Rembrandt’s love of the line

okt 15, 2018

When I was eighteen I studied in the States for a year and discovered drawing. I was meant to explore different subjects to find a field of study for the future, because I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to ‘be’. Drawing was one of these subjects. Although my parents didn’t think it would constitute a serious occupation, I experienced more meaningfulness in drawing than I ever did during my secondary education. One of the artists I studied and was deeply moved by, was Rembrandt. I especially loved his drawings and etchings, far more than I ever loved his paintings. I guess I was captured by his ‘love of the line’.

It is often said about this ‘love of the line’ that Rembrandt was able to use the line to capture form as well as essence; to give a life-like substance to the forms he was drawing but also to use his lines so spontaneously and expressively that he showed the spirit within. Here are a few examples that move me:

Fig.1: Rembrandt van Rijn. Asian Elephant (1637)

This drawing of an elephant is a beautiful example of how Rembrandt uses just a few lines to playfully suggest the spectators in the background, and to elaborately form the elephant’s bulk and wrinkled skin with lines that seem both precisely and freely drawn.

Fig.2: Rembrandt van Rijn. the Three Crosses (1653)

To me the most striking in this drypoint etching are the straight lines upward, suggesting a light from above shining on the figure of Jesus, in contrast with all the chaos and pain at the foot of the cross. This is made with very sketchy lines. The rearing horse, the man on the horse and some mourners are quite clearly formed but many spectators are just suggested and disappear in the blackness of the ink at the edges.

And these two drawings are beautiful examples how with a few brushstrokes on paper, Rembrandt captures the essence of his subjects:

Fig.3: Rembrandt van Rijn. a Young Woman Sleeping (1654) 

Fig.4: Rembrandt van Rijn. Homer dictating to a scribe (1663) 

In her article ‘Judicious Negligence’, Stephanie Dickey describes how Rembrandt contrasts substance and spirit by leaving out details, by deliberately leaving some areas of his etchings very sketchy and other areas very detailed. In this way, he opens up the imagination of the viewer to combine the primary (detailed) and secondary (sketchy) subjects in these etchings; thereby adding meaning that would not have emerged so well, had the etching been completely ‘finished’. (Dickey, 1986)

I will end with a quote from this article discussing ’the Hog’, an etching from 1643.

Fig.5: Rembrandt van Rijn. the Hog (1643)

The contrasting techniques of elaborate finish and summary sketch are well suited to their different tasks: the recording of palpable physical presence, and the evocation of vivid and evanescent life. In placing the placid, hairy bulk of the hog, for instance, against the busy peasant family, Rembrandt reminds us of the difference between still life and liveliness that will not, even for an instant, hold still. This contrast between substance and spirit implies the distinction between tangible reality and intangible idea – between the thing seen and its metaphoric associations. (Dickey, 1986)

The leaving out of detail to capture ‘essence’ will be an interesting thing to explore. In my next blog I will turn to another genius of spontaneous sketch-like drawing: sir Quentin Blake!

Dickey, S. (1986) ‘Judicious Negligence’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 68, No. 2, 1986, pp. 253-262

Rembrandt. (1637). Asian Elephant. [Black chalk and charcoal on paper]. London: the British Museum.

Rembrandt. (1643). The Hog. [Etching and drypoint]. Haarlem: Teylers Museum.

Rembrandt. (1653). The Three Crosses. [Drypoint printed on vellum]. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt. (1654). A Young Woman Sleeping. [Ink on paper]. London: British Museum.

Rembrandt. (1663). Homer dictating to a scribe. [Pen and brown ink on paper]. Amsterdam: Rembrandthuis.