Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2006
Jonathan Bikker Willem Drost: A Rembrandt Pupil in Amsterdam and Venice New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 224 pp.; 20 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0300105819)

Writing a catalogue raisonné has become one of the most thankless tasks in art history. The inseparable association of this type of scholarly publication with the traditional valorizing of the individual master (even when not labeled a “genius”) makes many readers look askance at such catalogues. Moreover, the results of one individual’s evaluative process of connoisseurship are often seen as overly subjective, not that the results of group connoisseurship, as with the Rembrandt Research Project, have fared much better. Yet the catalogue raisonné still thrives as a scholarly genre, and many—academics, curators, dealers, collectors, and amateurs—depend on its contributions.

These prefatory remarks are stimulated by reading Jonathan Bikker’s catalogue raisonné of Willem Drost, who ranks today among the more intriguing, if inconsistent, pupils of Rembrandt. Once generally overlooked, in the last fifteen years Drost has received more attention, spurred on in large part by Josua Bruyn’s attribution of a number of paintings made in Rembrandt’s orbit to Drost in a 1984 book review. Bruyn, a founding member of the Rembrandt Research Project, most famously reattributed the Polish Rider in the Frick Collection from Rembrandt to Drost (a reattribution that over time has not gained favor). He also gave Drost a small number of puzzling paintings that have “Rembrandt workshop” stamped all over them but which had previously been attributed to a number of Rembrandt’s followers from the early to mid 1650s.

Such a reorientation of Drost’s proposed oeuvre would be reason alone to consider his career in greater depth. But other factors encourage this too. For one, at his best Drost was a fine, even compelling painter; his Bathsheba of 1654 (now in the Louvre along with Rembrandt’s famed version of this story, also from 1654) is original in its conception of the story as a single-figure history painting. Second, Drost’s short career was far different from most Rembrandt followers in one important respect: only about half of it was spent in the Netherlands. For the last four to five years of his life Drost lived and painted in Rome (or so Arnold Houbraken maintained) and, more notably, also in Venice. As Bikker discovered, Drost never returned to Amsterdam, but died in Venice in 1629 at the age of twenty-six. Drost’s entire corpus is thus small (almost vanishingly so in terms of “secure” works, i.e., signed and or/documented) but nonetheless fascinating, particularly for his adaptation of his chiaroscuro from its Rembrandtesque appearance in his Amsterdam period to a more defined tenebrist mode that Bikker associates rightly with an artist working in Venice who had been influenced by Jusepe de Ribera and/or Luca Giordano.

Bikker’s book, an adaptation of his 2001 dissertation for Utrecht University, offers a helpful resource in furthering our understanding of Drost and his two careers. The examination of Drost’s Italian period is particularly strong; Bikker is among the few scholars of Drost who really looks at this period as worthy of close study. In his catalogue entries Bikker has provided the kind of exhaustive detail of provenance, exhibition history, and literature that will ensure this book’s utility for years to come. But it is not an unproblematic contribution to art-historical scholarship.

The narrative text is brief: forty-seven pages over three chapters cover the historiography of Drost scholarship, his training and career in Amsterdam, and his Italian period. The two chapters that discuss Drost’s life and work are overwhelmingly oriented to a stylistic description and evaluation of his art; content and interpretation very much take second place. Despite their brevity these chapters are difficult to follow. Confusing syntax and a tendency to jump back and forth in discussions make it hard for the reader to build up a clear picture of Drost’s development. A larger problem is Bikker’s insistence on too great a separation between Drost’s work in Amsterdam and in Italy. He denies the influence of Utrecht Caravaggism on Drost (though he accepts it in one case as inspiring the subject of a Drost painting) in order to dramatize Drost’s change to a more “tenebrist” style. Yet Rembrandt’s own chiaroscuro was inspired at least in part by the Utrecht Caravaggists, and Drost’s lighting was from the beginning often more dramatic in its contrasts than Rembrandt’s own style of the 1650s.

