A PLEA FOR THE GREATER REMBRANDT PINC Lecture, Holland by Nigel Konstam – A Plea for the Greater Rembrandt
May 082011

This is from the booklet accompanying the enlarged DVD

(over an hours worth including Rembrandt’s Syntax)


I published two articles proving that Rembrandt used live models and their reflections in mirrors as the subject matter for his drawings (Burlington Magazine Feb.1977

& Rembrandthuiskroniek 1978/1).

Art historians generally have a horror of mechanical aids, they cannot believe that a great master would use them; nor do they understand that many artists need reality to work from. They much prefer “imagination” as the source. My article on Rembrandt, a truly imaginative genius, (not just one who worked out of his head) deeply upset their long accepted but nonetheless mistaken ideas of the visual imagination. Rembrandt fed his imagination on reality, which he received with ever deepening empathy. His art came in two parts: first through experimenting with live tableaux of actors which he then drew with crystalline clarity. His empathy developed through the practice of these two arts together.

Art historians do not practise the arts but have diverted us, the practitioners from well tried paths to success by repeating their imagined taboos. My discovery of Rembrandt’s use of mirrors has met with stubborn resistance from the “experts”. In truth, unlike Vermeer and Velasquez, who also used mirrors, Rembrandt got no technical benefit from his use of mirrors. He seemed to use mirrors to double the number of models he had to draw from, or to vary his view of them. Often this resulted in a quality of drawing which was much inferior to his drawings drawn direct from life. (See p.2) In Rembrandt’s case the mirrors were an aid only insofar as they cut down on the number of models he needed.

You may well ask why Rembrandt used mirrors if the results were inferior? I think the answer to this question is that Rembrandt did not expect to sell his drawings, he kept them as reference – thinking they might one day inspire him. There are very few drawings that one might describe as studies for a painting or etching. It would be more accurate to call them “preliminary trials” based on groups of live models, very few of which were ever followed up. Often the exquisite drawings from life suffered the same fate of neglect as the less interesting drawings from reflection or construction. Folders of drawings were sold off at the time of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 1656. There are no sales of drawings recorded before then. His etchings were in great demand and were mainly signed and dated on the plate, and so are reliable testament to Rembrandt’s character and development. In fact I find no corroboration of the scholars’ ideas in the etchings; they are wildly varied with little discernible sequence in style.

When he painted the reflection of a whole group, “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (see p.1) it was to provide him with an entirely different view of the same tableau, without having to move his position, which would have upset the students also working from the same group. The large size of the mirror used in this instance, suggests it would have been made of polished metal. Glass of that size (8 foot wide) did not exist in Rembrandt’s day. Large glass mirrors were made of many smaller mirrors mounted together, which would also have resulted in an awkward image to work from. The fact that this large mirror was moved into a barn strongly favours polished metal as the material.

We have to look for a better reason for the scholars’ refusal to consider the use of mirrors, which, in view of the evidence must be obvious to the rest of us. There are two good reasons for this refusal. Firstly, it makes their hypothetical dating of the drawings according to their idea of Rembrandt’s changes of style look nonsensical. Secondly, the scholarly explanation of the variation between the master’s work and that of his students is far removed from studio reality. The iconography of Rembrandt and his school has become a scholarly industry but the variations are so much more simply and truly explained by the different physical view each student had of the same tableau. Rembrandt’s scholars are obliged to deny the presence of the model groups to avoid looking ridiculous. In avoiding ridicule they become culpable for the on-going Rembrandt catastrophe.(I am gratified to note that the RRP is closing-down in disorder. Their years of labour were largely wasted by chasing a fantasy.)

Rembrandt himself never painted from his drawings; how can the “experts” hypothesize that all his inexperienced students could do so? There is not enough information in a drawing to paint from. All the shapes and tones needed to be observed again from life. These impracticable hypotheses undermine the credibility of the experts. In addition to which their recent “findings” contradict, even reverse, all we have heard from Rembrandt’s contemporaries. “He would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes…he was taught by nature and by no other law…anything else was worthless in his eyes” These beliefs are not just hyperbola, they are clearly reflected in his work as painter and etcher.

Rembrandt was the prime culture hero of my generation of art students because of these values. He was for us the exemplar of the new paradigm for art that followed very closely the new paradigm for science of his time. Like science, Rembrandt, turned his back on received wisdom (he refused to study in Italy) and studied nature directly and with an improved syntax. (see DVD) He is therefore more relevant to us today than the older masters.

It is difficult to believe that the civilized world has continued to have faith in a group of experts whose every word and action contradicts all previous judgements, let alone my concrete evidence for a much more liberal view of Rembrandt output. My evidence has been deduced from careful observation of Rembrandt’s drawings; furthermore, my findings are in agreement with the characteristics recorded by Rembrandt’s contemporaries and the signed etchings.


The Sack of Rome was perpetrated in three or four days by pillaging soldiery who we do not expect to have a great understanding of the arts. By contrast the recent destruction of Rembrandt, which posterity (and many of the living) may judge to be more far-reaching in effect, was carried out by museum experts over a period of 80-100 years. The destruction of Rembrandt has been given full media coverage but apparently never caused a murmur of complaint from their colleagues. On the contrary it has been endorsed by major exhibitions and expensive publications.

If any good is to be hoped for from the Rembrandt catastrophe it should precipitate a full scale overhaul of the way we arrive at cultural decisions. I would suggest putting artists back in charge. At least this would ensure a wide ranging and heated debate, something that the present regimes of art historians avoid. My experience shows art historians effectively squashing the opposition by their refusal to debate. This coupled with the subsidized power and prestige of their exhibitions and publications has made their flawed position apparently impregnable.

My Museum of Artists Secrets consists of important similar examples and criticisms of of the way the history of art is handled at present. Art history, which affects us all, has become the exclusive domain of experts without the necessary practical background or aesthetic sensibility.

The experts have made pathetic attempts to deny this mass of evidence, most notably in The British Museum catalogue of 1992 “Drawings by Rembrandt and his Circle”. They wish us to continue to believe that Rembrandt drew from imagination, not from tableaux vivants. Since my articles in 1977& 1978 they have got away with it. My single voice, though it has been backed by many eminent art historians including Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich, is insufficient to stir them to reaction or discussion.

More of the same www.saveRembrandt.org.uk

Konstam’s blog www.verrocchio.co.uk



Nigel Konstam, for The Save Rembrandt Society 2011

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