Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
- judas returning the thirty pieces of silver
- Black chalk, pen and brown ink and gray wash, within black ink framing lines; a slight pen and ink sketch of the two central figures on the verso
Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Bart. (L.1534);
possibly Archduke Karl of Saxony;
Archduke Albrecht of Saxony;
Albertina Collection, Vienna;
from whom acquired in 1918 by Archduke Friedrich Habsburg-Lothringen;
E.J. Goeritz, London;
thereafter by descent
J. Meder, Handzeichnungen alter Meister aus der Albertina und aus Privatbesitz, N.F. Vienna 1922, p. 11, reproduced pl. 39;
Kurt Bauch, Die Kunst des jungen Rembrandt, Heidelberg 1933, p. 194, fig. 62;
Wilhelm R. Valentiner, Rembrandt. Des Meisters Handzeichnungen, Klassiker der Kunst, XXXI, vol. II, Stuttgart/Berlin 1934, pp. 20, 387, no. 461, reproduced (as formerly in the Albertina, but sold; erroneously listed as HdG 1421);
Otto Benesch, Rembrandt, Werk und Forschung, Vienna 1935, p. 9;
idem, Rembrandt, Selected Drawings, London/New York 1947, no. 6;
Werner Sumowski, 'Bemerkungen zu Otto Beneschs Corpus der Rembrandtzeichnungen I', Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 1956/57, under no. 8 (as the work of a pupil);
idem, Bemerkungen zu Otto Beneschs Corpus der Rembrandtzeichnungen II, Bad Pyrmont 1961, p. 3, under no. 8 (as Rembrandt);
Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt, rev. ed., London 1973, vol. I, p. 5, no. 8, reproduced fig. 14;
W. Wegner, Die niederländischen Handzeichnungen des 15.-18. Jahrhunderts, Munich 1973, p. 171, under no. 1179;
J. Bruyn et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, vol. I, The Hague/Boston/London 1982, pp. 185-190, under no. A15, reproduced p.185, fig. 7;
P. Schatborn, Drawings by Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 1985, pp. 12-15, fig. 5d;
J. Giltaij, The Drawings by Rembrandt and his school in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1988, pp. 38-9, fig. e, under cat. no. 2;
Ernst van de Wetering and Bernhard Schnackenburg, The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt, exhib. cat., Kassel/Amsterdam, 2001-2, pp. 226, fig. 33a, 228-9, under no. 33;
E. van der Wetering, Rembrandt, The Painter at Work, Amsterdam 1997, pp. 75-6, fig. 104;
idem, Rembrandt, Quest of a Genius, Zwolle 2006, p. 83, fig. 85
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This powerful, small composition study, which despite its extensive publication history has not been seen by scholars for more than half a century, represents a crucial step in the tortuous process by which the young Rembrandt arrived at the final composition of his early masterpiece, Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (fig. 1).1 The painting, begun in 1628 when the artist was just 22 years old and completed in the following year, was one of his earliest ambitious historical compositions, and is the very first to show anything of the distinctive approach to composition, lighting and narrative that characterize his subsequent works, and define our very image of Rembrandt and his art.
During his stay in the Amsterdam studio of Pieter Lastman, where he trained in 1625, Rembrandt would have absorbed the long established message that history painting was the noblest genre to which an artist could aspire, and thereafter his ambitions clearly lay in that direction. Shortly after his apprenticeship, he produced a small number of paintings of classical and biblical themes that strongly echo Lastman's compositional approach. But it was in his Judas that Rembrandt first truly broke new ground, both in the choice of this rarely depicted subject and in the extraordinary final composition, with its radical, widely separated highlights and raw depictions of emotion. This immense originality was not, however, achieved without effort. Rembrandt seems to have worked on this relatively small painting for about a year, and has left us with more evidence of the course of his creative process than for almost any other painting that he ever made. The panel itself reveals extensive revisions, visible both in X-rays (fig.2) and on the actual surface of the painting, and we also have – very unusually – no fewer than three drawings that clearly relate to the development of the composition. Hardly any of Rembrandt's surviving drawings can be directly linked in this way with the creation of a painted work, and there is no other painting by the artist for which so many compositional studies are known.
