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Rem­brandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606-1669: Landscape with Canal and Boats, c. 1655 

This seem­ing­ly straight­for­ward depic­tion of a canal with boats is high­ly com­plex in its exe­cu­tion, show­cas­ing Rem­brandt’s excep­tion­al skill as a drafts­man. Firm and care­ful­ly con­trolled pen strokes indi­cate the solid­i­ty of the fence, boats, and edge of the bank, while dry and liq­uid brush strokes cre­ate mass in the fore­ground and reflec­tions in the water. The dis­tant hori­zon line, indi­cat­ed by trees and build­ings, is com­plet­ed in pure wash. The faint swirls dis­cernible in the sky are prac­tice cal­lig­ra­phy strokes made on the reverse of the sheet, per­haps also made by the artist. 

Between the early 1640s to mid 1650s, Rem­brandt record­ed the land­scape dur­ing walks in the vicin­i­ty of Ams­ter­dam, often sketch­ing mod­est farms, fields, and canals as well as rec­og­niz­able loca­tions. The church spires and tow­ers, although some­what indis­tinct, sug­gest the Ams­ter­dam sky­line viewed from the southeast.

More so than in his paint­ings, Rem­brandt revealed his dis­tinct vision and evi­dent pas­sion for land­scape sub­jects in his draw­ings and prints. He pri­mar­i­ly did so in a fif­teen-year peri­od that spanned the early 1640s to the mid-1650s.1

Research into the topo­graph­i­cal details in his body of land­scapes, and close com­par­isons of those details with his­tor­i­cal images of vil­lages and build­ings in and around Ams­ter­dam, has pro­vid­ed a remark­ably clear under­stand­ing of some of his most pop­u­lar walk­ing routes.2

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, he would often leave through a gate on the east side of the city just down the street from his home in those years (the present-day Rem­brandt House Muse­um) on the Breestraat, and walk along the Diemerdijk toward the vil­lage of Diemen, or along the Ams­tel River toward Oud­erk­erk. The spires of the church­es and tow­ers in this draw­ing, while too indis­tinct for exact iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, do give the impres­sion of the Ams­ter­dam sky­line as it would have been observed on one of his walks along the Diemerdijk.3

This for­mer­ly marshy area now com­pris­es the Zee­burg neigh­bor­hood of East Ams­ter­dam, still some­what pre­served in nat­ur­al form in the Flevopark.

Rem­brandt’s pen work here is typ­i­cal­ly bril­liant in its cre­ative use of line and vari­ety. He used a reed (or per­haps stiff quill) pen to lend a wood­en qual­i­ty to the planks of the boats using firm and care­ful­ly con­trolled strokes. Just as eye-catch­ing are both the liq­uid and dry brush­strokes that mirac­u­lous­ly con­vey line, motion, and tex­ture, seen in the swift­ly sug­gest­ed rig­ging of the mast, and the sub­tle per­tur­ba­tions of the water just below its flat but reflec­tive sur­face. It com­pares well to Rem­brandt’s draw­ing, The Wind­mill De Bok” on the Blauwhoofd Bul­wark, with its live­ly sin­u­ous lines and use of wash Fig. 41.1.4

Rembrandt, The Windmill "De Bok" on the Blauwhoofd Bulwark
Fig. 41.1

Rem­brandt, The Wind­mill De Bok” on the Blauwhoofd Bul­wark. Pen and brown ink with brown wash, 114 × 202 mm. Paris, Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia, Col­lec­tion Frits Lugt, inv. no. 5174.

The Peck draw­ing’s dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture is its use of pure wash to define the screen of trees and struc­tures in the back­ground, though a draw­ing in the Lou­vre reveals that Rem­brandt would occa­sion­al­ly explore this approach to form Fig. 41.2.5

Rembrandt, River with Wooded Banks
Fig. 41.2

Rem­brandt, River with Wood­ed Banks. Brush and brown ink, 136 × 186 mm. Paris, Musée du Lou­vre, inv. no. RF4709.

The dif­fer­ent nature of the Lou­vre draw­ing is not sur­pris­ing given Rem­brandt’s well-known and tire­less search for inno­v­a­tive meth­ods and artis­tic pro­ce­dures. This explorato­ry prac­tice accounts for the great deal of vari­ance in style in some of Rem­brandt’s land­scape draw­ings, which might on occa­sion employ a painter­ly abstrac­tion of forms, or even be min­i­mal­ly impres­sion­is­tic. Telling of this free­dom to exper­i­ment is the fact that Rem­brandt appears to have kept most of his land­scape draw­ings to him­self, which he stored in port­fo­lios in his stu­dio, accord­ing to the inven­to­ry taken in 1656.6

It is per­haps no acci­dent, then, that the Peck land­scape was drawn on a sheet cut from a larg­er piece of paper con­tain­ing the prac­tice cal­lig­ra­phy strokes still vis­i­ble on the verso. His own album of cal­lig­ra­phy exam­ples appears to have been stored on the shelf just next to one of his land­scape albums.7

The attri­bu­tions of Rem­brandt’s land­scape draw­ings have recent­ly become a major sub­ject of debate. In the 1950s, Otto Benesch cat­a­logued about 250 land­scapes in his com­plete cat­a­logue of Rem­brandt’s draw­ings.8

That total was cut almost in half by Peter Schat­born in his 2019 revi­sion of Benesch’s cor­pus, which did not include the present sheet.9

In his 2021 book-length study of Rem­brandt’s draw­ings, how­ev­er, Achim Gnann returned near­ly all of Schat­born’s removed draw­ings to Rem­brandt’s oeu­vre, includ­ing this one.10

