Liberation of Saint Peter, mid 1630s.
Rembrandt van Rijn (?) (Dutch, 1606–1669)
Pen and dark brown ink, brush and blue-gray wash on cream laid paper, 3 3/4 x 3 3/8 in. (9.6 x 8.5 cm). Crocker Art Museum, E. B. Crocker Collection, 1871.134.

One of the most prolific and accomplished draughtsmen in the history of art, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) viewed drawing as a matter of central importance to his own work as well as to that of his many students. He made direct preparatory studies relatively rarely, and most of his surviving drawings do not relate directly to a painting or print. Instead, many of his sketches appear to have functioned partly as exercise for the imagination, independent of finished works of art.(1) Leader of a thriving workshop even early in his career, he passed on this habit to his students, apparently setting them the assignment of drawing a particular subject as a way of learning to compose and to express emotion and narrative. Like other masters of the time, Rembrandt also used his own sketches as teaching tools .His students made careful copies of his drawings, transcribing even the scribbles and pentimenti characteristic of his rough draughtsmanship. They absorbed his style so thoroughly that many of them continued to draw in Rembrandt’s manner long after they left his workshop. For all these reasons, the task of separating Rembrandt’s own drawings from those of his pupils is a particularly arduous task.

In many ways, The Liberation of Saint Peter fits into Rembrandt’s draughtsmanship of the mid-1630s, as it was dated by Otto Benesch. Rembrandt drew in an especially sketchy style at this point, sometimes simply indicating subsidiary figures.(2) He clearly reveled in the expressive possibility of the pen line, varying the pressure to create thick and thin lines, leaving pentimenti clearly visible, and shading with scribbles rather than with the neater techniques more common among his Dutch contemporaries. The Crocker drawing fits this pattern: an earlier version of the angel, positioned higher on the page than the final version, remains clearly visible, and his finely delineated face forms a striking contrast with the rough, heavy lines on the lower part of the page. This same contrast appears in a number of Rembrandt’s drawings from the mid 1630s, such as the Lamentation under the Cross or Ruth and Boas, both in Berlin.(3) Compositionally, the Crocker sketch also has a great deal in common with several drawings by Rembrandt and his school from the mid-1630s.(4)

Nevertheless, other aspects of the Crocker drawing deviate from Rembrandt’s style of draughtsmanship. Most notably, The Liberation of Saint Peter exhibits a lack of clarity in both form and expression. Even in Rembrandt’s roughest drawings, elements crucial to the narrative content of the drawing, such as facial expression or gesture, are generally described with a lucidity absent from this sketch. Not only are the attitudes of the two figures here difficult to read, but their poses are also indistinct: the angel’s body and wings are left almost totally blank, leaving its pose unclear, and the vaguely defined limbs, including the awkward foreshortening of the angel’s arm and its claw-shaped hand, are more typical of student drawings than of those by Rembrandt himself.(5) Finally, the almost calligraphic scribble in the lower foreground serves no clear purpose: Rembrandt was more likely to use this rough shading to darken areas thrown into shadow, again contributing to the weight of the forms.(6)

In the same way that the Rembrandt Research Project, formed in 1968, has attempted to separate the hands of Rembrandt and his followers in paintings,(7) similar efforts are taking place as major museums reconsider their collections of drawings attributed to the artist.(8) The results have been startling: in Berlin, for example, the collection of 126 drawings once believed to be the work of Rembrandt has been pared down to a group of fifty-five.(9) Among the casualties of these re-examinations have been several of the drawings once compared to the Crocker sketch.(10) Because of the scarcity of signed or preparatory sketches by Rembrandt and the proximity of his hand to those of his many students and followers, his style of draughtsmanship is redefined with each generation of scholarship, and it is likely that in decades to come, the current definition will be viewed as too narrow. At this time, however, the possibility must be considered that the Crocker sketch is the work of a follower rather than that of Rembrandt himself.

Stacey Sell, in William Breazeale, with Cara Denison, Stacey Sell, and Freyda Spira, A Pioneering Collection: Master Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 2010

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Notes:

(1) William W. Robinson, “Rembrandt’s Sketches of Historical Subjects,” in Drawings Defined (Walter Strauss and Tracie Felker, eds.), New York, 1987, pp. 241–257.

(2) See, for instance, The Rape of Ganymede, Dresden (Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, no. 92), where the figures of the parents are roughed in and surrounded by a chaotic tangle of lines.

