Perhaps more than his paintings which he is more famous for, the drawings show a mind at work and struggling, a mind trying to connect personal thought to objective image, render two dimensions three, bring life to the white void with nothing more than pencil and eye. When you look at the paintings — especially his portraits with their flesh and earth tones, souls radiating from faces — you can see that he was a genius and understand why the world still loves his work, but I love the rough-hewn drawings more anyway. Rembrandt viewed these as the drafts, the practice runs for his real work, but their comparable simplicity has an electric charm. They put me in mind of a kid sketching cartoons on the subway or a bent old man with a floppy hat sitting on an embankment interpreting the creek that runs at his feet.
In Susanna from 1636, the biblical heroine surprised at her bath tries to cover her nakedness as she peers over her shoulder at we who have stumbled upon her privacy. She’s exposed to the elements — no roof over her head — to our eyes — a scrap of clothing clutched desperately at her groin — to two thousand years of fable, faith, and story. I got chills on the back of my neck when I first saw that painting in the Frick, but it wouldn’t be until much later that I found the sketch that led to it in a book and understood the rawness of emotion, the way it can peer out of the page like a creature hungry for flesh and I was glad that Rembrandt had had the time to temper that sharp outline with the colours of the world.