Choose a background colour

Rem­brandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606-1669: Studies of Women and Children, c. 1640 

Quick, con­fi­dent pen strokes applied with pen and ink demon­strate Rem­brandt’s unpar­al­leled abil­i­ty to cap­ture the essence of his sub­jects’ fea­tures, body lan­guage, and emo­tion­al state with just a few lines. Observed from life, this study of women and chil­dren bears an inscrip­tion by the artist, one of about sev­en­teen extant draw­ings known today. It says, a lit­tle child with an old jack­et on his head,” appar­ent­ly a note­wor­thy detail for Rem­brandt. Rem­nants of a third sketch along the upper edge, which per­haps repeat­ed the seat­ed woman and infant motif, indi­cate these stud­ies once belonged to a larg­er sheet.

This is one of a hand­ful of Rembrandt’s charm­ing draw­ings of women and chil­dren observed from life, ren­dered with a keen eye for char­ac­ter, behav­ior, and move­ment.1

The woman on the right appears to be war­i­ly eye­ing some­thing or some­one while gen­tly pulling along a tod­dler who slight­ly protests the forced move­ment. The blasé infant on the left, how­ev­er, rests at ease, cra­dled in the arms of a woman who appears to be seat­ed. Rem­brandt bril­liant­ly sug­gest­ed this woman’s lower legs with his fin­ger (or per­haps a dry brush) dipped in an over­loaded pas­sage of ink and swift­ly swiped along the paper. 

His inscrip­tion records a detail that he either found amus­ing or worth remem­ber­ing about the infant’s head cov­er­ing: a lit­tle child with an old jack­et on his head” (een kindeken met een oudt jack op sijn hoofd­ken). By jack­et” (jack or jak), he prob­a­bly meant a small child’s over­coat, or what today would be called a man­telt­je. Rem­brandt was occa­sion­al­ly in the habit of inscrib­ing his own draw­ings with sim­i­lar remarks, though only about sev­en­teen such sheets sur­vive, and most of these inscrip­tions appear on his his­to­ry sub­jects.2

This is the only genre scene with women and chil­dren he inscribed, and the last of his known draw­ings inscribed by own hand to reach a pub­lic col­lec­tion. He obvi­ous­ly added the inscrip­tion after both fig­ure groups were fin­ished, to judge from its exact place­ment between them. Because the inscrip­tion is auto­graph (clear­ly match­ing the orthog­ra­phy of his estab­lished hand­writ­ing), the Peck sheet has been des­ig­nat­ed as a core work,” one of the draw­ings indis­putably by Rem­brandt. These can be use­ful for schol­ars attempt­ing to eval­u­ate the some­times dif­fi­cult to deter­mine attri­bu­tions of other draw­ings that may or may not be by him.3

The tan­gle of lines along the upper edge indi­cates that it was cut from a larg­er sheet at some point, but a match for the miss­ing por­tion has yet to come to light. It is pos­si­ble that it repeats the motif of the woman cradling the infant in her arms, reflec­tive of Rembrandt’s ten­den­cy to some­times offer the same sub­ject with a dif­fer­ent aspect or from a dif­fer­ent angle in his sketch­es.4

An exam­ple from the same peri­od, a draw­ing of a beg­ging moth­er with her chil­dren, is in the Lou­vre Fig. 17.1.

Rembrandt, Two Studies of a Seated Beggar Woman with Two Children
Fig. 17.1

Rem­brandt, Two Stud­ies of a Seat­ed Beg­gar Woman with Two Chil­dren, c. 1639. Pen and brown ink on paper, 175 × 140 mm. Paris, Musée du Lou­vre, inv. no. 22965.

He used a sim­i­lar­ly heavy iron-gall ink, which tends to seep into the paper over time and make the lines seem thick­er than they orig­i­nal­ly appeared.

While a few dozen of Rembrandt’s stud­ies of women and chil­dren sur­vive, there must have been many more. One of the most avid col­lec­tors of Rembrandt’s draw­ings in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry was the artist Jan van de Cap­pelle (1624 – 1679), whose inven­to­ry drawn up in 1680 con­tained a port­fo­lio with 135 draw­ings of the life of women with chil­dren by Rem­brandt.”5

He prob­a­bly obtained these dur­ing the sales in 1657 – 58 brought about by Rembrandt’s bank­rupt­cy, along with a large num­ber of other draw­ings by the artist that later turned up in Van de Cappelle’s col­lec­tion.6

It is entire­ly pos­si­ble that the present draw­ing once belonged to the album men­tioned in Van de Cappelle’s inventory.

