Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 11, 2017
Per Rumberg and Holm Bevers Rembrandt's First Masterpiece Exh. cat. New York: Morgan Library and Museum, 2016. 78 pp.; 55 color ills. Paper $24.95 (9780875981765)
Exhibition schedule: Morgan Library and Museum, June 3–September 18, 2016
Rembrandt van Rijn. Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629). Oil on panel. Private collection. © Private Collection. Photography courtesy of The National Gallery, London, 2016.

Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece offered visitors a rare opportunity to engage with Rembrandt’s painted Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629) and the three surviving sheets of preparatory drawings associated with it. The exhibition marked the first time that the painting, long held in an English private collection and, as the exhibition’s title suggested, regarded as a decisive work for the artist’s subsequent development, was shown in the United States. For context, the show included alongside the painting and preparatory drawings a wide array of some three dozen prints and drawings, many from the Morgan’s own inimitable collection, as well as De vita propria sermonum inter liberos libri duo (1678), a handwritten manuscript by the statesman, poet, and connoisseur Constantijn Huygens that includes the earliest reference to Judas.

Huygens’s commentary provided the exhibition’s thematic armature. Immediately before entering the exhibition space, a large wall panel quoted an extraordinary passage of ekphrastic writing from Huygens’s text. He describes in vivid detail “that one despairing Judas . . . that one maddened Judas, screaming, begging for forgiveness, but devoid of hope, all traces of hope erased from his face . . . a blind impulse has brought him to his knees, his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness.” Huygens, who saw the painting during a visit to the Leiden workshop that Rembrandt may have shared with Jan Lievens, continued by differentiating the abilities of the two young prodigies he had recently met. In Rembrandt, he perceived a “vivid imagination” aptly suited to history painting, while the slightly younger Lievens’s abilities befitted instead his “painting the human countenance.” (Huygens twice sat for Lievens, including for a drawing in the exhibition [no. 39], but never seems to have granted Rembrandt the opportunity.)

The intelligent pairing of Rembrandt’s Judas with the surviving preparatory drawings presented a unique glimpse into the artist’s creative process. While estimates of the number of surviving Rembrandt drawings vary, the undeniable fact that so few of these works can be connected to paintings or prints is remarkable for an artist who was, by all accounts, an inveterate draftsman. Despite the uncommonly large number of surviving drawings for this painting, one cannot help but feel that there remain significant gaps in an understanding of the painting’s genesis. In their essays for the exhibition’s catalogue, Per Rumberg, the exhibition’s curator, and Holm Bevers, a leading scholar of Rembrandt’s drawings, likewise struggle to define the sequence of the drawings’ production. Rumberg rather vaguely describes the drawing in a U.S. private collection (no. 2) as an “early scheme for the composition” (11). But, for an early study, it lacks certain compositional details like the curtain, which x-rays of the painting have demonstrated was part of an earlier campaign and which appears in the (later?) study in Amsterdam (no. 3). Bevers, on the other hand, seems to place the drawing somewhat later in the production process, suggesting that it may have been made “during the process of painting the picture” (46). If the catalogue is unable to establish a definitive sequence of the surviving preparatory drawings, it does make at least one substantial contribution to the literature. Rumberg perceptively and convincingly connects the red chalk Study of a Seated Figure (no. 3 recto) on the Amsterdam sheet, traditionally (and now we might say, erroneously) associated with Rembrandt’s Samson and Delilah of a year earlier (1628), with the legs of the high priest in the center of the Judas painting.

In addition to this “core group” of exhibited works—to borrow a phrase that has become increasingly fashionable in Rembrandt scholarship—one exterior wall exhibited five small drawn and etched self-portraits (nos. 5–9), all of which were begun within a year or so of the Judas. Together, these works reinforced Rembrandt’s contemporary preoccupation with the type of animated facial expressions and dramatic lighting that gave rise to his pathos-inducing figure of Judas. Among the highlights in the exhibition were the artist’s drawn self-portrait of about 1628–29 in the Rijksprentenkabinet (no. 5), a work that shows Rembrandt’s early mastery of both the pen and the brush, and one of two surviving impressions of an etched self-portrait of 1629 (no. 6) in which Rembrandt used not the standard etching needle but a quill or reed pen. Rembrandt’s exceptional choice of etching tool in this print emphasized not only his capacity for experimentation but the resonance between drawing and etching in the artist’s mind. He and his pupils would continue to explore this idea in a number of later etched self-portraits that show the sitter drawing. Moreover, the remarkable frequency with which Rembrandt produced such self-portraits so early in his career bespeaks both his precociousness as an artist and the early interest in his work among connoisseurs like Huygens. As the eminent Rembrandt scholar Ernst van de Wetering has argued, such images (and especially those in print) “provided the purchaser with both the portrait of a celebrated artist and a display of the mastery that had made him famous in the first place” (Ernst van de Wetering, “The Multiple Functions of Rembrandt’s Self Portraits,” in Rembrandt by Himself, eds., Christopher White and Quentin Buvelot, London: National Gallery Publications, 1999, 30).

The vast majority of the gallery’s remaining exterior walls were given over to drawings and etchings illustrating episodes from the Gospel narratives. While the case for including a handful of such prints was clear enough, for others it seemed tenuous at best. Early prints like The Presentation in the Temple and Christ Disputing with the Doctors: Small Plate (nos. 13 and 15), both of 1630, bear a strong compositional relationship with Rembrandt’s painting. In these small prints, Rembrandt repurposed the arches and pillars found in the background of Judas, and, for the Presentation, even included a shield similar to the one found in the painting. The choice to exhibit some two dozen such works, however, diluted the focus on the principal subject, which should have remained anchored to Rembrandt’s Judas and its related preparatory drawings. One wonders whether a dossier show exhibited in a smaller, more intimate setting might have produced a more felicitous effect.

Before visiting the exhibition, this reviewer was curious to see if and how the show would defend its bold, if indisputable, title. While few scholars would argue that Rembrandt’s rendering of human emotion, theatrical staging, and dramatic lighting—all hallmarks of his later work—do indeed make Judas “Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece,” the selection of works did not fully substantiate the title’s claim. One could not help but feel that, for the benefit of a non-specialist audience, the painting needed to be juxtaposed against something—an earlier Rembrandt, or even a painting by his master, Pieter Lastman—to visually flesh out the salient features that distinguished this painting from anything that had come before it.

Similar issues recur in the exhibition’s abbreviated catalogue. Surprisingly, nearly half the exhibited works—generally those depicting episodes from the Gospel narrative—were neither illustrated nor discussed in the catalogue. The lack of attention to these images reads as a tacit acknowledgement that they were largely superfluous to the exhibition. Equally surprising was the decision to omit a number of comparative illustrations that would have greatly enhanced the readability of the catalogue. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rumberg’s important, if truncated, discussion of Rembrandt’s early indebtedness to Lastman in pose, gesture, and composition (8–9). Curiously, neither of the two Lastman paintings referenced in the text is illustrated in the catalogue, compelling readers to track down the images if they are to follow Rumberg’s arguments.

Despite the abovementioned flaws in conception and execution, Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors to engage with works that had not been seen under one roof since they left Rembrandt’s studio almost four hundred years ago. That alone made it worth the visit.

John Hawley
Associate Specialist, Old Master Paintings, Christie’s, New York