The Painter at Work
Throughout his working life, Rembrandt has produced various paintings in which he made radical changes in the composition. A good example of this is The Syndics, which he signed and dated 1662. The X-radiograph shows that the figures in The Syndics took different positions and poses before Rembrandt determined their definitive shape.
For example, in the X-ray one can see three different positions of the head and hand of the sitting syndic. The rising syndic next to him was initially positioned more to the left.
left: Rembrandt, The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, also known as The Syndics, dated 1662, canvas, 191.5 x 279 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
right: X-radiography: computer assembly, overall (front), 2014, Rob Erdmann
With the help of one of the preserved drawings, it can also be seen that the upright man was initially depicted more frontally and that he and the sitting syndic were first looking at each other.
left: detail, Rembrandt, The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, also known as The Syndics, dated 1662, canvas, 191.5 x 279 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
center: detail, X-radiography: computer assembly, overall (front), 2014, Rob Erdmann
right: Rembrandt, Study for Three of the Syndics, c. 1662, paper, pen and brush in brown ink, 173 x 205 mm, Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
An interesting phenomenon, which Ernst van de Wetering discovered in Rembrandt’s early works, is that the artist was fairly consistent in the sequence of working. He started with an almost monochrome underpainting. In Rembrandt’s early works, this underpainting is almost completely covered by paint layers. In the forehead of the man on the far left on Rembrandt's History Painting, the brown paint of the underpainting can be seen on the light yellowish ground.
Rembrandt further elaborated the design in color on the monochrome underpainting, working from the rear to the front. This can be seen clearly in the pink pants of the man with the right raised hand. The pink is painted over the gray clothing of the man behind him.
left and center: Rembrandt, History Painting, dated 1626, panel, 90 x 122 cm, Leiden, Museum De Lakenhal; overall and detail
right: Normal light studies: slide, detail (front), purple trousers swearing figure, 1975-10-29, Karin Groen
E. van de Wetering, ‘Painting materials and working methods’, in: A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 1 (1982), p. 11-33