The Old Man and Van der Wetering My second letter to Prof. Bruyn
Oct 162014

There are a few artists left in the world who regard Rembrandt as the supreme draftsman. I am one of them; fortunate enough to have reached visual maturity before the Rembrandt Research Project had started swinging their hatchet. I see it as  my mission to convert as many as possible to this important belief.

The theoretical experts have, alas, shown themselves to be beyond the reach of such re-education. Let us leave them with their pathetic “leaner fitter Rembrandt”. I therefore speak to artists and laymen many of whom will, I believe, be able to follow the arguments with ease. I well remember as a school boy being attached to the drawing of Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo and wondering why Rembrandt could not do the same.

Rembrandt’s style of drawing is very unlike that of the Renaissance masters. It is very much freer on occasion, which has led scholars to speak of his short-hand, this term is entirely appropriate. The question is -  how does he manage to convey so much with so little? For anyone who is not blinkered by an obsession with ’stylistic analysis’ (like the scholars)  can see that Rembrandt is a master of psychological and dramatic relationships in a way that the Renaissance masters never equaled.

When it comes to studies of the nude Rembrandt usually falls below those masters who studied anatomy in depth. His interest was in conveying the spirit, mainly of biblical occasions. (He did two commissioned group portraits of anatomy lessons with scientists in attendance, and one drawing of a skeleton horse and rider but otherwise, contrary to Italian practice, showed no special interest in anatomy.) “He was taught by nature” meaning – what he personally experienced by looking carefully and with his special interest. Those of us who still look to Rembrandt as the supreme master do so because of his responsiveness to what he saw. It is the key to his genius. He seems to see afresh every time.

Contrary to the scholars who seem to believe that he drew his biblical compositions out-of-his-head (foolishly misnamed ‘imagination’) I believe he assembled groups of live actors in his studio to act out all his biblical scenes (as described by his student Hoogstraten and as a theatrical producer might do today.) This is his method; first to act out the scene, choose the moment and the view-point and then draw.

Having spent most of my adult life as a student of Rembrandt and having discovered his use of live models and mirrors in1974 I am in a position to explain why many of his drawings are ‘run of the mill’ when he is drawing from a reflection, and even less well realized when he is constructing out-of-his-head. According to Houbraken anything that was not observed from nature “was worthless in his eyes”. This statement is a very foreign idea to scholars so they have ignored it. Yet it is corroborated by many of his contemporaries and visible in many Rembrandt drawings. Often he seems to be positively making fun of the Raphael method of construction (see for instance his flying angels). Many of these drawings are no longer accepted by today’s scholars as by Rembrandt.

As a result of this oversight scholars have de-attributed over half the drawings which to me are quite obviously by Rembrandt. (I believe in about 2200 extant drawings by Rembrandt. They believe in a mere 500). Also, instead of the patron saint of visual truth that I see in Rembrandt; they see a disreputable painter/dealer  (most often compared to Andy Warhol in the press) who apparently signed works by his students.

How do I explain Rembrandt’s genius? Firstly by his mastery of intimate space, by which I mean that space that is created between individuals in dramatic or psychological situations and which is the main indicator as to what is going on between them. The Renaissance masters relied upon gesture and facial expression, which are important but Rembrandt as a draftsman, though he studied his own expressions in a mirror in early etchings, rarely relied upon facial expression for his effect. He used what you can take in from a distance: the related body language, which is too subtle to be invented, it has to be observed.

How do I explain Rembrandt’s original method of drawing? It is three dimensional geometric drawing derived from his study of Roman portraits. My book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice”explains in detail how the Romans copied their original (terracotta) portraits into stone. (see – the analysis of a bust of Hadrian. Rembrandt owned 30 Roman portraits and filled two books with drawings from them.) I also explain the difference between the Classical Tradition and the Alternative Tradition in my book. The classical is useful for invention; the alternative more sensitive for precise observation.

The Alternative Tradition (a name I had to invent because the distinctness of this tradition had not been recognized before). It is derived from Roman geometry. A huge swathe of  western art is constructed in the Alternative tradition but I think I am the first to outline its special features and understand from where it comes.

Holbein is the clearest example of drawing with this method. Rembrandt expanded Holbein’s geometry to incorporate space as well as solid. I believe that this is the secret of his unique ability to convey the psychological essence of a relationship. That intimate space had to be observed. He realized that anatomy was irrelevant to his purpose. His refusal to go to Italy to imbibe the classical tradition, his independent spirit, relying on his own experience rather than on tradition is what we should value most in Rembrandt.  He is the instigator of a new, more subtle tradition. When will the experts open their eyes to that marvel?

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