About (a brief introduction)

THE DRAWINGS OF REMBRANDT – a revision of Otto Benesch’s catalogue raisonné

The intention of this site, which first went online with drawings up to no.135 in June 2012, is to re-examine all the drawings accepted as by Rembrandt in the catalogue by 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. The aim is to complete the catalogue in around 2030-35 (20 years or more gestation for a catalogue raisonné of this kind is not exceptional). 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 They rapidly become out of date and in some cases have been consigned to near oblivion, even by specialists.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 of art 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; at other moments 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 about any particular drawing (please write via the ‘Contact’ tab).

Rembrandt’s drawings offer few ‘footholds’ to any cataloguer – that is to say, there are few ‘documentary’ drawings, such as works that are signed or can be directly connected with one of 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 versos, can properly be regarded as reliable starting-points for further attributions – so-called documentary drawings.[1] Many of those viewed as reliable by Benesch have since been rejected from Rembrandt’s oeuvre altogether, exposing the dangers for any cataloguer who fails to be rigorous in designating drawings as starting-points. It has to be said that 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 he compared for style with Benesch 141, 145, 153 and 351, none of which seems 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 the documentary drawings, 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 Rembrandt 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, who will duly pounce. Speaking about Mozart in 1968, the brilliant (in every sense) pianist, Glenn Gould, said that “Within every creative person there is an inventor at odds with the museum curator. And most of the extraordinary and moving things that happen in art are the result of the momentary gain by [the] one at the expense of the other.” Thus chastened, it is clear that the curator, connoisseur or art-historian needs to suppress his or her preconceptions and prejudices (in fact, much of their academic training) when judging works of art, or analysing their meanings and in particular the progress of an artist’s stylistic development: Gould’s ‘inventor’, in our case the artist, if truly inventive, is especially capable of surprising us. That is what great inventors usually do, but often making errors and taking numerous risks along the way. Rembrandt was creative par excellence and an irrepressible risk-taker. His ‘failed’ experiments are more likely to have survived in his drawings than in his paintings, which could easily be reworked, or his etchings, for which the (expensive) copper plate would probably have been put to good re-use. He was not producing a seamless flow of masterpieces, but a series of them, with many less resolved experiments in between that would often have been erased or destroyed along the way. Nor was he producing a textbook, or even a text, which is an entirely different phenonemon, a capacity at which many art-historical writers and academics, from Ruskin and Pater to Panofsky to today, have excelled.

Indeed, the a-textual character of the visual arts places Gould’s inventor (artist producing art) and curator (academic producing texts) – in an opposing, symbiotic relationship with the artist, in which the curator will tend naturally towards the wrong end of the stick. This needs to be borne in mind when judging works of art, even when using the documentary drawings as a starting-point for attributions: while they remain useful, in that they provide sufficient material to collate without difficulty an oeuvre of around 150 drawings, all closely comparable – enough, it is hoped, to form the corner-stone for a complete catalogue – drawings that deviate in style from the ‘documentable’ cannot simply be cast aside as works by followers, most of whom are in any case poorly documented.

Needless to say, there will always be cases where specialists disagree – severed somewhere along the line between the contrary tendencies described by Gould. One reason is that however scientific we cataloguers try to be, it is likely that we will ‘project’ ourselves onto (or empathise with) the Rembrandt that we study. Many drawings present us with few if any close analogies with widely accepted drawings by him, and have something of the character of a Rorschach test: differences in the personalities of the individual cataloguers will engender different, individual responses, even leading to varying ideas of Rembrandt – and, therefore, of what he might have created. This is a problem not simply of the well-worn trope of subjectivity versus obectivity, but primarily of individual psychology. For example, a conservative-minded scholar with a meticulously tidy desk and appearance, who usually wears a suit and never has a hair out of place (think Frits Lugt?), might produce 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. Their ‘methodologies’ might differ, as also their adherence to particular theories or even dogmas. As hard as either or both may try to ‘objectivise’ what they see and to understand each other’s point of view, the Rembrandt oeuvres they create might vary.

