Masters: Rembrandt’s Shorthand Drawing Style


The greatest of Dutch masters used a rapid, abbreviated technique in drawing to record visual impressions from the world around him and his own cornucopian imagination, foreshadowing developments in modern art more than two centuries later.

by Joseph C. Skrapits


The Angel Appearing
to the Shepherds

ca. 1634, etching with burin drypoint tint in black ink on cream laid paper, 10? x 8 11/16.
Collection The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

It’s a rare birthday when we receive everything we wish for, but for lovers of the art of drawing this has been one to savor. The birthday is Rembrandt’s: he was born on July 15, 1606, in the Dutch city of Leiden, and during 2006’s yearlong quadricentennial celebration of that day, museums from Paris to Poughkeepsie have been putting an unprecedented number of the artist’s masterworks on public display.

The exhibitions have been especially rich in drawings, which were much prized during Rembrandt’s lifetime (1606–1669) and have remained perennial favorites since they began entering museum collections in the late 17th century. In Amsterdam, where Rembrandt lived and worked for most of his life, the Rijksmuseum has been exhibiting all 60 of its Rembrandt drawings in two sequential shows—“Part I: The Storyteller” and “Part II: The Observer”—running through the end of the year. In Paris the Louvre is featuring a show titled “Rembrandt the Draftsman” through January 8, 2007.

In the United States the Rembrandt celebrations include three outstanding exhibitions of the artist’s graphic works, beginning with “Rembrandt and His Time: Masterworks From the Albertina, Vienna,” a survey of 115 drawings, prints, and watercolors by Rembrandt and his Dutch contemporaries from the collection of Vienna’s Albertina Museum, which appeared at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the fall of 2005. Last spring, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, hosted “Grand Gestures: Celebrating Rembrandt,” which featured many important Rembrandt etchings from the college’s own outstanding Felix M. Warburg print collection. The grand finale, for American viewers, is “Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt’s Prints and Drawings” at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, which opens November 19, 2006, and continues through March 18, 2007. This exhibition covers the full range of Rembrandt’s graphic production through the themes of portraiture and self-portraits; scenes of everyday life; and landscape, historical, and religious subjects. It includes the largest display of Rembrandt drawings from the National Gallery’s own holdings in more than 30 years.


Descent From the Cross
1633, etching, 13¾ x 10¾.

In describing his mature drawing style, critics and historians have often resorted to the word “shorthand,” which suggests handwriting or calligraphy, in particular the system of abbreviated writing that enables stenographers to take dictation “in real time.” This, in fact, conveys fairly accurately the essence of Rembrandt’s approach to drawing— although he was, of course, recording visual impressions not sounds.

Many modern artists, from Matisse to Warhol, have developed shorthand techniques of drawing. With that in mind, it’s worth quoting Rembrandt scholar and art historian Jakob Rosenberg (1893–1980) on this surprisingly modern aspect of the master’s work: “Shorthand in itself is not an admirable quality unless it combines brevity with suggestiveness, unless the brevity is the result of sensitive selection, with an emphasis upon significant features and an appeal to the spectator’s imagination. Rembrandt’s shorthand meets this test; it often recalls the achievement of Far Eastern draftsmen, and it foreshadows 19th-century Impressionism. It also proves the point that artistic economy and power of expression are interdependent qualities.”


Old Man Seated in an Armchair, Full Length
ca. 1631, red and black chalk, 9 x 6¼.

Collection Kupferstichkabinett of Kunstmuseum Basel, Berlin, Germany.

The outstanding characteristic of Rembrandt’s line is what curator Andrew Robison of the National Gallery of Art calls “oscillation,” its instantaneous, delightful shift from the descriptive stroke that renders form to the abstract stroke that freely expresses its creator’s aesthetic sensibility (these strokes are often one and the same). As Daniel M. Mendelowitz remarked in his classic book, Drawing (Henry Holt & Company, New York, New York): “Perhaps no one has combined to as great a degree as Rembrandt a disciplined exposition of what his eye saw and a love of line as a beautiful thing in itself.”

But Rembrandt’s “love of line” was not an end in itself, as it was with Matisse, for example; Rembrandt’s arabesques are not primarily decorative but have a philosophical, one might even say religious, function. Rembrandt’s flashing, whiplash lines constantly reach out beyond the objects they describe to connect them with the larger, living chain of being—“the continuous stream of creation,” in Rosenberg’s words. Much to the chagrin of academic critics, the mature Rembrandt shunned the beautiful, unbroken contour line. This caused a certain amount of trouble for his drawings in some later eras, particularly the 18th century, when Neo-Classicist-influenced dealers and collectors were moved to “complete” Rembrandt’s pen-and-inks with the addition of lines and washes that spoiled their intimations of immortality.

