Lot 12
  • 12

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn Leiden 1606 - 1669 Amsterdam

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
  • joseph lifted from the well by his brothers
  • pen and brown ink


August Artaria, Vienna (L.33);
Dr. Alfred Ritter von Wurzbach-Tannenberg (L.2587, and with his initials, L.203, and inscription, probably indicating date of purchase: E/AW 6/1897);
Dr. Arthur Feldmann, Brno, Czechoslovakia (see also the previous lot and lots 169-170),
consigned by him for sale, Lucerne, Gilhofer and Ranschburg, 28 June 1934, lot 225, reproduced, plate XXII (unsold);
Looted by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia;
sale, London, Sotheby's, 16 October 1946, lot 64 (together with another, as Attributed to Rembrandt; to Gusta Stenman, Stockholm;
E. Perman, Stockholm;
P. en N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam (inv. no. B476)


Laren, Singer Museum, Oude Tekeningen, een Keuze uit de Verzameling P. en N. de Boer, 1966, no. 191, reproduced plate 44


Otto Benesch, Rembrandt, Werk und Forschung, Vienna 1935, p. 29:
idem, 'Unbekanntes und Verkanntes von Rembrandt', Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, Neue Folge II-III, Cologne 1933-4, p. 301, reproduced fig. 251;
idem, 'Unknown and Wrongly Attributed Drawings by Rembrandt' (English translation of the above), Collected Writings, vol. I, Rembrandt, London 1970, pp. 120-21, reproduced fig. 88;
idem, The Drawings of Rembrandt, Enlarged and edited by Eva Benesch, 6 vols., London 1973, vol. I, p. 50, no. 181, reproduced fig. 217;
M. Royalton-Kisch, Drawings by Rembrandt and his Circle in the British Museum, exhibition catalogue, London, British Museum, 1992, p. 32, n. 1


Laid down. Otherwise extremely good and fresh. Unframed
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Executed in pure pen and ink, without any toning wash or chalk underdrawing, this dynamic and emotionally penetrating compositional drawing is a fine example of Rembrandt's work from the mid 1630s.  Although his drawings of the 1620s are to some extent defined by their relationship with those of other artists - particularly his teacher Pieter Lastman and his fellow Lastman-pupil, Jan Lievens - by the time that he made this study in around 1635, Rembrandt had already embarked on the highly personal and uniquely inspired artistic path that was to define his career and reputation from that time forward. 

Following his move to Amsterdam in 1631, Rembrandt rapidly achieved considerable standing as a portrait painter, and at the same time sought more and more to establish himself as a significant history painter;  this was the decade in which he produced many of his most impressive, dynamic and baroque works, culminating in the famous Passion series, painted for Prince Frederick Hendrik, and the Nightwatch of 1642.  In Rembrandt's drawings too, we see a clear effort around this time to capture a real baroque exuberance, and also the emergence of a supreme confidence.  One senses that Rembrandt really knew, in a way that he perhaps had not during the 1620s, that he could make every slight line speak volumes, and he uses them to construct his figures and convey his thoughts without the slightest hesitation.  

The relationship of the different drawing media in Rembrandt's early work is a fascinating one.  From his teacher, Pieter Lastman, the young Rembrandt learned how to use certain media to explore particular aspects of the subject in question.  So, when the primary purpose of a drawing was to clarify the texture and surface lighting of a figure, the chosen medium would almost certainly be chalk, either pure red, or a combination of red and black.  If, however, the chief purpose of the drawing was to capture movement, or to define broader compositional arrangements, then pen and ink, perhaps with brown wash, would often be more appropriate.  As Rembrandt's artistic confidence and personality developed, so he came to experiment more and more with the various drawing media at his disposal, but throughout his career, the choice of medium always remained closely related to the subject and specific function of the drawing.

Here, Rembrandt has used extremely rapid, yet very subtly varied strokes of the pen to construct a deceptively complex composition, in which the interplay between the flat configuration of the shapes on the page and the three-dimensional arrangement of the figures within the fictive picture space are perfectly balanced.  Indeed, the illusion of space is extremely sophisticated: thanks to the carefully judged modulations between the darker and lighter touches of the pen (a technique none of Rembrandt's pupils or imitators ever quite mastered to the same extent) we are never in any doubt as to exactly where in space any of the figures in the present drawing are meant to be.

