Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 18, 2007
Rembrandt and the Aesthetics of Technique
Exhibition schedule: Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, MA, September 9–December 10, 2006
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap and Embroidered Dress (ca. 1642). Etching, only state, 9.3 x 6.2 cm. Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Gift of Meta and Paul J. Sachs, by exchange, M22555. Photo: Photographic Services © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Of the myriad exhibitions mounted worldwide to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth, Rembrandt and the Aesthetics of Technique at Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum stands out for its serious consideration of the very basis for such celebrations: the category of genius. Ivan Gaskell, Margaret S. Winthrop Curator in the Department of Painting, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts; William Robinson, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings at the Fogg Art Museum; and their assistants deserve praise for resisting the temptation merely to trot out the museum’s Rembrandt holdings, or to organize yet another exhibition fixated on discriminating the hand of the master from the work of his students and followers. Much more interestingly, they chose to reexamine the shifting philosophical concepts that underwrite the construct of genius itself and how the label, virtually synonymous with the name Rembrandt, might be applied thoughtfully and constructively to his art. For Robinson and Gaskell, the way of securing a quantifiable measure of Rembrandt’s genius is by engaging with the specific technical skills displayed in his artworks and recognizing the discrete yet highly varied character of his authorial marks. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion “genius is what makes us forget skill” welcomed visitors and headlined Gaskell’s essay in the accompanying gallery guide, providing a conceptual framing for the exhibition’s effort to draw close attention to Rembrandt’s creative exploitation of his tools and materials to translate his ideas into concrete visual form. Encouraging visitors to reflect upon and question received ideas about artistic genius, the curators also succeeded in bringing fresh insight into the technical virtuosity of Rembrandt’s artistry.

Comprised principally of groupings of some forty prints and drawings by Rembrandt, the exhibition was drawn almost entirely from the Fogg’s collections, but also included loans from the Maida and George Abrams collection of seventeenth-century Dutch drawings, major gifts from which had already enriched immeasurably the museum’s permanent holdings. One Rembrandt drawing was borrowed from a New York private collection: a sheet depicting with the sparest means a tender, furtive moment of intimacy between Isaac and Rebecca as they are spied upon by Abimelech, the only known study for the painting known as The Jewish Bride (ca. 1663–65). Since only one painting was included, Bust of an Old Man from 1632, the show’s title was somewhat misleading about content, but the focus on Rembrandt’s work in the graphic media nonetheless proved advantageous to the project. The artworks themselves and their installation in small groupings invited visitors to encounter at close range, or get up close and personal with, the physical traces of Rembrandt’s creativity, which Gaskell rightly notes can only truly be seen in original objects. Works on paper are of course relatively intimate kinds of objects—and sometimes intensely private things that can call up intimate relations between beholders and images or marks, as well as between beholders and artists. Rembrandt’s highly original and often seemingly improvisational handling of the pen, brush, and etching needle heightens this aura of intimate address by giving the impression of access to his unmediated creativity.

That the process of printmaking actually transforms these traces of authorial presence into replicated marks was intriguingly but probably unintentionally brought to viewers’ attention by the display of one of Rembrandt’s eighty-two surviving etched copperplates, The Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap and Embroidered Dress from ca. 1642. One of his extraordinarily rare autograph letters (only seven are known), on loan from Harvard’s Houghton Library, was also featured, as if guaranteeing the authority of the traces left by Rembrandt’s hand in the artworks. Written to Constantijn Huygens in 1636, the letter contains a wonderfully flamboyant, even grandiose signature that, as the curators point out, parallels the bold and energetic penmanship in Rembrandt’s drawings from the same period. Six drawings by his precursors and contemporaries were also presented as comparative material, and one of his sensitive copies of a Mughal Indian miniature painting was juxtaposed with a somewhat later Mughal miniature with a similar princely motif. Exemplifying Rembrandt’s ability to surrender temporarily his own graphic identity in order to emulate another work’s distinct, in this case more delicate and decorative, style, the comparison served to sharpen a perception of his self-conscious approach to mark-making.

