Reading Rembrandt’s Shorthand

Rembrandt Drawings By Seymour Slive Getty Publications, 260 pages, $49.95

The subject of Young Woman Sleeping, ca. 1654, is Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s common-law wife.


Rembrandt’s drawings, like his paintings, have been disappearing—their number slashed by scholars from about 1,400 in the 1950s to about 800 today. Seymour Slive, Harvard professor emeritus and former director of the Fogg Art Museum, chose 150 for this beautiful book, grouping them thematically rather than chronologically. Some of his categories—portraits, nudes, landscapes, and religious subjects—are traditional; others—life of women, life of women and children—are not. This arrangement encourages concentration on the individual drawings rather than on stylistic development, influences, or the fine points of iconography, as a chronological presentation would do.

A great scholar of Dutch art and the author of earlier books on Rembrandt, Slive is the perfect guide. He slips in a good deal of information about the artist’s life and times, but this book is primarily an exercise in old-fashioned connoisseurship, in which the qualities of each drawing are succinctly and sometimes eloquently summed up. The “broad liquid brushstrokes” in the British Museum’s Young Woman Sleeping (ca. 1654), for example, evoke a comparison with “the finest works one knows by Chinese and Japanese calligraphers or by superior abstract expressionists.” (The drawing is on view in the exhibition “Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through the 28th of this month.) Of a surpassingly delicate landscape in Rotterdam, View of Haarlem with the Saxenburg Estate in the Middle Ground (1650–51), Slive comments that “its tremulous lines and light washes seem to have been blown gently upon the sheet rather than drawn.”

Remarkably few of Rembrandt’s studies for larger works survive, assuming they ever existed—not a single preparatory sketch for Night Watch is known. Few of his drawings are highly finished. In fact, many have passages of “scribbles and scrawls”—Rembrandt’s lightning-swift shorthand—that would be unreadable out of context. Mostly the drawings reflect the artist’s compulsion to record the life around him. He responded with curiosity and sympathy to subjects high and low, from Saskia or Hendrickje sleeping to a pitiful young murderess dead on a gibbet; from two women soothing a squalling baby to a pig being slaughtered. Religious subjects always have a human dimension.

In an extraordinary drawing of the Annunciation, for example, the ­Virgin, eyes glazed, is collapsing from the shock of the news. Characteristically, Rembrandt chose not the moment itself but the moment after, translating the sacred event into a very human dilemma.

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