Most of Rembrandt’s draw­ings fea­tur­ing women and chil­dren date to the late 1630s or early 1640s. As schol­ars have long noted, Rembrandt’s wife Sask­ia bore four chil­dren in these years, a fact which pre­sum­ably spurred his inter­est in the sub­ject mat­ter. Sadly, though not entire­ly uncom­mon for the era, their first three chil­dren did not sur­vive infan­cy. Rum­bar­tus was born in Decem­ber 1635 and buried two months later. Two daugh­ters named Cor­nelia (born in 1638 and 1640) only sur­vived for about two weeks each. Only their fourth child, Titus (1641 – 1668), sur­vived into adult­hood.7

In later years, with his part­ner Hen­drick­je Stof­fels, Rem­brandt had a daugh­ter who also sur­vived into adult­hood who was also named Cor­nelia (1654 – 1684). Given Rembrandt’s pen­chant for depict­ing his wife Sask­ia in var­i­ous paint­ings, draw­ings, and prints before her death in 1642, ear­li­er schol­ars were under­stand­ably tempt­ed to posit the iden­ti­ty of some of the chil­dren in Rembrandt’s draw­ings from circa 1635 to 1645 as his own.8

As other schol­ars have point­ed out, how­ev­er, this prac­tice proves dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile with the pre­sumed dates of a num­ber of draw­ings, includ­ing this one, which he like­ly made before Titus’s birth in 1641, and in which the chil­dren appear to be too old to have been either Rum­bar­tus or the two infants named Cor­nelia.9

Rembrandt’s inscrip­tion, in any case, should also give us pause about the urge to iden­ti­fy the chil­dren in this and other works as fam­i­ly mem­bers or known acquain­tances. He labeled the infant here anony­mous­ly as sim­ply a kindeken. It is far more like­ly that these women and chil­dren were unknown to him, observed with artis­tic inter­est on the streets around him. That he made this draw­ing dur­ing a peri­od of emo­tion­al­ly affect­ing and undoubt­ed­ly grief-filled early father­hood is all the more remark­able. Otto Benesch dated this draw­ing circa 1636 on styl­is­tic grounds, but more recent schol­ar­ship has tend­ed to push it more toward the end of the decade, to circa 1639 – 40.10

The Peck draw­ing has the rare dis­tinc­tion of bear­ing the same water­mark found in anoth­er Rem­brandt draw­ing, Three Women and a Child in the Rijksmu­se­um, an exact match con­firmed by recent tech­ni­cal analy­sis Fig. 17.2.11

Rembrandt, Three Women and a Child by a Door to a House
Fig. 17.2

Rem­brandt, Three Women and a Child by a Door to a House, c. 1640. Pen and brown ink on paper, 233 × 178 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rp-t-1889-a-2056.

It is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble that Rem­brandt used sheets from the same ream of paper years apart, but more like­ly, and espe­cial­ly given the large amount of paper he obvi­ous­ly used on a day-to-day basis, these two draw­ings were made around the same time. Peter Schat­born orig­i­nal­ly put the Rijksmu­se­um sheet in the mid-1640s, but more recent­ly assigned it a recon­sid­ered date of circa 1640 on styl­is­tic grounds, which hap­pens to be more in keep­ing with the con­jec­tured date range of this draw­ing as well.12

End Notes

  1. For Rembrandt’s draw­ings with women and chil­dren, see Vogel-Köhn 1981; Edin­burgh & Lon­don 2001, pas­sim; P. Schat­born in Paris 2006 – 07, 14 – 16; and Slive 2009, 80 – 89.

  2. Schat­born & Dudok van Heel 2011.

  3. For the three-part Core List” of Rembrandt’s draw­ings, see Schat­born 2011a; Roy­al­ton-Kisch & Schat­born 2011; and Schat­born & Dudok van Heel 2011. For the present draw­ing, see idem, 349, no. IX. For an ortho­graph­ic analy­sis of Rembrandt’s inscrip­tion on this work, see Roy­al­ton-Kisch, Benesch Online, no. 300, 8 Novem­ber 2016 (accessed 22 Decem­ber 2021).

  4. For the sug­ges­tion that the miss­ing frag­ment repeats the motif, see Peck 2003, 26; and C. S. Ack­ley in Boston & Chica­go 2003 – 04, 172.

  5. Bredius 1892, 37: No. 17. Een dito [port­fo­lio] daerin sijn 135 tekenin­gen sijnde het vrouwen­leven met kinderen van Rem­brant.”

  6. Schat­born 1981, 10 – 12.

  7. Bikker 2019, 70 – 71, 77, 208.

  8. Slive 2019, 14.

  9. See, for exam­ple, F. Stampfle in Turn­er 2006, 139 – 40, no. 211; and J. Lloyd Williams in Edin­burgh & Lon­don 2001, 134, no. 53. It has been point­ed out that Rem­brandt would have been famil­iar with the sev­er­al chil­dren of his for­mer employ­er, Hen­drick Uylen­burgh, in these years (see Ams­ter­dam 1984 – 85, 8), though the notion that his draw­ings might depict them seems too speculative.

  10. Vogel-Köhn 1981, 221, no. 51 (c. 1639 – 40); Peck 2003, 26 – 29, no. 5 (c. 1640); and Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 229, no. D344 (c. 1639).

  11. Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 235, no. D362; and Schat­born 1985, 62 – 63, no. 27. For the water­mark, see idem, 237, no. 27. My thanks to Charles R. John­son for con­firm­ing the match using MAWI software.

  12. Schat­born 1985, 62 – 63, no. 27 (mid1640s); and Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 235, no. D362 (c. 1640).