupils were really talented. Misattribution could occur. Now, 30 years of scholarship have sorted out the master from the boys. In some cases, it's easy to tell the difference.

HENDRIX: Here you have a very famous drawing by Rembrandt of his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, and she's sleeping - a drawing that was probably made really quickly - you can see these dynamic strokes on the paper.

STAMBERG: Okay, so next to it is a not-Rembrandt, and it's a man, and he's resting his head on his arm. He doesn't seem quite sleeping, but he's reclining.

HENDRIX: That's exactly right.

STAMBERG: 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's worked over.

HENDRIX: Over and over again, in this show, one of the telltale signs of the student is that they are more finished, in conventional terms, than Rembrandt's drawing.

STAMBERG: Both of these sketches are done with brush and ink. Like the drawings, Rembrandt's materials were handmade. The ink...

HENDRIX: It was soot from your fireplace or iron shavings that are suspended in a liquid and just an animal-hair brush or a pen that was carved from the quill of a goose or from a reed. So these are all natural materials, absolutely simple, and these profound works of art emerge from them.

STAMBERG: Profound in Rembrandt's case, anyway, speed, the confidence, a minute stroke that carries information.

HENDRIX: You'll see these tiny squiggly dots that are smaller than a ballpoint pen, just touching the paper and they squiggle a little bit and they look like architecture that's just about to disappear on the horizon.

STAMBERG: A few of those students 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, Rembrandt kept teaching and making art.

HENDRIX: He was one of these artists who just couldn't quit. He drew and painted up until his death. His drawings and prints slack off during the last decade of his life. Clearly his activity was dwindling, but he remained in there till the end, drawing and painting.

STAMBERG: In California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


INSKEEP: You hear Ms. Stamberg on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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