Benesch 1103
A Woman Sleeping
(Hendrickje Stoffels)
GB London, British Museum

It should also be re-emphasised that even the documentary sheets often surprise us by their variety: for example, what drawings really compare closely with the Grossmann Album sketch or the Payson Portrait (Benesch 0257 and Benesch 0433)? As starting-points for further attributions they have rarely been invoked. Thus there is every reason to expect that the ‘non-documentary’ drawings will also sometimes surprise us, as is the case with the astonishing Study of Hendrickje Sleeping (Benesch 1103), for which it is hard to find clear analogies, especially among the documentary drawings. Some sketches may also disappoint us as well – for example, some of the studies for the 100 Guilder Print: Benesch 0388, the very left segment of Benesch 0188, or the leg and hand at the lower left of Benesch 183. We need to accept that Rembrandt’s approach was endemically experimental and risky, and the results sometimes surprising; he cannot be confined in a stylistic straightjacket.

It also seems to the present writer that, perhaps 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 at all controversial. Old-style ‘papal pronouncements’ – it is by Rembrandt/it not by Rembrandt – are now rightly viewed with suspicion, but the alternative of arguing a case can be extremely difficult. Once formulated, the arguments can be tested and, with superior arguments, reasserted or refuted. This is the ancient, Aristotelian way of doing things, reinforced in the twentieth century by Karl Popper. 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 their place.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty of all 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 by collectors and dealers and reassigned to the master, creating enormous problems for us now. Their contents might have resembled not only Rembrandt’s own works but also drawings by other pupils of his, especially those of the same generation who had trained at the same time in the workshop. We have to assume that we will always be faced with large amounts of material that will forever remain anonymous or contentious. Somehow this goes against the grain of the investigative instinct: like criminologists, we want to uncover the truth as precisely as possible; and we also 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).

Rembrandt*a documentary drawing by Rembrandt.

Rembrandtvery 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 uncertain. 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.[2]

This method also has the advantage of enabling the inclusion of many drawings (albeit with question-marks) concerning which opinions are divided. The ‘attributed to’ Rembrandt section of the catalogue will therefore be large. 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 extensive comments beyond re-affirming Benesch’s attribution.

Question-marks are similarly used for the dates assigned to the drawings, rather than the more usual “circa” (c. / about), as so often they can only be a “best guess”. Very few sheets are actually dated (and some of them inaccurately) and the question-marks convey to a more honest degree the amount of faith that should usually be placed in the year or years assigned to them. With drawings attributed to Rembrandt’s pupils, this inexactitude may be far-reaching, and even with Rembrandt himself, to place a drawing, say, c.1650, merely on the basis of its apparent affinity with a single dated sheet of two years later, seems less appropriate than to assign it a question-mark.

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 (and the eventual complete publication) will come to be regarded as a ‘good place to start’ for the study of Rembrandt’s individual drawings. If the truth be told, that is probably as much as any catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings can ever aspire to be.

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

[1] See Martin Royalton-Kisch and Peter Schatborn, ‘The core group of Rembrandt drawings, II: the list’, in Master Drawings, vol.49, 2011, pp.323-346).
[2] 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.

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 (Keeper) 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 he 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 grasp fully the extent to which 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, and was fortunate that his thorough catalogue of the Rembrandt 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 and 2018).

Further 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 the present 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); Stijn Alsteens (Christie’s); Møyfrid Tveit (Oslo, Nationalgalleriet); Nicolas Schwed (Paris); Thomas Williams (London), Albert Elen and Jeroen Giltaij (both ex-Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). A big thank you also to the many other museum curators who have provided help and images.

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:
‘See rembrandtcatalogue.net, Benesch [number], [date of catalogue entry] (accessed [date])’. For example:
See rembrandtcatalogue.net, Benesch 152, 2 June 2013 (accessed 12 March 2018).

I have given the Benesch numbers – up to 999 – leading zeros (e.g. Benesch 0140) for indexing purposes and they can (and should) be ignored.

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


About the author

Martin Royalton-Kisch spent most of his career – almost 30 years – in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, from which he retired in 2009. He was responsible for the outstanding collections of Dutch, Flemish and French prints and drawings from 1982 until his retirement (and also worked there from 1975-78). 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).

He is now focussing on the present catalogue.