(3) Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, nos. 100 and 133 respectively. For a thorough discussion of these drawings, see Holm Bevers, Rembrandt, die Zeichnungen im Berliner Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, 2006, nos. 9 and 10.

(4) See, for instance, Ruth and Boas (Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, no. 133); Lot and His Daughters (ibi, no. 128); and two student drawings in the Rijksprentenkabinet, in Peter Schatborn, Tekeningen van Rembrandt, zijn onbekende leerlingen en navolgers, Amsterdam, 1985, nos. 74 and 75.

(5) See, for instance, both versions of Jacob Blessing Josephs’ Sons in the Rijksprentenkabinet (Schatborn 1985 as in note 4 above, nos. 74 and 75).In addition, the Old Man in Profile (Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, no. 1106) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibits a similar lack of modeling and is now assigned to “Rembrandt(?).” Carolyn Logan, in Walter Lietdke et al., Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Aspects of Connoisseurship, exh. cat. New York, 1995, no. 67.

(6) Compare, for example, the more coherent use of hatching in the equally abbreviated Ruth and Boas (Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, no. 133).

(7) Josua Bruyn et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, Boston, 1982.

(8) Among the most important of these is Schatborn 1985 as in note 4 above; Martin Royalton-Kisch, Drawings by Rembrandt and His Circle in the British Museum, London, 1992; Jeroen Giltaij, The Drawings by Rembrandt and His School in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1988; Thea Vignau-Wilberg, Rembrandt auf Papier: Werk und Wirkung, Munich, 2003; and Bevers 2006 as in note 3 above.

(9) Bevers 2006 as in note 3 above, p. 6. Other re-evaluations have had similar results: the Rijksmuseum and Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, for instance, have both reduced the number of secure attributions to Rembrandt to about half of those accepted by Rembrandt (Holm Bevers et al., Rembrandt, the Master and his Workshop, Drawings and Etchings, exh. cat. Berlin, 1991, p. 11). In America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns nineteen drawings attributed to Rembrandt by Benesch, but now accepts only eleven as secure attributions (Logan in Liedtke et al. 1995 as in note 5 above, pp. 155–156).

(10) For example, Benesch himself compared the Crocker drawing to Jacob’s Dream in Berlin, (Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, no. 125), which is apparently not among the fifty-five drawings to survive the re-evaluation of the collection by Bevers. Additionally, The Prophet Elijah and the Widow Sarepta in the Louvre (Benesch 1973 as in Literature above, no. 112) is also now considered the work of a follower (Schatborn 1985 as in note 4 above, p. 16, note 3; and Bevers et al. 1991 as in note 9 above, p. 194, note 7).

Inscriptions: none

Marks: none

Provenance: Edwin Bryant Crocker, Sacramento, by 1871; gift of his widow Margaret to the Museum, 1885

Literature: William Breazeale, with Cara Denison, Stacey Sell, and Freyda Spira, A Pioneering Collection: Master Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 2010, no. 23; Seymour Howard et al., Saints and Sinners in Master Drawings, exh. cat. Sacramento, 1983, no. 30; Master Drawings from the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery at the Church Fine Arts Gallery, University of Nevada, Reno, exh. cat. Reno, 1978, no. 18; Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt, 2nd ed., 1973, no. 126, fig. 146; Master Drawings from Sacramento, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 1971., no. 57; Crocker Art Gallery, Catalogue of the Collections, Sacramento, 1964, pp. 22, 69; Drawings of the Masters, exh. brochure, Sacramento, 1959, no. 4; Annemarie Henle, Master Drawings, an Exhibition of Drawings from American Museums and Private Collections arranged by Annemarie Henle, Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate International Exposition, exh. cat. San Francisco, 1940, no. 84; Annemarie Henle, "Old Master Drawings," in Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1940, Art, Official Catalog, Palace of Fine Arts, exh. cat. San Francisco, 1940, no. 483; Numa S. Trivas, Old Master Drawings from the E. B. Crocker Collection, the Dutch and Flemish Masters, unpubl. ms., Sacramento, 1942, no. 99; Numa S. Trivas, "Lesser Known American Art Collections. I. The E. B. Crocker Art Gallery of Sacramento, California, U.S.A.," in Apollo, vol. IV, December 1940, pp. 135-137; Numa S. Trivas, “Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669),” Old Master Drawings, vol. XIV, nos. 54-55-56, September–March 1939-1940, pp. 57–58.

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