THE DRAWINGS OF REMBRANDT: a revision of Otto Benesch's catalogue raisonné

The intention of this site, which first went online in mid-2012, is to re-examine all the drawings accepted as by Rembrandt in Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt, 6 vols, 2nd ed. enlarged and edited by Eva Benesch, London and New York, 1973. Working towards a new complete catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings, this site will remain for many years work in progress. It also aims to include any drawings that the compiler believes to be by Rembrandt which have appeared since Benesch’s catalogue was published, as well as others that Benesch rejected but which are now thought to be genuine. Although the opinions expressed, which are those of the compiler, should be up to date, the literature (which will in any case be selective) and some provenance details will only be added piecemeal as work progresses.

Catalogues of works by Rembrandt, especially of his paintings and drawings, have an unhappy history. They rapidly become out of date and in some cases have been consigned to near oblivion, even by specialists. The vagaries of connoisseurship are obvious to those who practise it and attempts to catalogue Rembrandt's work seem to lay the fragility of the enterprise particularly bare. Human nature also plays its part and almost every cataloguer of works that were created before around 1700 (and sometimes later) has found his or her detractors. Michelangelo and Raphael spring to mind in this context, for despite being artists whose drawings are usually connected with finished works of art that are well documented, various factions have emerged over the years, either claiming that the early or late works have been too generously or parsimoniously treated, or that there has been a wholesale error affecting every period of the artist's career. Sometimes, the creativity of the connoisseur or art historian seems to rival that of the artists under scrutiny; sometimes it seems to shrivel, failing to allow for the unpredictable nature of any creative enterprise. For myself, I believe that artists can and do at least occasionally make things that appear 'out of character'. So I can only crave the indulgence of those who disagree with me; and I am willing to consider any cogently argued, alternative points of view (please write via the 'Contact' tab).

Rembrandt's drawings offer few ‘footholds’ to any cataloguer - that is, 'documentary' drawings that are signed or can be directly connected with his finished works. Of the 1,450 sheets accepted in Benesch's catalogue (including drawings only retouched by Rembrandt, in his opinion), no more than 78, some with drawings on the verso, can properly be regarded as reliable starting-points for further attributions (see Martin Royalton-Kisch and Peter Schatborn, 'The core group of Rembrandt drawings, II: the list', Master Drawings, vol.49, 2011, pp.323-346). Many of those viewed as reliable by Benesch have since been rejected from Rembrandt's oeuvre altogether and there are dangers for any cataloguer who fails to be rigorous in designating drawings as starting-points. Benesch himself was often lax in this regard and many of his stylistic comparisons seem wide of the mark (just one example: Benesch 152, which Benesch compared for style with Benesch 141, 145, 153 and 351, none of which is particularly similar).

However, a highly exclusive approach produces such a disparate group of drawings that the logic of its creation comes close to collapse. For instance, Rembrandt really seems to have made Benesch nos.7, 12, 15, 20 and 21. They are all in chalk and all date from around 1628-31; yet they are not consistent in style. So how can we know how much more varied he might have been? There will inevitably be times when a cataloguer has to skate on thin ice to include a drawing, one which, however, might seem ripe for exclusion in the eyes of another cataloguer or reviewer, who will duly pounce. But nevertheless the documentary drawings, as they are termed, provide sufficient material to collate without difficulty an oeuvre of around 200 closely comparable drawings - enough, it is hoped, to form the basis for a complete catalogue. But there will always be cases where specialists disagree.

This is surely because, however scientific we cataloguers try to be, it is likely that we will 'project' ourselves into (or empathise with) the Rembrandt that we study. And so differences in the personalities of the individual cataloguers will engender different, individual ideas of Rembrandt - and, therefore, of what he might have created. This is a problem of psychology. For example, a conservative-minded scholar with a very tidy desk and appearance, who usually wears a suit and never has a hair out of place (think Frits Lugt?), might create a different Rembrandt oeuvre to a more bohemian type of scholar with unruly hair, an untidy desk and who wears torn jeans and a T-shirt. As hard as they try to 'objectivise' what they see, the Rembrandt oeuvres they create might vary. It should also be taken into account that the documentary sheets often surprise us: what else really looks like the Grossmann Album sketch or the Payson Portrait, Benesch 257 and 433, for instance? And there is therefore every reason to expect that the non-documentary drawings will also surprise us (like the Study of Hendrickje Sleeping, Benesch 1103, for which it is hard to find clear analogies, especially among the documentary drawings). They may also sometimes disappoint us as well - as, for example, in the studies for the 100 Guilder Print: Benesch 388, or the very left segment of Benesch 188, or the leg and hand at the lower left of Benesch 183. We need to accept that Rembrandt's approach was endemically experimental and surprising; thus we should not and cannot confine him in an overly rigid stylistic straightjacket.

