While the story of early modern Dutch and Flemish art typically focuses on the paintings created during the time, this exhibition constructs an alternative narrative, casting drawings not in supporting roles but as the main characters. Featuring works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Hendrick Goltzius, Gerrit von Honthorst, Jacques de Gheyn II, and many others, the show traces the development of drawing in this period, exploring its many roles in artistic training, its preparatory function for works in other media, and its eventual emergence as a medium in its own right.
The 17th century brought remarkable change in to the northern and southern Netherlands, including political upheaval, religious schism, and scientific innovation. The reverberating effects of these events had a great impact on art—what kind of art was in demand, who could and did produce art, and where and how art was made. Most artists in 17th-century Netherlands chose their career through family connections, training with a relative who worked in an artistic trade, although there are significant exceptions to this trajectory—Rubens was the son of a lawyer and Rembrandt the son of a miller.
To become a respected artist, one needed to study under a successful and skilled master in a workshop or art academy. Abraham Bloemaert, Rubens, and Rembrandt supervised the three most important workshops of the period, overseeing the development of dozens, if not hundreds, of students. In these workshops, learning to draw was essential. Once an apprentice had mastered basic drawing skills by copying other works and drawing plaster casts or monuments, often traveling to Italy to do so, he progressed to creating drawings “from life.” The ability to accurately depict the human face and body was critical to an artist’s success and was especially important for those who aspired to create history paintings—the genre considered most prestigious because it relied on literary sources and often required portraying multiple figures in complex and dramatic scenes.
Rembrandt, more than other artists of this period, embraced life drawing. Most notably, he pioneered the collective study of the female nude—a commonplace practice today, but one that challenged the bounds of decency in the 17th century. Studying the live figure increasingly became standard practice in the Netherlands during this period, but it was generally restricted to drawing male models, since prevailing cultural norms made it difficult for artists to find women to pose for them, especially in the nude. Among the most celebrated of all Rembrandt’s drawings is a rare study of a female nude, which is featured in this exhibition. An emotive and striking work, it highlights the importance for artists of the period to learn to draw the female figure. This skill, despite its inherent challenges, was necessary to receive critical acclaim.
Although drawings in the 17th century served many purposes— as reference materials, studies for future paintings, preparatory designs for prints—they also emerged as independent works of art, bought, commissioned, and collected by wealthy merchants. This was due in part to the rise of a new genre of drawing: the landscape. Works depicting the natural world and countryside appealed to an increasingly affluent merchant class that lived in a dense urban environment. These city dwellers enthusiastically received highly finished landscape drawings and deemed them objects worthy of preservation and display.
Produced in a broad range of media, including chalk, ink, and watercolor, the drawings in this exhibition are captivating examples of artistic skill and imagination. Together they provide a new view of the creativity and working process of Netherlandish artists in the 17th century and reveal how drawings came to be the celebrated works of art we know them to be today.
Explore Golden Age Drawings from the Art Institute’s Collection
Major support for Rubens, Rembrandt, and Drawing in the Golden Age is provided by the Wolfgang Ratjen Foundation, Liechtenstein.