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Recumbent Lion, ca. 1660-1665

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Rembrandt preferred to draw lifelike representations of things he saw around him in real life. The lion is a good example of this: while other artists relied on paintings made by others, Rembrandt drew what he saw with his own eyes.

A lion is an appealing subject for artists. Rembrandt had long wanted to know what a real lion looked like. During all this time, he was referred to illustrations made by earlier artists who had never seen a lion either. At the age of 46, however, he got his chance: he saw a real lion in Amsterdam. He sketched this king of the jungle as he actually saw the animal and captured the powerful anatomy of the beast. He used this sketch for a famous etching of Hieronymus, a monk and church father who was unafraid of a wounded lion and saved its life.

What does a lion look like? 

Even during his early career, Rembrandt was struck by the story of Hieronymus. As the story goes, Hieronymus was a simple monk living in Palestine who one day came across a wounded lion. Instead of fleeing, as his brothers did, he removed a thorn from the animal’s paw and remained with the lion until the wound healed. During the course of his life, Rembrandt made seven etchings about this subject. However, the problem had always been: what does a lion look like in real life? He was familiar with this animal only from how it had been portrayed by his artistic predecessors, and most of them had never seen a lion in real life either. 

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How things really look
Rembrandt had a keen eye for what he saw around him. Landscapes, people in the street, animals – he recorded what caught his attention, from the ordinary to the exceptional. At that time, these exercises in observation were referred to as drawings ‘from life’. Rembrandt became known as an artist who would only portray nature in its raw form as it really was. Back then, this was not necessarily perceived as something positive. The lion in the drawing is most definitely not a lion that he copied from a book of sample drawings but an animal he had actually seen in real life.  There were no real lions to be seen in Europe. For a long time, Rembrandt could not have known what this animal actually looked like – until a real one arrived in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt portrayed all the world’s idiosyncrasies, coincidences and shortcomings: from the ordinary to the exceptional

The foremost heretic in the art of painting

Rembrandt is known as ‘the foremost heretic in the art of painting’, in other words, an artist who disregarded the established rules because he refused to follow the example set by his illustrious predecessors. Rembrandt would follow only his own rules. Yet this picture is not entirely true because Rembrandt actually did look at the work of the great artists of history. The fact remains, however, that Rembrandt refused to leave it at that: he continued to draw and paint ‘from life’ – just as we can see from the lion in this work. 

A lion and an elephant in the city

The lion was not the first exotic animal that Rembrandt saw. At the age of 33, he saw an elephant named Hansken that was being taken around Europe. The huge animal made a big impression on the artist. Thirteen years later, he saw a real lion for the first time. Like the elephant, it had been brought to the Dutch Republic by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Here, the animals were placed in a ‘menagerie’ (a kind of zoo) where they could be viewed by the public. 

In a few strokes of his pen, Rembrandt defined the essential contours of a real lion.
Rembrandt’s favourite subject

Rembrandt made several drawings of the lion. Later, he applied his newly acquired knowledge about the lion in his famous etching of Hieronymus in which he gave the lion a fuller and more heavily muscled body. The tail is shorter, the paws broader and the mane – thanks to the use of the drypoint needle – is thicker. After more than twenty years, Rembrandt finally knew what a lion’s coat should look like. The attention he devoted to the lion in this print suggests that the lion, and not so much Hieronymus, may have been his favourite part of the story.

Over het schilderij

  • Recumbent Lion, facing right (about 1660-1665)
  • Pen and brown ink on brown paper, 122 x 212 mm
  • Permanent Collection, Rijksmuseum
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