We can explore the development and significance of Rembrandt’s shorthand approach through several drawings that span his career, which began in earnest with his six-month apprenticeship to the Amsterdam painter Pieter Lastman in 1624/1625. During his 44-year working life, Rembrandt created more than 2,000 drawings, the majority in ink with pen and brush. Early on, however, he often drew in chalk, usually black but sometimes with red, and occasionally used a combination of black and red.


Seated Old Man
1630, black chalk, 6? x 5¾.

Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Seated Old Man, initialed by Rembrandt and dated 1630, exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, is one of a number of studies from life of the model for his painting A Scholar Seated in His Study [not shown]. This black-chalk drawing shows the model in three-quarter-length view, sitting with his left elbow resting on the arm of a chair, which is entirely hidden by the folds of his cloak. A strong light strikes the head nearly full-on and from the upper left, so that the illuminated side of the head blends almost imperceptibly with the untouched paper of the background. This delicate modeling in the head contrasts strikingly with the rough, seemingly crude handling of the lines and shading in the cloak and the hands.

After sketching the outlines lightly, Rembrandt quickly established the mass of the body by making a series of parallel shading marks, generally running diagonally from upper right to lower-left. Some of these shading marks are apparent in the drawing’s lower-left corner and to the right of the model’s left arm, where they serve to indicate cast shadows. In making these marks Rembrandt applied the chalk with restrained pressure, thus exploiting the grain of the paper and the tendency of the chalk (possibly a type of slightly waxy crayon) to catch on the “ridges” while leaving the “valleys” untouched. This gives the halftones an airy, atmospheric quality and was used with brilliant purpose to convey the effect of reflected light in the shadow on the right side of the head.


Cottages Under a Stormy Sky
ca. 1635, pen and brown ink, brown and gray wash with white bodycolor on brownish prepared paper, 7? x 9?.
Collection Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Having massed the body with luminous shadings, Rembrandt proceeded to create a sense of its volume by drawing vigorously with dark, heavy strokes to indicate the contours of the back and shoulder, the folds of drapery, and the deepest shadows. The artist applied such strong pressure to draw the shadows beneath the arms that the grain of the paper has been entirely obliterated. If the drawing had been a purely academic exercise, it might be considered “spoiled” by these last heavy marks. Yet they are completely appropriate in a study of value structure by a painter who needed to find and record the darkest darks as well as the lightest lights.

I’ll mention another drawing from this series because it reminds me so much of the work of a later artist who idolized Rembrandt. More than two-and-a-half centuries separate Rembrandt’s Old Man Seated in an Armchair, Full-Length (ca. 1631) from the chalk drawings of an old man created by Vincent van Gogh at the outset of his meteoric career in the early 1880s. Rembrandt is clearly the master, Van Gogh the student, yet in their drawings there is the same clenched, writhing energy. Rembrandt expresses it in the model’s intertwined fingers and in the restless curves of the contour on the left, which begins with the jagged edge of the drapery near the shoe, doubles back on itself before rising to the knob of the armrest, and finally breaks like a frothy wave at the old man’s beard. At this point it meets a line perpendicular to it—composed of extraordinarily tight, compound curves—that delineates the passage from the beard to the skin of the face, which is in deep shadow.


A Young Woman at Her Toilet
ca. 1635, pen and brown ink, brush and brown and gray inks, 9¼ x 7. Collection Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Rembrandt’s three-quarters-length study of the model describes a flow of luminous transitions, while this full-length drawing seems to revel in eccentric shapes and abrupt changes in direction: to begin with, the overall silhouette with its weird bumps and indentations, and then, within the silhouette, the illuminated planes—in descending order—of the forehead, beard, forearm, hands, and knee. By means of this formal arrangement Rembrandt has conveyed a realistic sense of what his model most probably was: not a saint or a philosopher (as the three-quarters-length study suggests), but an old tramp, a local character from the artist’s neighborhood in Leiden.

Without ever leaving Holland, Rembrandt participated fully in the major international art movement of his time, the High Baroque. Indeed, he was the only Dutch artist of his generation to make important contributions to group portraiture, history painting, and religious art in the grand manner of such renowned contemporaries as Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, and Velázquez. After his move to Amsterdam, a major European port and trading center, Rembrandt had access to fine examples of Flemish, Italian, and Spanish art, as well as to even more exotic material from Asia—Persian miniatures, from which he drew copies, and most probably Chinese and Japanese paintings and prints. The consummate pro, he used every trick in the book—and some not in the book. For example, he exploited the creamy color and slick surface of Japanese mulberry paper when printing his etchings of the female nude.

But Rembrandt combined this aesthetic cosmopolitanism with a characteristically Dutch love of the prosaic. Thus, there are scenes of domestic life, the everyday comings and goings of the neighbors, and the unremarkable features of the local landscape—peasant cottages, languid canals, flat polders, in which occasional windmills or isolated trees relieve the tedium, and an immense, constantly changing sky. Rembrandt’s key insight was that such subjects could become the vehicles for great art, and he poured into his paintings and drawings of them his artistic sophistication, as well as a spiritual energy and depth of human empathy unrivaled by any of his great contemporaries, with the exception of Shakespeare.