It also seems to the present writer that, more often than hitherto, cataloguers need to shade their attributions with degrees of certainty and to articulate particular arguments for each case, especially for those that are controversial. Old-style 'papal pronouncements' are now rightly viewed with suspicion, but the alternative is by no means easy. But once formulated, the arguments can be tested and, with superior arguments, reasserted or refuted. This is the ancient, Aristotelian way of doing things. Many times in my career I have encountered supposed authorities (usually not on Rembrandt) who pronounce their opinions ex-cathedra, without supporting arguments. This is to be deplored, especially in cases where reasonable doubts have a place.

The greatest difficulty is posed by the fact that Rembrandt had vast numbers of pupils, most of them undocumented. Albums of drawings by Rembrandt’s pupils may well have survived without a name, and then been split up and assigned to the master, creating enormous problems for us now. Their contents might have resembled not only Rembrandt's own work but also drawings by other pupils of his, especially those of the same generation who worked together in the master's studio. We have to assume that we will always be faced with large amounts of material that will forever remain anonymous. Somehow this goes against the grain of the investigative instinct: we want to know and want to make discoveries. But the discoveries, as past experience has shown, often turn out to be illusory. So is it preferable to leave a drawing in an honest anonymity, or to try to attach it, albeit tentatively, to a name? The latter course is hard to resist, but again, the nuance or degree of reliabilty of each attribution needs to be expressed. For this reason question marks are used here to denote the plausibility of each idea (as far as the compiler is concerned).[1] Thus:

Rembrandt* - a documentary drawing by Rembrandt.
Rembrandt - very probably and in my view by Rembrandt (often based on comparisons
with documentary sheets).
Rembrandt? - 'attributed to Rembrandt': possibly by Rembrandt but the attribution is
far from certain. However, a question-mark in brackets (?) suggests that my own
doubts, at least, are minimal.
Rembrandt?? - 'associated with Rembrandt': the attribution to Rembrandt is unlikely
but not impossible.

Drawings marked with one or more question marks may eventually be included in an 'attributed to Rembrandt' category.

Occasionally more than one name is suggested:
Rembrandt? or Flinck? possibly by one of these two artists.

A comparable system was employed - though using one or two letter x's or asterisks - by Professor Werner Sumowski (in his Drawings of the Rembrandt School, New York, vols 1–10, 1979 etc.). Like him, I have tried to suggest alternative attributions or to indicate further nuances of certainty regarding each attribution wherever appropriate, giving reasons for deviating from any widely-held opinions. But not every drawing requires new comments beyond re-affirming Benesch's remarks.

Finally, the extraordinary amount of scholarly and other literature that is currently being produced on Rembrandt means that there are certain to be omissions here, quite apart from any errors of fact. I would welcome being alerted to literature that has been omitted. My hope is that the site will nonetheless be viewed as a 'good place to start' for the study of Rembrandt's individual drawings. If the truth be told, at least for the specialist, that is all that any catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings can ever really be.

Martin Royalton-Kisch
Former Senior Curator (retired in 2009)
Department of Prints and Drawings
The British Museum
June 2012

Many people have helped me over the years to familiarise myself and grapple with the connoisseurship of drawings and of Rembrandt's drawings in particular. On a general level I remember with gratitude the help and tuition I received as a student from the late Michael Jaffé and from the head of the Department of Prints and Drawings when I first joined the British Museum in 1975, John Gere. The latter was also an ideal taskmaster, honing my skills (such as they are!) as a writer - he was renowned for the clarity and concision of his prose and for the perfection of his grammar, and happily passed his knowledge on.