The works were hung mainly in groupings of four or five under ten thematic headings. Among these were rubrics categorizing the objects according to motif (“Cottage and Village”; “Heads, Hair, and Hats”), expressive content (“Body Language and Gesture”; “Eye to Eye”), technique (“The Light Touch”), and suggestive capacity (“Shadow, Light, and the Active Mind”; “Drawing Darkness: Nature and Transcendence”). Robinson’s characteristically eloquent wall texts provided succinct rationales for the groupings, and included many sensitive, sometimes revelatory analyses of Rembrandt’s mechanical dexterity and the craftsmanship of his graphic techniques. Among Robinson’s more memorable observations was the description of Rembrandt’s subtle rendering of a rough wall in the drawing Farm on the Amsteldijk (ca. 1650–52) by “exploiting the mottled deposit left by a half-charged brush dragged over the uneven surface of the paper.” Another was his evocation of Rembrandt’s ability to suggest motion, noting a “notch” or penmark at the back of a walking man’s shoe in a drawing from the 1630s, which represents “the momentary flex of his ankle.” And a seemingly incongruous vertical stroke that cuts through a man’s chest and left hand in another sheet from the 1630s serves, as he rightly pointed out, to emphasize the hand’s upward motion. As a contrast to the boldness and vigor of these examples, Robinson eloquently characterized Rembrandt’s disciplined and refined handling of the etching needle in Landscape with a View toward Haarlem (Goldweigher’s Field) (1651), in which “hundreds of minutely calibrated marks describe the topographical features of this wide panorama and orchestrate the optical effects that create an illusion of space and light.”

Gaskell’s learned essay “Rembrandt, Ingenuity, and Skill” in the accompanying exhibition brochure traces evolving notions of the concept of genius over two centuries, summarizing concisely the contributions of Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein and their impacts on the development of aesthetics.1 By grounding in these philosophical discourses the current understanding of a genius as an individual of exceptional, even mystifying talent misunderstood by contemporaries, Gaskell clarifies how Rembrandt came to epitomize genius itself. But taking his cue from Wittgenstein’s contention “genius is what makes us forget skill,” Gaskell also articulates a call for reconceiving the label genius by abandoning clichés about talent beyond measure and narratives of the heroic artist as free agent to dwell on the technical craftsmanship and decisions through which artistic inspiration is converted into material form. In place of genius, Gaskell offers the more modest term ingenuity, which he hopes “would allow us to reassert the importance of skill in the making of art; ingenuity and skill would be seen as contributing equally.” While not addressing specific works in the exhibition, Gaskell does suggest how this model might help us to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of Rembrandt’s art, noting perceptively that we might thus be better equipped to recognize how “he set chance and intention in balance.”

Engaging intensely with Rembrandt’s astonishing technical abilities affords a unique and essential insight into his artworks and the conditions of their making. Moreover, attending to the materiality of his artistic practice offers a sobering antidote to the freighted label of genius, which relentlessly privileges imagination over execution. Yet in attempting to restrain the exaggerated claims of the genius by demystifying the artistic process, another, deeper dimension of meaning may run the risk of going unnoticed or being overwhelmed. While Rembrandt’s technical skills were startlingly inventive, his virtuoso displays also served to efface the signs of the laboriousness and physical ardor involved in their creation. I would argue that Rembrandt’s technical ingenuity cannot be uncoupled from and rightly remains in the service of his conspicuous virtuosity. It seems seductive to embrace Gaskell’s suggestion that another remark by Wittgenstein, that skill is visible “when genius wears thin,” might be overturned and recast so that genius “need not be worn thin in order for skill to be apparent.” But disciplining the current idea of genius with its heavy burden of associations by redressing the imbalance between imagination and execution may in fact be proposing a model beset with its own anachronistic assumptions. Ironically, Rembrandt permits and encourages the close scrutiny that reveals his manual skill and dexterity while simultaneously undermining any attempt to evaluate his art as ingenious handiwork. Ultimately Rembrandt’s artworks lay claim to transcendent value not as examples of consummate skill but as performances of an audaciously creative, inspired talent that purposefully defy categorization.

Michael Zell
Associate Professor, Art History Department, Boston University

1 Ivan Gaskell, Rembrandt and the Aesthetics of Technique, Harvard University Art Museums Gallery Series, no. 52 (2006),

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