Also typical of Rembrandt's genius as a draughtsman is the way in which, with the minimum number of strokes of the pen, the most important of the individual figures are constructed so that they too have total spatial integrity, and stand with an entirely natural and immensely rooted weight: the figure seen from the back, in the centre of the composition, is a perfect example of this.  No less characteristic is the emotional intensity of the artist's interpretation of his biblical subject.  The story of Joseph, with its theme of fraternal betrayal and ultimate redemption, is a highly charged one, and the furious penwork and schematic, yet emotive, facial expressions seen in this drawing perfectly communicate the essence of the subject.

The stylistic elements of this drawing as described so far are typical of a number of Rembrandt's drawings of the mid-1630s.  As Peter Schatborn and Holm Bevers have, independently, pointed out, perhaps the closest to this in style amongst Rembrandt's other drawings is the splendid, and highly theatrical, depiction of a quack doctor peddling his dubious remedies in a market, a drawing now in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett.1  There as here, Rembrandt has created a composition, an atmosphere, an illusion of space and a series of animated and perfectly balanced figures with a series of immensely rapid, dashing and confident strokes of the pen.

Though the Berlin drawing has only ever been published as an autograph work by Rembrandt, it is not, however, one of the seventy or so "documentary" Rembrandt drawings - works which can be attributed to the master with total certainty, either due to documentary evidence or because they are unquestionably linked with other incontrovertibly autograph works.  Of these "documentary" sheets, the most similar to this is the Dresden drawing of The Rape of Ganymede2, a study for Rembrandt's 1635 painting, also in Dresden.  In the Dresden drawing, the penwork is elaborated with brown wash, but otherwise the drawing is very comparable to the present work, in the energy and variation of the pen strokes, the distinctively stylised facial types, and the overall emotional intensity of the composition. 

Schatborn, Bevers and others have no hesitation in linking the various drawings described above, and in accepting all of them as important autograph works by Rembrandt, dating from the period around 1635-8, but some scholars have recently argued that certain characteristics of the Berlin Quack doctor drawing, the present sheet and a few others to which these can be compared are different enough from any documentary drawings to warrant considering an alternative attribution to the young Gerbandt van den Eeckhout, who must have studied with Rembrandt around 1635-40.  Eeckhout's earliest securely attributable drawings date from 1641/2, but it has been suggested that a number of other sheets formerly attributed to Rembrandt should instead be considered as early works by the undoubtedly gifted Eeckhout, dating from the second half of the 1630s.  Comparison between the present drawing and sheets such as the Crucifixion in Berlin3 (recently and convincingly reattributed from Rembrandt to Eeckhout), does, however, reveal a very different quality of draughtsmanship, and spatial and emotional power.  Furthermore, there is no obvious stylistic link between Eeckhout's characteristic, mature drawings and works such as the present drawing and the Berlin Quack.  Also to be questioned is the suggestion that the presence in these latter two drawings of certain specific stylised facial features, most notably the distinctive open mouths of one or two of the figures, is a reason to doubt the attribution to Rembrandt.  In fact, this very expressive and animated device is one that can be found in various Rembrandt drawings from the late 1620s on4, and its presence here further reinforces the attribution to Rembrandt.

Complete compositional drawings from this crucial and productive period of Rembrandt's career hardly ever appear on the market.  A number of good Rembrandt drawings have been sold in recent years, but almost all of these have either been landscapes (mostly from the group sold from Chatsworth in the 1980s), or have been small figure studies.  The last significant compositional drawing to appear was the much later (mid-late 1650s) Noli me Tangere, sold from the Koenigs collection in 20015, and one has to go back to 1989 for the last time that a significant 1630s compositional drawing came to auction (the Three Women at the Entrance of a House, now in the Krugier-Poniatowski Collection).6  Perhaps even more than in his paintings, Rembrandt's drawings of the second half of the 1630s demonstrate how he had by then come of age as an artist, and also how uniquely fertile and creative were his artistic gifts.  This extremely well preserved work is a perfect expression of all the qualities that characterise Rembrandt's drawings of this period.  It is a very satisfying and complete visual entity, an emotionally moving depiction of the biblical subject and, above all, a superb example of the art of drawing.      

1. Benesch no. 416

2. Benesch no. 92

3. Benesch no. 108; see also H. Bevers, Rembrandt Drawings from the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, Rembrandthuis, 2007, p. 118

4. e.g. the Man Leaning on a Stick, c. 1626-7, Benesch no. 27

5. New York, Sotheby's, 23 January 2001, lot 17

6. Monaco, Sotheby's, 1 December 1989, lot 71