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Rem­brandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606-1669: Seated Man Warming His Hands by a Fire, c. 1650 

This draw­ing of a seat­ed old man warm­ing his hands by the fire might depict the bib­li­cal patri­arch Tobit, whom Rem­brandt rep­re­sent­ed in this man­ner on numer­ous occa­sions. Bun­dled in a long coat, house slip­pers, and a hat with ear flaps, the intro­spec­tive fig­ure reflects Rem­brandt’s inter­est in express­ing the com­plex inner lives of soli­tary fig­ures dur­ing the early 1650s. Dis­sat­is­fied with his first ren­di­tion of the hands low against the man’s lap, Rem­brandt moved them high­er, apply­ing white chalk or gyp­sum as a cor­rec­tive medi­um that has since faded away. His fre­quent use of this method to edit his draw­ings reveals both the artist’s cre­ative process and exper­i­men­tal work­ing method.

This draw­ing came to light short­ly after Otto Benesch pub­lished the first edi­tion of his com­pre­hen­sive cat­a­logue of Rem­brandt draw­ings in 1954 – 57, but its appear­ance was not a com­plete sur­prise since the image was pre­vi­ous­ly known through a copy in the Bib­liote­ca Reale in Turin Fig. 38.1.1

Follower of Rembrandt, Old Man Warming His Hands by a Fire
Fig. 38.1

Fol­low­er of Rem­brandt, Old Man Warm­ing His Hands by a Fire. Pen and ink on paper, 147 × 207 mm. Turin, Bib­liote­ca Reale, inv. no. 16445b D.C.

Benesch ascer­tained that the Turin draw­ing must have been a copy before he knew of the original’s exis­tence given the copy’s inco­her­ent forms and hes­i­ta­tion of line in cer­tain areas. The date of the orig­i­nal, the present sheet, can be placed on styl­is­tic grounds in the early 1650s.2

Rem­brandt fre­quent­ly made changes to his sketch­es, espe­cial­ly to try out dif­fer­ent posi­tions of limbs, either to give them greater expres­sive mean­ing or to clar­i­fy the com­po­si­tion.3

In this case, he raised both the man’s hands and opened his palms slight­ly in order to cre­ate a more con­vinc­ing sense of receiv­ing warmth from the open fire of the hearth. Rem­brandt cov­ered the cor­rect­ed pas­sage with a white body color, as was often his habit. While it has fre­quent­ly been assumed that this is a lead-white, it could also (and per­haps more like­ly) be a white chalk or gyp­sum.4

The cor­rec­tions in white have most­ly worn away, leav­ing the orig­i­nal pas­sage large­ly exposed and afford­ing us an even bet­ter glimpse at Rembrandt’s work­ing process. He prob­a­bly drew the seat­ed fig­ure first, and only after sketch­ing in the hearth and man­tle real­ized a need to adjust the fig­ure’s hands to bet­ter con­form to the posi­tion of the fire.

As Benesch already noted, the fig­ure is rem­i­nis­cent of one of Rembrandt’s many rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the bib­li­cal Tobit.5

There is noth­ing in the iconog­ra­phy here to make such a con­nec­tion strict­ly clear, but the place­ment of the seat­ed old man by a fire is sug­ges­tive of the story. Episodes from the Book of Tobit were high­ly pop­u­lar with Dutch artists at the time, and espe­cial­ly with Rem­brandt and his pupils. This text was canon­i­cal to Catholics, but despite its sta­tus as Apoc­rypha to the Protes­tants, it was still wide­ly stud­ied in the Nether­lands, and appeared in the Dutch-lan­guage Bible approved by the Synod of Dor­drecht.6

The story most­ly recounts the tales of Tobit’s son, Tobias, who encoun­ters var­i­ous tri­als and haz­ards in a quest to retrieve a debt owed to his father in anoth­er city, and along the way finds a cure for his father’s blind­ness. In an etch­ing dated 1651, Rem­brandt touch­ing­ly shows Tobit get­ting up from his chair by the fire and trip­ping over his wife Anna’s spin­ning wheel when he learns that his beloved son had final­ly returned home Fig. 38.2.7

Rembrandt, The Blind Tobit: Large Plate
Fig. 38.2

Rem­brandt, The Blind Tobit: Large Plate, 1651. Etch­ing on paper, 160 × 129 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rp-p-ob-293.