Open Landscape With Houses and a Windmill (The Former Copper Mill on the Weesperzijde)
ca. 1648, pen and brown ink with brown wash, 4¾ x 9½.

Collection Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

One of the highlights of the Albertina’s collection is A Young Woman At Her Toilet, a pen-and-wash ink drawing from the mid-1630s. The drawing was once thought to be a study for a painting of a biblical heroine, but it now seems more likely that, like most of Rembrandt’s drawings, it is a stand-alone creation, done for pleasure and to practice his skills. The young woman having her hair braided is probably Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia; the older woman standing behind her could be a servant. Saskia was from a wealthy family, and at this time Rembrandt enjoyed the height of his commercial success as the most sought-after portrait painter in Amsterdam.

The change in medium from chalk to pen-and-ink led to two new developments in Rembrandt’s graphic shorthand. The first is a more economical use of line to describe form and gesture: with the pen the artist drew only the upper bodies of the two figures and concentrated most of his effort in the diagonal area from the head of the standing woman to the hands of the seated woman. The second is his use of dark washes to indicate volumes, light and shadow, and dramatic emphasis. The tonal transition here is not subtle—there are almost no luminous halftones—dating the Albertina drawing to the early stage of Rembrandt’s use of pen-and-wash. His sensitive fusion of pen strokes with brushwork, of linear and tonal accents, is one of the hallmarks of his later mastery of the medium.

As throughout his body of work in pen-and-ink, Rembrandt drew A Young Woman at Her Toilet without any preliminary sketching in chalk or graphite. The bold lines make long, confident curves that end in hooks and loops—a prime example of his obvious delight in the making of beautifully shaped abstract marks.


The Three Trees
1643, etching with burin drypoint in black ink on cream laid paper, 8? x 11.

Collection The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

Turning to a landscape drawing from the 1640s, Open Landscape With Houses and a Windmill (The Former Copper Mill on the Weesperzijde), also in the Albertina, we experience Rembrandt’s handling of pen-and-brush at its most exquisite. The drawing was done on location, as were hundreds of others with which he filled his sketchbooks during his walks about the environs of Amsterdam. The motif is conventional—a repoussoir tree on the left anchors the composition, and the center of interest in the middle distance is sandwiched between a dark foreground and a broad expanse of sky. The artist has transformed this formula into a complex drama of manifold spatial tensions and quirky mark-making, and yet manages to convey a convincing illusion of light-saturated atmosphere.

The washes in this drawing vary from soft and delicate, as in the distant spatial planes of the buildings on the skyline at the right, to rough and textural, made by dragging a half-dry brush across the paper on the lower right. Rembrandt created an especially delicious effect on the left using a combination of a few penned lines and dots with a lightly dragged wash to reproduce the complex textures of foliage and buildings shimmering in moist, hazy air.

Radical as it was for the time, Rembrandt introduced the experience of perceptual realism in his landscape drawings. He drew as the eye sees, with details concentrated in the central focal area while peripheral objects—for example, the tree on the far left—are given only cursory treatment. Again, he anticipated a later development in European art (the subjectivism of French Impressionism) by more than 200 years.


Christ With His Disciples and the Bleeding Woman
ca. 1658, pen and brown ink, 6 x 9. Collection Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

In the 1640s Rembrandt added the reed pen to his tool kit. The reed makes a blunter, heavier line than the quill, which Rembrandt also used in this landscape drawing for the delicate line work in the buildings. The fluid, twisting movements of the reed pen—particularly noticeable in the tree and where the artist indicates the bank of the ditch in the left foreground—create a forceful rhythmic counterpoint to the calm horizontality of the landscape.

By the mid-1650s the reed pen had become Rembrandt’s preferred drawing instrument (as it would become for Van Gogh also). Christ With His Disciples and the Bleeding Woman (late 1650s, from the Albertina) is a reed-pen drawing that shows Rembrandt’s shorthand style in its final phase. In contrast to his landscapes of the middle period, where he was concerned with rendering a sense of spatial recession and atmosphere, in his later drawings he ignored spatial effects in favor of a classical monumentality built of simple tectonic forms.

The subject of this drawing is one of Christ’s miracles, as described in Luke 8:40—the healing of the bleeding woman. She secretly approaches Christ in a crowd and touches his robe, which instantly stops the bleeding. When Jesus notices this she falls down and tells him what she has done; Christ then tells her that her faith has cured her.