Taking together the evidence of the underlying paint layers on the panel itself and the various preparatory drawings, it is possible to suggest a reconstruction of the evolution of the composition, which changed radically during its development.2 First, Rembrandt sketched out the whole composition in oil paint directly onto the panel, his usual way of working from very early in his career. He then seems to have decided that the composition he had initially designed was unsatisfactory, so he made at least three drawings, including the present work, in which he explored alternative compositional solutions, before returning to the panel itself, revising his original composition extensively. There is no clear evidence to indicate whether these revisions to the panel were made in a piecemeal way, with the artist going back and forth between drawings and painting, or if he worked out his changes in a series of drawings before continuing to work on the painting, but either way there is ample evidence of a lengthy compositional evolution.
One of the few aspects of the composition that remained unchanged throughout was the positioning and pose of Judas, who kneels, distraught, before the elders, imploring them to take back the thirty pieces of silver, Christ's blood money, which he has thrown on the floor in front of them. At first, though, Rembrandt seems to have envisaged Judas, who is somewhat to the right of center, appealing to a high priest seated on an elevated throne to the left, separated from him by various other figures. Behind this high priest, the upper left corner of the panel was occupied by a large curtain, subsequently removed from the composition but clearly visible both in the X-rays and in the relief of the final paint surface; the high priest himself was never actually painted onto the panel here, but a section of lighter reserve in and below the curtain indicated where he was to have been placed. Perhaps because the intervening figures would have diminished the intensity of the contact between Judas and the high priest, Rembrandt rapidly abandoned this composition, and set about exploring other options.
On the verso of a fine red chalk drawing of a woman's legs (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam), which is thought to have been made in connection with his 1628 painting of Samson and Delilah, Rembrandt sketched out another idea for the left side of the Judas composition (fig. 3).3 Here, the curtain is still very much in evidence, but the dominant high priest figure, now standing, is placed not at the far left, but to the right of two seated clerics, by whom we also see a large book, which was to come to play a major role in the composition. The standing figure, extremely rapidly sketched in very fine yet confident strokes of the pen, must not, however, have met with the artist's approval, as he was then obliterated with white gouache, and has only become visible once more due to the deterioration of that pigment. Next, Rembrandt sketched a further variant of this figure group – this time without the curtain or the standing high priest – on the verso of another drawing, now in Rotterdam (fig.4).4
The present drawing is the only one to indicate the whole composition, and it incorporates various features not yet seen in any of the other related works – some of them ultimately discarded and others retained. By now, Rembrandt seems to have decided to concentrate all the main protagonists in the center of the composition, and has transformed two previously minor figures that he had placed immediately behind Judas into the traitor's primary opponents, bathing them in a dramatic pool of light. These figures are only very lightly indicated with rapid strokes of the pen, maybe because they were destined to be so intensely lit, but presumably also to some extent because their poses and positioning had not changed from the initial painted version. The left side of the drawing, however, where Rembrandt struggled much more to arrive at his final solution, is very much more heavily worked, with powerful, dashing pen strokes and deep washes. By now, the curtain in the top left has gone, as has any indication of a standing figure towards the left edge. Instead, a little closer to the highlighted figure group around Judas, we see a heavy, looming standing figure, seen from behind. The pattern of reserves in the ground layers of the painting do not suggest that Rembrandt envisaged such a figure from the start, but he clearly did paint one in at some point, only to remove it again later; it is now only visible in the X-ray and faintly in the relief of the paint surface.
In certain other details, such as the indication of a wide arch in the background architecture, or the form of the step on which Judas kneels, this drawing also corresponds with what we see in the X-rays but not in the finished painting, but it is none the less the last in the sequence of the surviving studies relating to the painting. No drawings are known that record the final, crucial leap in the birth of the composition, the moment when Rembrandt came up with the inspired idea of a second, equally strong pool of light to the very left, falling not on any figures but on the great book of the law, and it is entirely possibly that having finally found a solution that he liked, he worked this idea out directly onto the panel, rather than on paper.
The extraordinary effort that Rembrandt put into the creation of this utterly radical painting paid off almost immediately. In around 1630 Constantijn Huygens, the immensely influential secretary to the Dutch Stadholder Frederick Henry, published a diary in which he recorded visiting the Leiden studios of two brilliant young painters whom he described as the equals of the greatest masters who had ever lived: these two artists were Jan Lievens and Rembrandt van Rijn.5 In Huygens' account of the respective accomplishments of the two young geniuses, the painting that he described at length to illustrate Rembrandt's gifts was none other than the Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver. This early published endorsement by Huygens served as a corner-stone of Rembrandt's subsequent critical reputation, and certainly contributed to his dramatic rise to fame during the early 1630s.
