Studies of a smoker and group of card players

studies-of-a-smoker-and-a-group-of-card-players-rvrREMBRANDT van Rijn

Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam

Studies of a smoker and group of card players (c. 1635-1638)

pen and dry brush (or finger rubbing) in brown ink; touches of black ink (later additions) at smoker’s sword tip and hilt end.

154 x 204 mm.

horizontal, 24-25 mm.

in lower right corner, Rembrandt (faded brown ink, later hand).


John Percival, 1st Earl of Egmont, 1683-1748.
Robert P. Roupell, 1798-1886, (Lugt 2234), his sale, London, Christie’s, 13 July 1887, lot 1048 (as Rembrandt, “Interior of a Guard-Room, with five figures”).
Victor Koch, London.
Heinrich Eisemann, 1890-1972, Frankfurt and London.
Stefan Zweig, 1881-1942, Vienna, London (1934-40) and Rio de Janiero.
Alfred Zweig, 1880-1977, New York.
Sale, New York, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 30 May 1979, lot 80, acquired at the sale.


Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt, Des Meisters Handzeichnungen. Stuttgart/New York, 1934, Volume II, p. 330, no. 768, p. 429.
Benesch, Otto. Neuentdeckte Zeichnungen von Rembrandt. Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 1964, vol. 6, p. 118, and In: Collected Writings, Vol. I, Rembrandt, 1970, p. 254.


Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, The draughtsman at work: Drawing in the golden century of Dutch art, 1980, no.16, n.p.
Cambridge, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Rembrandt: A selection of his works, 1983, n.p.
PeckSheldonRembrandt Drawings: Twenty-five Years in the Peck Collection. Boston, Perho Documenta, 2003. Published catalogue

In this genre sketch, Rembrandt’s subjects are members of a militia company at leisure in a guardhouse or tavern. The sheet appears to have been developed as two separate studies: one of a young smoker by a fireplace and the other, at a slightly smaller scale, more rapidly drawn, and less complete, of a group of card players. The smoker is seated on a low stool by a lighted sconce near the large fireplace, which shows smoke rising from its embers. He is totally relaxed: he has shed his militia coat or cape, which lays behind him, his suspenders are down, his sword belt is loose around waist, and his right foot is resting sideways on the ground, so we can see the shaded heel of his shoe. The group around the card table is clearly focused on the action of the player on the left, caught by Rembrandt at a key point in the game.

The most important pictorial details in the two studies are rendered precisely and with originality: the smoker’s moment of concentration in lighting his clay pipe, steadying the pipe stem with thumb and two fingers, placing the bowl in the flame and sucking in air; and the card thrower’s exciting play, his elevated right forearm – formed with three faultless strokes – ready to descend rapidly and release the decisive card, his perfectly tilted posture. The dramatic device of masking the player’s face with his card-throwing arm at this critical moment in the game is a stunning conception, found nowhere else in Netherlandish art depicting of this kind of genre scene. Rembrandt alone had the uncanny ability of inventing and recording such powerful storytelling imagery. Benesch 418B, Soldiers playing cards in a guardroom, a lost drawing, (Figure 4a) shows a comparable genre composition but with less energy and less excitement: It pictures a quiet moment in a card game with the protagonist pondering his next move, his finger at his mouth. This sheet is two-thirds the size of our drawing and displays many of the same stylistic features and hatchings. In it, Rembrandt drew more details of the card players’ uniforms, chairs and table, but neglected the “smoker,” keeping him in background shadows. In many of his drawings, Rembrandt abbreviated details or omitted them completely after he had depicted the central dramatic point or subject he originally was interested in recording.

Another Rembrandt drawing similar to the present one in manner, detail and dating is Three couples of soldiers and women, (Figure 4b) Benesch 100 verso (Williams, 2001, cat. no. 39), which again demonstrates Rembrandt’s careful attention in recording hand actions and faces, and shows his looser and incomplete handling of lower aspects of the figures, such as in the clothing and feet.

A defect of his ink or quill nib at this time could have been another reason Rembrandt was inclined to speed up or stop his work on the card-players scene. In some spots the ink suspension broke down, separating into some wider, light-toned lines embedded with grains of the dark brown pigment (mainly occurring in the dealt hands of cards, the standing onlooker’s cap and the area of his back-clasped hands, the seated onlooker’s right palm, the hatching lines of the sod floor, and the redrawn left shoulder and arm of the card thrower’s balding opponent, which may be the artist’s effort to compensate for the ink-flow defect). Similar clotting and spreading of the brown-ink preparation has been noted in Rembrandt drawings of the Leiden period, e. g., Benesch 9 verso (see Schatborn, 1985, cat. no. 5) and Benesch 14 (see Starcky, 1988, cat. no. 2 ).

The large fireplace and chimney near the smoker, and the wall behind the card players, are defined by a few sure and quick lines, loosely but deftly placed. Rembrandt used a dry brush or his finger to smudge the wet lines below the arched top of the fireplace surround to indicate its sooty depth. This kind of confident sketchiness in describing interior backgrounds is characteristic in Rembrandt’s draftsmanship beginning in the middle 1630s in drawings like Benesch 113 (see Royalton-Kisch, 1992, cat. no. 11).

First catalogued as Rembrandt by Valentiner in 1934, this drawing more recently was endorsed as Rembrandt by Haverkamp-Begemann (1980) and Slive (1983) and has been dated around 1635-8. Benesch failed to include it in his Rembrandt catalogue raisonné and Sumowski has classified this drawing as “anonymous, Rembrandt school” (Sum. 2675), to appear in volume 11 of his series Drawings of the Rembrandt School. Given the rarity and the varied style of his genre output, it is not surprising that Rembrandt’s genre drawings are the most troublesome for experts to attribute and date agreeably. Further complicating the connoisseurship conundrum for these drawings is the fact that the modulation of the line in his genre studies is usually highly inconsistent. Thus, it is often difficult to find assuring parallels for Rembrandt’s genre sketches on the basis of their graphic structure and linear elements. The genre drawings of Rembrandt are usually distinguishable from works of his acolytes by their sheer energy and originality, and their simple compositional power to tell a coherent picture-story. This marvelously conceived sheet is not related to the work of any of Rembrandt’s students or followers. Its originality, energy and quality soar above the group. As Haverkamp-Begemann has remarked, “It is incomprehensible that Benesch could have rejected the drawing.”