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The Rijksmuseum Displays Lessons in Drawing in the Golden Age: From Copying to Drawing
Michael Snijders, Page of drawings, etching and engraving, c. 1640-1650.

AMSTERDAM.- The Rijksmuseum display prints and drawings that provide an overview of drawing instruction during the Golden Age. From first copying prints to drawing 'from the imagination', artists were faced with a long period of study and, of course, an awful lot of practice. Those who could ultimately draw anything from their imagination were considered accomplished masters.

In the 17th century, drawing was seen as the foundation for all visual arts. Not only painters, but architects, sculptors and workers in precious metals also needed drawing skills. Those who could not draw would never achieve much in their field. And since academies did not yet exist in the Golden Age, those who wanted to learn to draw had to study with a master.

Those who wanted to become a painter started studying at around the age of twelve with a master who was a member of the guild. Adriaen van Ostade’s etching “Painter in his Studio” dating from ca. 1645-49 depicts such a master. He has two young pupils, one of whom seems to be busy mixing paint, while the other looks on holding a handful of brushes.

Pupils started by copying prints. It was possible to buy series of prints designed especially for copying. Series of this type contained a variety of motifs, ranging from easy to difficult. This presentation includes a page of drawings from the hand of Michael Snijders (ca. 1640-1650).

Of course, prints by great masters could also serve as study materials. Rembrandt’s valuable 1633 print “The Deposition” was the model for the drawing by the young Moses ter Borch, who devoted much effort to copying it in around 1661. Those who were allowed to advance further in the art of drawing then proceeded to copy three-dimensional objects. The print by Goltzius (see image) depicts an ideal situation: a young artist beholding and copying the masterpieces of classical sculpture with his own eyes.

Ultimately, pupils had to become skilled in drawing live models, both naked and clothed. In Rembrandt’s studio, the male pupils took turns posing as models for each other. Respectable ladies, however, did not pose as models during the 17th century – that was strictly ‘not done’. Artists therefore sometimes hired prostitutes. Multiple drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils depict the same woman, who must have posed in the master’s studio (ca. 1661-1662).

Drawing outside was also considered both a valuable and healthy activity. For this reason Willem Goeree, who wrote a range of practical treatises for artists, advised his readers to travel for a few weeks per year in order to work outdoors. This produced some beautiful small works of art depicting the Dutch landscape in the Golden Age (Joris van der Hagen, “View in the surroundings of Doorwerth”, 1650 and Jan van Goyen “View of the Valkhof in Nijmegen”, 1650-1651).

Only those who were able to draw anything, even without a concrete model, could be considered accomplished masters. Artists had to be able to call up entire scenes in the mind’s eye, and then capture them on paper: the art of drawing ‘stories from the imagination’. Rembrandt was, of course, a master in this art: “Jacob and his sons”, ca. 1641.

Lessons in Drawing, on display in the Philips Wing in the Rijksmuseum, 30 November 2010 – 28 February 2011.

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