To mark the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth, the Louvre Museum is exhibiting 64 ink and chalk sketches from the hand of the master. And then again, maybe it isn't. Rembrandt drawings pose a thorny problem for art experts, because it is especially hard to be certain that so many of them are the real thing.
Like many artists, the Dutch master generally did not sign his sketches, because they were not meant for public display. To complicate things, experts believe he probably kept his drawings in albums with works by his students, making it tough to be sure which are which, said Peter Schatborn, a curator of the Louvre exhibit. Once, everything in the albums was considered a Rembrandt. But over the years, many have been outed as mere "Rembrandtesque" sketches by followers. A few dozen of those one-time Rembrandts are hanging in the Louvre upstairs from the new exhibit. Some lost their claim to greatness just a few years ago, by specialists' consensus. In theory, the same thing could happen to some of the 64 sketches on display starting Friday in a show that brings together the most beautiful Rembrandt drawings housed in the Louvre and elsewhere in France, the exhibit's curators say.
So how do experts separate out the real Rembrandts from the imitations? Some sketches are clear preparations for signed oil paintings or etchings _ those are almost surely Rembrandts. Others are judged by the quality of their lines and their mastery, and that is where the issue gets fuzzy.
One of the sketches in the Louvre exhibit shows an old wise man slumped over at a table. It was long attributed to Gerrit Dou, another artist in Rembrandt's studio.
But in the 20th century, specialists looked closer and compared it to a biblical figure in another Rembrandt drawing _ a rare signed one _ and recognized the same slumped-over position, the same lines of the limbs. That and other realizations made experts decree it a Rembrandt.
"You always want to point out four or five things to say, 'this is characteristic"' of Rembrandt or not, said Schatborn, former director of graphic arts at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. "But usually there are many little things that mix and intermingle, and it's not so easy ... You really go into every detail, you have to take into consideration all the aspects, and then still you sometimes doubt."
The Louvre exhibit is part of international celebrations marking the 400th year of Rembrandt's birth on July 15, 1606. Paris is hosting several other Rembrandt shows, including an exhibit of etchings at the Petit Palais that includes self-portraits of the artist from youth to old age.
Rembrandt is best known for his oil paintings, and most of his sketches are tiny and hurried-looking, with many corrections. What's striking is the feeling that he renders in just a few lines. A crouching lion wears an almost human expression, both menacing and somehow grumpy. There are many sketches of old men, which Rembrandt sketched as practice for painting biblical characters. In one, "Bust of a Bearded Old Man," the sitter's face is covered by a tangled gray beard, but his eyes gaze downward, betraying a deep melancholy.
The subjects vary radically _ there are nature scenes and portraits, grandiose Old Testament subjects and quiet reflections from home. One moving sketch shows Rembrandt's beloved wife, Saskia, tucked into a canopy bed, probably pregnant. Three of their four children died as babies, and Saskia died when she was just 29. "Rembrandt's drawings let you enter into the intimacy of his workshop and his home life," said Carel van Tuyll van Serooskerken, another curator of the exhibit. "These drawings were never meant to be sold, they stayed in his albums, and maybe he used them when he needed inspiration, but they were above all what he wanted to keep for himself."
"Rembrandt dessinateur" runs through Jan. 8 at the Louvre Museum.