In the etch­ing, the old man wears a large over­coat and sim­i­lar slip­pers to those seen here. In a draw­ing he made a few years later, Rem­brandt depict­ed a seat­ed Tobit wear­ing a sim­i­lar tall cap while he address­es Anna, who has just brought home a goat Fig. 38.3.8

Rembrandt (or follower?), Tobit and Anna with the Goat
Fig. 38.3

Rem­brandt (or fol­low­er?), Tobit and Anna with the Goat, c. 1655 – 60. Pen and ink on paper, 146 × 185 mm. Berlin, Kuper­stichk­abi­nett, inv. no. KdZ 3090.

Rem­brandt paint­ed, drew, or etched many images of Tobit, and treat­ed his story more than any other in the Bible through­out his career. 9

Although no hearth or descrip­tion of Tobit seat­ed by a fire fea­tures in the orig­i­nal bib­li­cal text, it had become con­ven­tion­al to show him this way. As early as 1626, Rem­brandt had already begun his habit of depict­ing the blind Tobit seat­ed by a fire.10

Later in his career, he inno­vat­ed by show­ing an aspect of the story that was not pre­vi­ous­ly treat­ed, Tobit and Anna’s long wait for Tobias’s return. A paint­ing in Rot­ter­dam dated 1659 shows Tobit doz­ing by the hearth while Anna spins Fig. 38.4.11

Rembrandt (attributed to), Tobit and Anna
Fig. 38.4

Rem­brandt (attrib­uted to), Tobit and Anna, 1659. Oil on panel, 40.3 × 54 cm. Rot­ter­dam, Muse­um Boi­j­mans Van Beunin­gen, inv. no. VdV65.

The bib­li­cal text reads: Now Tobit his father count­ed every day; and when the days of the jour­ney were expired, and they came not, then Tobit said Are they detained?’ ” (Tobit 10:1 – 2).

As many com­men­ta­tors have remarked, the story must have held a deeply per­son­al mean­ing for Rem­brandt, whose own father was blind as an old man.12

Rem­brandt may or may not have been plan­ning one of his many images of Tobit when he made the Peck sketch, which depicts a fig­ure whose gaze might be con­strued as dis­tant but not nec­es­sar­i­ly blind. It nev­er­the­less remains a pleas­ing study treat­ing the uncom­pli­cat­ed act of warm­ing one­self by a fire. Just the same, this com­mon­place pose could carry sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater emo­tion­al impact in Rembrandt’s hands when placed in a nar­ra­tive context.

End Notes

  1. Benesch 1954 – 57, vol. 2, 117, no. C26a (not repro­duced). For the copy, see espe­cial­ly Sci­ol­la 2007, 173 – 74, no. 135, with fur­ther references.

  2. Benesch 1960, 154, no. 58; and Benesch 1973, vol. 5, no. 1153a. Benesch had pre­vi­ous­ly thought the orig­i­nal to have been made around 1636, judg­ing only from the copy, which is why he list­ed the copy in an ear­li­er vol­ume of his chrono­log­i­cal corpus.

  3. A good exam­ple of this is the series of changes in the posi­tion of the arms of the sick woman lying on the ground in the etch­ing Christ Heal­ing the Sick (The Hun­dred Guilder Print). Sur­viv­ing sketch­es show­ing these changes are in the Rijksmu­se­um, Ams­ter­dam; the Kupfer­stichk­abi­nett, Berlin; and the Clement C. Moore col­lec­tion, New York. See Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, nos. D86, D87, D89; Schat­born 1985, no. 21; Bev­ers 2006, no. 40; and J. S. Turn­er in New York 2012, no. 31.

  4. My thanks to Reba Sny­der for shar­ing her thoughts on this issue. For Rembrandt’s var­i­ous uses of white in his draw­ings, see G. J. Dietz and A. Penz in Bev­ers 2018, 297 – 98.

  5. Benesch 1960, 154, no. 58.

  6. Held 1964, 7.

  7. Bartsch, no. 42; and New Holl­stein (Rem­brandt), no. 265.

  8. Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, no. D163. While accept­ed by Schat­born, the draw­ing is list­ed as a work by an unknown mem­ber of Rembrandt’s school in Bev­ers 2018, 252 – 54, no. 132.

  9. Held 1964, 7.

  10. Rem­brandt Cor­pus, vol. 6, no. 12.

  11. Rem­brandt Cor­pus, vol. 6, no. 266.

  12. Held 1964, 28.