The significance of this exceptional drawing is not, however, limited to its pivotal role in the creation of one of Rembrandt's most important early paintings. Both technically and stylistically, the drawing is one of the most accomplished and original of the artist's early works. Its freedom of execution, narrative clarity, striking lighting scheme and radical combination of media all represent the breaking of new ground, when compared with the much more Lastman and Lievens-like drawings that he was producing only a year or two earlier. The broad, increasingly confident penmanship is close to that seen in, for example, the Peasant Couple Walking (formerly in the Koenigs Collection)6 and is also, perhaps surprisingly, very comparable to the only landscape drawing that is known from Rembrandt's Leiden period, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which also incorporates bold, flowing washes.7 But the combination of this type of penwork with much more rapid, scratchier indications in pen, dashing touches of black chalk, and deep, broad washes to indicate the lighting scheme that is, after all, the primary concern in this drawing, is amazingly original. By the mid 1630s, when Rembrandt was in his mature creative stride, such technical originality would not perhaps be so surprising, but at this still early stage in his career it is utterly unexpected. The drawing was made at the exact moment when Rembrandt first discovered the astonishing visual vocabulary that underpinned his reputation as perhaps the greatest artistic colossus of the last four centuries, and his powers are amply evident in this drawing, the visual authority of which belies its physical size.
Although the earliest provenance of the drawing is unknown, by the early 19th century it was in the fine collection of the English Baronet and politician, Sir John St. Aubyn. Thereafter, it must have been acquired by either Archduke Karl or Archduke Albrecht of Saxony, whose Vienna collection was declared state property in 1918, and has thereafter been known as the Albertina, named after the first in the line of collectors who formed it, Albert Casimir (1738-1822), son of August III of Saxony. It was thanks to this that the drawing achieved its prominent position in the literature of early Rembrandt studies: although this was one of a large number of drawings that passed from the Albertina to Archduke Friedrich Habsburg-Lothringen in 1918 and were then dispersed, a high quality facsimile reproduction had been made of it while it was in the Albertina, on the basis of which it was extensively published over the following decades, even though the drawing itself had disappeared from view, and was until now not seen in the original by any leading post-war scholar. Though some of the drawing's more delicate details are hard to detect in the facsimile and a full analysis of its handling is only now possible, the drawing's importance was none the less always recognized, thanks to the existence of this reproduction.
Its re-emergence from obscurity has, however, permitted a much more precise assessment of its visual and technical qualities and of its role in the creation of one of Rembrandt's most important early paintings, and has also answered an enduring question: what is on the back of this sheet? The two other drawings that relate to the same painting, in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, are both drawn on the verso of another, more important study relating to a different painting, and Schatborn at least had wondered whether the same was true of the present drawing.8 The answer, now revealed, is that there is indeed another drawing on the verso of this sheet, but unlike the other two cases, it relates to the same painting; it is a very slight, preliminary sketch for the two central figures in the composition, the kneeling Judas and the standing high priest. But slight though it is, this newly discovered study is revealing, as it is an example, extremely rare in Rembrandt's work, of a very rapid, totally undeveloped figure study. Similar indications in pen and ink can often be detected underlying more elaborate compositional and figure drawings, but such a pure, rapid sketch is indeed a rarity.
Despite this exciting discovery, the primary interest and importance of the sheet remains, of course, the magnificent compositional drawing on the recto. The first important historical drawing by Rembrandt to come on the market in a generation, it is both a magisterial drawing in its own right and a crucial piece of evidence in understanding the complex genesis of one of Rembrandt's most fascinating early paintings. The drawing's significance within the artist's early work is immense, and its reappearance after decades of obscurity is no less significant, allowing a generation of scholars who have written about it on the basis only of an early 20th-century facsimile the opportunity to study the drawing at first hand.
A copy of the drawing is in Munich.
1. Private collection. See J. Bruyn, et al., op. cit., 1982, no. A15
2. Described more fully in J. Bruyn, et al., loc. cit.
3. Benesch 9; see Schatborn, op. cit., 1985, no. 5
4. Benesch 6; see J. Giltay, op. cit., 1988, no. 2
5. See E. van de Wetering and B. Schnackenburg, op. cit., 2001-2, pp. 396-9
6. Benesch 22; sold, New York, Christie's, 25 January 2007, lot 5
7. Benesch 57a; see Van de Wetering and Schnackenburg, op. cit., 2001-2, pp. 240-1, no. 36
8. Schatborn, loc. cit., 1985