Joannes Uytenbogaert , Receiver General of the Netherlands
1639, etching and drypoint in black ink on cream laid paper, 9¾ x 8. Collection The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

Rembrandt has chosen to depict the story’s emotional climax. The scene is portrayed as if on a stage or as a sculptural relief. The standing figures form a frieze, their heads all at generally the same level, while the prostrate woman’s head is at the bottom, on a level with two indistinct ovals (heads?) at the lower right. The figures are mere gesture drawings—each one was probably drawn in a minute or less. And yet the formal unity of the composition as well as the variety of expressions captured—the skepticism, curiosity, and shock of the disciples, the compassion of Christ, the deep humility of the woman—are astonishing.

Rembrandt’s graphic art was firmly grounded in drawing from life. Thus, when he used his shorthand style to take “dictation” from his imagination, as in this drawing, the result has naturalness and immediacy, as if Rembrandt himself had witnessed the scene. By the time he was 50, the artist had reached the height of his powers: he had achieved a near-perfect integration and interpenetration of craft discipline, artistic intelligence, emotional insight, and spiritual illumination. For Rembrandt, the stories in the Bible were as real and compelling as anything he could see with his eyes, which is why he devoted so much of his genius and physical energy to making them “real” through his art: so that others, whose faith and imagination were weak, could experience their undiminished relevance.

For centuries writers have made much of the irony in Rembrandt’s story: the closer he approached the full integration of his personality with his art, the lower sank his stock in the world. He’d become a famous bankrupt, and critics held him up as an example of how not to paint and draw. Most disturbing for those with a taste for the classical ideal was Rembrandt’s neglect of linear and plastic clarity. Joachim von Sandrart, who knew the master personally and was on the whole a sympathetic biographer, wrote that Rembrandt “did not hesitate to oppose and contradict our rules of art, such as anatomy and proportions of the human body, perspective and the usefulness of classical statues, Raphael’s drawings and judicious pictorial disposition, and the academies which are so essential to our professions.”


Self-portrait in a Beret
ca. 1660, pen and black/brown ink, brush and gray ink with white bodycolor on brown toned paper, 3¼ x 2¾. Collection Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Compounding the irony was that Rembrandt understood all these rules, and used most of them at one time or other. His contemporaries could not appreciate what he did with them.

After a century or more of unconventionality in art, after more than 100 years of rebellion and the overturning of rules, we may think we understand him better than they did. But looking at one of Rembrandt’s rare self-portrait drawings—the last one, Self-portrait in a Beret, from about 1660—makes one wonder. The unusual painterly treatment—the washes include an opaque body color—gives the drawing a thick, foggy atmosphere through which the artist’s stare cuts like a searchlight. The effect this produces is, quite literally, “sublime”: evoking feelings of awe, and for anyone who’s ever picked up a pencil with the vague hope of becoming an artist, terror. Would such a work be awarded a prize in one of our exhibitions of “good” drawing today?

The final word belongs to art historian Jakob Rosenberg, who in the following long passage touches on the paradox of Rembrandt’s apparent modernity: his profound remoteness from the world that modernism has created:


Shah Jahan
ca. 1656–1661, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on light brown Japanese paper, laid down on beige laid paper, 8 15/16 x 6 11/16.
Collection The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland,


The Quack
ca. 1638, pen and brown ink, 6? x 5.

“An understanding interpreter of the mature art of Rembrandt in his own day would have faced the difficult task of proving that here also a philosophy was implied—one which could compete with that of classicism but which required a very different artistic form. This philosophy put truth before beauty. But it was not only the obvious, visual truth of the physical world, but also, penetrating and conditioning it, the spiritual truth which had its roots in the Bible. Rembrandt dealt with man and nature. Both, in his conception, remain dependent on the Supreme Force that brought them into being. Hence, even his landscapes are not self-sufficient pieces of nature separated from their source and reposing in their own beauty, as, for example, the classic View of Delft by Jan Vermeer. They are tied up with the creative process of all earthly life and subject to dynamic changes. There is no such thing, for him, as nature morte. Dead peacocks are combined in his still-life paintings with living persons. Rembrandt is unwilling to cut off anything from the continuous stream of creation—even a carcass, as we have seen in his Slaughtered Ox. In his figure subjects there is never a staged arrangement, of static finality, such as Poussin offers with great dignity and beauty. Rembrandt’s people, wrapped in their own thoughts, are in communication, not with the outside world, like those of Rubens, Van Dyck, or Frans Hals, but with something within themselves that leads, at the same time, beyond themselves. Therefore, an introvert attitude, with Rembrandt, means the search for the spiritual force in man that conditions his life, its origin as well as its course. Man, so to speak, contemplates his state of dependence and accepts it in humility. Nature also is in this same state of dependence, but without knowing it. This puts man in a higher position, and makes him the most worthy subject for the painter. Rembrandt agrees here with Pascal’s ‘toute notre dignite consiste en la pensee’ : [All our dignity consists in the (power of) thought.]”    

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