Bikker largely ignores the opportunity to place Drost’s Amsterdam period in the larger framework of the Rembrandt workshop. In his chapter on Drost’s Dutch career he tentatively suggests Samuel van Hoogstraten as a teacher of Drost, and places significant emphasis on the relationship of Drost’s paintings to Rembrandt and to Italian sixteenth-century art, but far less on Drost’s peers (three pages in total). Given how many references within the literature sections of the catalogue entries mention alternative attributions to other Rembrandt pupils, particularly Carel and Barent Fabritius, one might expect the Fabritius brothers to be discussed in more than just one paragraph of the main text. Moreover, in light of Bikker’s own attention in the catalogue entries to attributions formerly ascribed to Abraham van Dijck or Karel van der Pluym, their careers should receive more than glancing attention (33–35). Since many entries in the catalogue appropriately only assert provisional attributions to Drost or from Drost to other Rembrandt school artists, it is important for the author to explain more thoroughly the problems and scholarly understanding of the Rembrandt workshop of the early 1650s. However tangled and vexing, such considerations remain necessary to the discussion of Drost and his environment.

Both the main text and the catalogue entries remain problematic for the absence of an articulation of Bikker’s approach to connoisseurship. (Here I wish to make a disclaimer: I do not pretend to be a connoisseur of Drost, nor am I interested here in arguing for or against specific attributions. Instead, I am concerned with the practice of connoisseurship—how arguments are framed, what language is used, what evidence is proffered.) Although it would be impossible to maintain perfect consistency, any connoisseur should strive to call upon uniform evidence in each discussion. Such evidence might consist of several components: paint application, color range and use, lighting mode, approach to building up the human form, compositional style, and other such factors, used alone or, more frequently, in combination. But if arguments are constructed using a few factors in one case and other factors elsewhere in order to support or refute attributions, the reader has no real way to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of such arguments. While Bikker often rejects the identification of specific models by other scholars to support their attributions and other kinds of arguments, he himself relies on just such evidence at times (see for examples, pp. 31, 45, 53, 71, 83). Are seeming physiognomic similarities too subjective as elements for any connoisseur to depend upon—or just for those Bikker opposes?

Perhaps the most significant and potentially controversial section of the book is the one that treats rejected paintings, some once thought to be by Rembrandt himself and then attributed to Drost by Bruyn and others. Most notably, Bikker rejects an attribution to Drost for all five multi-figured compositions given him by Bruyn, such as The Centurion Cornelis in the Wallace Collection or Manoah’s Sacrifice, (dated [falsely?] 1641) in Dresden. He correctly points out that some of these reattributions were self-referential, i.e., resemblances among paintings in the group were used to justify attributing all of them to Drost. These catalogue entries are lengthy, and often refer to other works (drawings, paintings) to help Bikker’s case; unfortunately, as elsewhere in this book, not all of the comparative works are illustrated. Bikker is brave to take on this revisionist stance, and he does so with confidence. In several other catalogue entries he states that an attribution to Drost “cannot be maintained,” or uses similar words. Yet these attributions have been maintained by others in the past, and Bikker does not himself always provide weighty evidence or extended argumentation for why they should no longer be so regarded (see R4 and R25 for two examples). It is also not clear whether Bikker has studied in person each extant work discussed in his catalogue, which is also potentially problematic. The greatest challenge for a connoisseur is to transform visual perceptions, based on comparative study of many pictures, into words that correspond as closely as possible to sensory evaluations. If this transformation is not successfully achieved, the reader is more likely to respond to judgments as overly subjective and unconvincing.

Despite the reservations I have offered here, Bikker’s catalogue of Willem Drost performs an important service in bringing together the disparate paintings attributed to Drost and weighing the pros and cons of these attributions, as well as providing the fullest account to date of Drost’s style. The sharpening of our understanding of Drost’s career in Italy that Bikker offers is also a genuine achievement. Whether his attributions or, say, Bruyn’s eventually garner greater support, he has undeniably helped the community of Rembrandt and Rembrandt-school scholars by clarifying what evidence is available for making such decisions.

Catherine Scallen
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University