A young man writing or drawing


Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam


A young man writing or drawing (self-portrait?)  (c. 1632-1633)

Pen in brown ink; brown ink framing lines, laid down on a “Richardson mount”.
63 x 72 mm.

none visible through backing.
none visible through backing.

on back of mount, Geo. Danyau / 2781 / TH½ / Rembrant / Collections: / Joshua Reynold / W. Esdaile / d’Aigremont / Rouillard (pen in blue ink, 19th century).


Jonathan Richardson, Sr., 1665-1745, (Lugt 2184, dry stamp, recto), London.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723-1792, (Lugt 2364), London.
Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1769-1830, London.
William Esdaile 1758-1837, (Lugt 2617), his sale, London, Christie and Manson, 17 June 1840, lot 58.
Daigremont, his sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 3-7 April 1866, lot 611.
Charles Rouillard, his sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 1-3 March 1869, lot 454.
Georges Danyau, 1832-1894, (Lugt 720), Paris.
Somerville & Simpson Ltd., London, 1983.
Sale, London, Christie’s, 4 July 1984, lot 130, acquired at the sale.

In Samuel Woodburn’s 1840 catalogue of the Esdaile sale in London, this drawing was described as “Rembrandt’s portrait, a slight sketch; from Sir Joshua Reynolds’s collection.” In the French sales catalogues, more than twenty-five years later, the subject was said to be “A philosopher in meditation.”  Christie’s in its 1984 sales catalogue titled this drawing, “Study of a writer, seated, pausing in a thought.”

The man is sketched seated at a table with his head resting on his bent right arm. His right elbow appears to be propped up on a large book. Rembrandt concentrates his attention on the formation of the arm holding a pen, the left arm. This arm is drawn twice: once, closer to the body, and again, with stronger lines, in a more extended position. Hatching lines drawn around the two versions indicate that Rembrandt finally favored the arm drawn closer to the body, which seems to have been his first idea.  Learning from his second idea, he also repositioned the pen in this final version from appearing parallel to his arm to being perpendicular to his arm.

Who is the sitter?  He is a left-handed person, unless this is a mirror-image self-portrait of the right-handed artist.  Around the first half of the 1630s, the period of this sketch, Rembrandt’s artist‑friends and students – Lievens, Dou, Backer, S. Koninck, Flinck, Horst, and de Poorter – were all right-handed (like Rembrandt) according to their patterns of graphic strokes, so they may be excluded.  The sitter appears to be a young man in his 20s or 30s (Rembrandt was 26 to 27 years old when he made this drawing), certainly much younger than the traditional representation of an aged and often bearded philosopher, scholar or writer at his desk.

Martin Royalton-Kisch has advanced the idea that Rembrandt used himself as the model for this rapid study to work out a technical question, such as finding the right positions of the arm, hand and pen for the depiction of a person writing or drawing.  Since there is less than his usual attention to the details of likeness, Rembrandt probably was not intending this sketch as a “portrait” of himself.  Nonetheless, given the collective evidence, it is entirely reasonable to consider this drawing an early Rembrandt self-portrait showing the artist in mirror image during the act of drawing.

In Rembrandt’s oeuvre, only eleven drawings are identified (by Benesch) as self-portraits, along with about forty-seven paintings and twenty-eight etchings that picture himself. One of these eleven drawings (Benesch 1176, Rotterdam, c.1657-8) shows Rembrandt seated at a table with a pen in hand, drawing.   As expected, the pen appears in Rembrandt’s “left” hand because it is a reversed, mirror drawing.

This Rembrandt drawing shows facial features rendered in his characteristic insightful and summary manner, such as the single sweeping arc above his eyes and the rapid lines that indicate precisely the displacements of his chin and right cheek by his propping arm.  Rembrandt first defined the head by three precise arcial pen strokes.  Typical of Rembrandt’s style at the time, the cap was drawn after the head was outlined and hair strokes are largely sacrificed to his quick method. The subject is shown in a quiet, reflective mood – quite a fitting scene for Rembrandt’s compulsive draftsmanship.

The features and form of the face are consistent with young Rembrandt’s appearance in his self-portraits from around the early 1630s: particularly three paintings, CRP A22 (1629), A71 (1633), and a newly authenticated self-portrait of 1634, sold 10 July 2003 at Sotheby’s, London; and three etchings, Bartsch 7 (1631), 17 (1633), and 24 (1630).

Christopher White has suggested a date of 1632-3 for this energetic sketch.  Martin Royalton-Kisch and Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann have suggested circa 1633.  The graphic style is indeed consistent with Rembrandt’s drawings of the early 1630s, soon after he settled permanently in Amsterdam.


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