Such a dras­tic dif­fer­ence of opin­ion is rel­a­tive­ly unusu­al in draw­ings schol­ar­ship, and the debate will like­ly con­tin­ue for some time, but as some schol­ars have already noted, the ulti­mate num­ber of land­scape draw­ings (and draw­ings in gen­er­al) by Rem­brandt’s hand is like­ly some­what greater than that pro­posed by Schat­born.11

In his review of Schat­born’s cor­pus, Holm Bev­ers sin­gled out the Peck land­scape as one that is sure­ly by Rem­brandt’s hand and stat­ed that any doubts are unfound­ed, a view that finds agree­ment here.12

Schat­born did not argue his spe­cif­ic doubts, but one cause for con­cern could have been the com­bi­na­tion of pen work in the fore­ground with a pure wash back­ground, which is indeed an unusu­al jux­ta­po­si­tion. This is not enough to mil­i­tate against the essen­tial vir­tu­os­i­ty of this draw­ing, how­ev­er. No hand among his pupils or fol­low­ers emerges as a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty either. The clos­est per­haps would be Abra­ham van Dijck (1635 – 1680), who stud­ied with Rem­brandt in the early 1650s. His view, Buiten het Zaag­molen­poort­je te Ams­ter­dam (Out­side the Sawmill Gate in Ams­ter­dam), attempts sim­i­lar pen work, boats-on-water reflec­tions, and a dis­tant back­ground in wash, though with­out the same coher­ence of form or sure­ty of hand Fig. Fig. 41.3.13

Abraham van Dijck, Outside the Sawmill Gate in Amsterdam
Fig. 41.3

Abra­ham van Dijck, Out­side the Sawmill Gate in Ams­ter­dam, 1671. Pen and brush in brown ink, 125 × 290 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. R P-T-1884-A-304.

Rather than regard­ing the com­bi­na­tion of fore­ground and back­ground ele­ments in the Peck draw­ing as some­thing unusu­al or con­cern­ing, it is best con­sid­ered, on the con­trary, as a com­pelling and evoca­tive addi­tion to Rem­brandt’s oeu­vre. It is one, fur­ther­more, that appears to have had an impact on fol­low­ers like Van Dijck. They must have appre­ci­at­ed how Rem­brandt, con­cerned with the per­spec­ti­val han­dling of deep space in the back­ground, used the canal to push the eye back into the dis­tance, and inge­nious­ly knit­ted the fore­ground and back­ground ele­ments together.

End Notes

  1. For overviews of Rem­brandt’s land­scape draw­ings and prints, see espe­cial­ly Wash­ing­ton 1990; Ams­ter­dam & Paris 1998 – 99; and Gnann 2021.

  2. Recon­struct­ing these routes based on topog­ra­phy was the pri­ma­ry aim of Ams­ter­dam & Paris 1998-99, which built upon the ear­li­er work by Frits Lugt in this regard; see Lugt 1915.

  3. For Rem­brandt’s walks along the Diemerdijk, see Ams­ter­dam & Paris 1998 – 99, 206 – 44.

  4. Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 323, no. D496. See also Ams­ter­dam & Paris, 1998 – 99, 202 – 04, fig. 4; Schat­born 2010, vol. 1, 52 – 54, vol. 2, 21, no. 11; and Gnann 2021, 282 – 83, fig. 261. Schat­born dates this draw­ing to circa 1645, while Gnann groups it with other land­scapes from the early 1650s, and com­pares it specif­i­cal­ly to the Peck Col­lec­tion drawing.

  5. Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 399, no. D624. See also C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken in Paris 2006 – 07, 160 – 61, no. 56; and Gnann 2021, 289 – 90, fig. 269. Although remark­ably exper­i­men­tal in style, the draw­ing’s attri­bu­tion to Rem­brandt rests on his hand­writ­ten notes on the verso for a stop­ping-out var­nish for etch­ing. A draw­ing relat­ed close­ly in style, though not includ­ed in Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, can be found in the Nel­son-Atkins Muse­um of Art, Kansas City (inv. no. 60-20); see Benesch no. 1350; and Gnann 2021, 289, fig. 268 (who accepts both the Lou­vre and Nel­son-Atkins draw­ings as by Rembrandt).

  6. Des­o­late Boedel­skamer, 25 – 26 July 1656; see Strauss & Van der Meulen, 348 – 88, doc. 1656/12, and for the land­scape albums, inv. nos. 244 (fol. 35r), 256 (fol. 35v), and 259 (fol 35v).

  7. Idem, inv. no. 260 (fol. 35v). A sim­i­lar case of reuse of paper for one of the land­scapes can be found in the Lou­vre study cited above (note 5) with his notes for an etch­ing for­mu­la on the verso.

  8. Benesch 1954 – 57 (reprint­ed 1973), passim.

  9. Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 302 – 99, nos. D479 – D624.

  10. Gnann 2021; for the Peck draw­ing, see idem, 281 – 82, fig. 260.

  11. See Gnann 2021, 10 – 11; and White 2022 (a review of Gnann 2021, find­ing the expand­ed oeu­vre con­vinc­ing). For coun­ter­vail­ing argu­ments defend­ing his cor­pus, see Schat­born 2022 (also a review of Gnann 2021).

  12. Bev­ers 2022, 259 – 60.

  13. De Witt 2020, 286 – 87, no. D50. With thanks to David de Witt for con­firm­ing that the Peck draw­ing is not by Van Dijck (email cor­re­spon­dence, 27 Novem­ber 2018).