Where Rembrandt is concerned, if the text and bibliography of this catalogue mention one living author more than any other, it is Peter Schatborn, who was the first to realise that very large numbers of drawings assigned to Rembrandt by Benesch were of doubtful authenticity. He has always been a good friend and collaborator, and freely communicates what he knows. We have already discussed some of the catalogue entries on this site (though the errors remain mine of course). I have known him since the 1970s, but was fortunate that his thorough catalogue of the drawings in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, 1985) was in preparation when I began to specialise in Dutch art, and in Rembrandt, in the early 1980s.

The monumental catalogues of Werner Sumowski devoted to the drawings and paintings of the Rembrandt school are of prime importance as a resource and set the highest standards in documenting the history and literature of each drawing. Other catalogues that remain crucial to my task include especially Jeroen Giltaij's permanent catalogue of the drawings in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (Rotterdam, 1988), Emmanuel Starcky's exhibition catalogue describing the holdings of the Louvre (Exh. Paris, 1988-89) and Holm Bevers' catalogue of the drawings in the German capital (Berlin, 2006).

Other catalogues to which I have returned many times with gratitude include Görel Cavalli-Björkman and Börje Magnusson's 'Rembrandt och hans tid' (Exh. Stockholm, 1992-93) and Thea Vignau-Wilberg's 'Rembrandt auf Papier' (Exh. Munich-Amsterdam, 2001-2002). As work progresses on this catalogue, I am sure this list will only grow, but I cannot deny that the online catalogues of drawings in the Louvre and (yes!) the British Museum are proving incredibly useful.

Finally, all Rembrandt researchers remain greatly indebted to the work of the pioneers in the field, especially Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930) and, of course, Otto Benesch (1896-1964). Whatever the perceived shortcomings of their catalogues, theirs were monumental achievements in their time and all present cataloguers stand on their shoulders.

I also gratefully acknowledge the help of the following experts and colleagues in recent years: Kirsti Blom and An van Camp (British Museum); Benjamin Perronnet (Christie's, London); Gregory Rubinstein (Sotheby's, London); Nicolas Schwed (Paris); Møyfrid Tveit (Oslo, Nationalgalleriet); Thomas Williams (London)


[1] These designations were adjusted in August 2015. Previously they were as follows:
Rembrandt - by Rembrandt.
Rembrandt? - very probably and in my view by Rembrandt.
Rembrandt?? - 'attributed to Rembrandt': possibly by Rembrandt but the attribution is
far from certain.
Rembrandt??? - 'associated with Rembrandt': the attribution to Rembrandt is unlikely
but not impossible.
Separating out the documentary drawings, and having a category of drawings without a question mark for those drawings still accepted as by Rembrandt, hopefully makes the revised system clearer, and more in accord with comparable catalogues.

Long ago, I think in around 1984, I met Giles Robertson (1913 -1987) of Edinburgh University, a prominent art historian and an expert on Giovanni Bellini. He told me that as a young man he had worked as the translator of Benesch's catalogue raisonné from German into English. As far as I am aware, his enormous achievement, a model in terms of quality throughout the vast length of the text, has never been acknowledged and I feel it a privilege to mention him here.

Anyone is welcome to quote from this site. Please acknowledge by writing:

'rembrandtcatalogue.net (accessed [date])'.

I am keeping regular backups to show how the text read at various dates.

Martin Royalton-Kisch

Until 2009 Senior Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings,
The British Museum

Martin Royalton-Kisch has spent most of his career - almost 30 years - in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. He was responsible for the outstanding collections of Dutch, Flemish and French prints and drawings. He has written and lectured widely on European art by the old masters and organised and assisted with exhibitions on many artists and topics including Bruegel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, French drawings and on the history of collecting.

His chief publications are his books and exhibition catalogues on Adriaen van de Venne's Album (1988), Drawings by Rembrandt and his Circle (1992) and The Light of Nature: Landscape Drawings and Watercolours by Van Dyck and his Contemporaries (1999). He has also written for many specialist journals and contributed to major exhibition catalogues, including Rembrandt the Printmaker (2000, which he edited), Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Drawings and Prints (2001), and French Drawings: Clouet to Seurat (2005).


Martin 2016 as Chircop examiner

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