This chalk drawing depicts a seated young man with long black hair parted in the middle as he looks down at an unidentified round object he holds in his hands. Rembrandt van Rijn carefully indicated the figure’s pose with fine lines, visible at the left contour of the shoulder, which he then worked up in darker, broader strokes. With these strokes he clarified the contours of fingers on the sitter’s right hand and strengthened the right elbow and lower arm. He then shaded the figure with flat shadows and fine hatching in various directions. While he completely covered the face with uniform light shading, he left areas in reserve in the hair, particularly at the left, which appear to catch the light. The shadow cast by the head falls on the left shoulder.
In 2003 a slightly smaller drawing of the same model, but depicted full-length instead of half-length, was auctioned in London (fig 1). Rembrandt used the same materials and technique in that drawing, but he viewed the subject from a greater distance and rendered him in a less detailed manner. In that drawing, the sitter’s head is also bent forward, his hands are in a comparable position, and he holds the same object. Rembrandt clearly drew the two sheets in the same sitting.
It is difficult to say what place these two drawings occupy in Rembrandt’s oeuvre, and what purpose they may have served. When Rembrandt worked in Leiden (1625–31), he made figure studies in black and red chalk in imitation of his second teacher, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633). In the 1630s he continued to use these materials, but he also drew in pen and ink. In the 1640s Rembrandt made a number of black-chalk sketches of figures and figural groups and small landscape views in and around Amsterdam. These drawings generally display similar contrasts between light and dark lines as those seen in the drawings of the seated man, but they differ in the character and width of the chalk, and in the extent of elaboration.
Seated Man, Half-Length, at Work belongs to another group of chalk drawings Rembrandt executed in a somewhat broader and sketchier style. Several of these belong to the core group of Rembrandt’s autograph drawings. Among these is Young Girl Leaning Out of a Window in the Courtauld Gallery, London (fig 2), which is a preparatory study for a painting, dated 1645, in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This drawing, too, was laid in sketchily with light lines and then worked up with darker strokes. In particular, the shadows on and around the face, the way the light falls on the hair, and the broad lines that define the forms are comparable to those in the Leiden Collection drawing. Young Girl Leaning Out of a Window is also stylistically related to Seated Old Man Wearing a Hat in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. In the latter work, Rembrandt made improvements and changes to the legs by adding taut lines in darker chalk, much as he did in the Leiden Collection drawing. Also comparable to the Leiden Collection drawing is Seated Man, Bending Forward, which displays the same broad, sketchy approach and added details in dark chalk (fig 3).
Another black-chalk drawing that belongs to this core group is A Family of Beggars, since on the verso of that sheet is a preparatory study for Rembrandt’s 1647 portrait etching of Jan Six (1618–1700). Rembrandt executed the family of beggars with a fair amount of detail and only a few darker accents. On the basis of the dated portrait etching, these black-chalk sketches can be dated to around 1645–47. Apart from Young Girl Leaning Out of a Window and the sketch portraying Jan Six, the black-chalk drawings discussed here were not made as preliminary studies for paintings or etchings, but as exercise material, possibly as examples for pupils. Rembrandt did not generally prepare his paintings by drawing preliminary studies; instead, he applied the design directly to the support, whether panel or canvas or copper plate.
Sometimes during the course of painting Rembrandt would make drawings to try out alternative solutions. An example of this approach is Study for the Figure of Susanna in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (fig 4), which Rembrandt drew as he was finishing the painting Susanna and the Elders, 1647 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), which he had begun at the end of the 1630s. The black-chalk drawing of Susanna is similar to the drawings of the seated men, although Rembrandt executed it in finer chalk and added white chalk to indicate areas of light, thus increasing its expressive quality. The rendering of Susanna’s clothing, in particular—with passages of hatching in various directions to produce shading, and stronger lines to clarify the contours—is comparable to the effect produced in Seated Man, Half-Length, at Work.
The broad, dark chalk lines that Rembrandt used to work up drawings in the mid-1640s parallel the technique he used in his pen-and-ink drawings from that period, as is evident in his compositional study for his portrait etching of Jan Six. In this pen-and-ink drawing, Rembrandt used his broader lines to define his forms, much as he did in the chalk drawings of the seated man.
Sumowski observed that the model depicted in the two drawings of a seated man also posed for a series of paintings of the head of Christ. Indeed, it is likely that Rembrandt considered the model, with his dark hair parted in the middle, suitable for portraying Christ. Rembrandt probably also used this model for the figure of Christ in The Supper at Emmaus, 1648, in the Louvre.
When Seated Man, Half-Length, at Work was in the Heseltine collection, it was attributed to Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1617–81), an artist to whom Rembrandt’s figure drawings have often been wrongly ascribed because the models were thought to resemble figures in that artist’s genre scenes. In 1971 Sumowski rightly published the drawing as a Rembrandt, but he dated it to the late 1640s on the basis of a supposed development toward a more angular style of drawing and regular, dense hatching without detailed lighting effects. Nevertheless, the similarities between these drawings of a seated man and the core group of drawings discussed above, which can be dated to between 1645 and 1647, make a dating to ca. 1647 the most plausible.