38. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam

Male Nude, Seated and Standing (“Het rolwagentje”), c. 1646

In the inventory of the Amsterdam collector Valerius Röver (1686-1739) this etching was already called “Het rolwagentje” (The Baby Walker).1 To understand the title we must look past the two male figures dressed in loincloths to the scene in the background, where a women squats on the floor and encourages a child to walk towards her. She wiggles her hands in the air to entice the toddler. With outstretched arms the little girl or boy tries to move towards her, helped by the baby walker. This device on wheels is still used to teach children to walk. Various drawings by Rembrandt, as well as paintings by his contemporaries, show that there were also other aids at that time. Leading reins, for example, which were attached to the child’s shoulders and held by the mother or the maid.2

The lesson of falling down and standing up again did not only apply to the business of learning to walk. It was – and still is – true of learning in a wider sense: practice makes perfect. The art historian Jan Emmens observed that a child learning to walk in a baby walker was frequently used as a metaphor for this adage in the seventeenth century.3 Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), for instance, employed it in his poetry treatise De Aenleidinge ter Nederduitsche Dichtkunste (Introduction to Netherlandish Poetry) (1650).4 Rembrandt undoubtedly added the little scene in the background with the same intention. He wanted to make clear that mastering life drawing – as his pupils were to do from this model – could only be achieved through practice.

This etching appears to have been made during such a ‘practice session’, in which Rembrandt drew a model with his pupils. The figure Rembrandt pictured twice here also appears in the drawings of some of his pupils, including Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678).5

MvS

1Valerius Röver’s inventory of 1731, (University Library, Amsterdam, inv. no. II A 17/6).

2For example: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Woman Teaching a Child to Walk, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, inv. no. NMH 2074/1863; Pieter de Hooch, Teaching a Child to Walk, Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, inv. no. G 1558.

3J.A. Emmens, Rembrandt en de regels van de kunst, Utrecht (Haentjens Dekker & Gumbert) 1968, pp. 154-59.

4“Wie leerzaem is, late zich de beginsels, die altijt moeielijck vallen, niet verdrieten. De Kleenen leeren zoo aen stoelen en bancken gaen; daer na, stouter en steviger geworden, durven ze afsteecken, en behoeven geene ondersteunsels meer: anders vergaept men zich te verwaent aen eige inbeeldingen, en vervalt in grove misslagen, terwijl men wijzer dan zijn leitsman will geacht zijn.” (Those who want to learn should not be saddened by the principles that are always difficult: afterwards having become more audacious and stronger, they dare to stand out, and no longer have need of supports; otherwise they will fritter away their time indulging their own conceits, and make crude mistakes, while they want to be considered wiser than their mentor).

5Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. no. RF 4713; see Holm Bevers (ed.), Drawings by Rembrandt and his Pupils: Telling the Difference, exh. cat. Los Angeles (Getty Museum), pp. 13-19.