The Screaming Child

Rembrandt, The Screaming Child, c. 1635. Pen and brown ink, brown wash and white lead on paper, 20.7 x 14.2 cm. Kupferstichkabinett Berlin.

The toddler is absolutely furious. Livid with impotent rage, he is being removed indoors from his games and friends by his resolute mother. Whether he was misbehaving, or it was beginning to rain, or it was just time for dinner, we will never know. But we do know his anger. With arms thrashing and legs kicking hard enough to knock one of his little shoes flying, he clenches the fingers of his left hand in a gesture usually reserved for crucifixion scenes, and lets out an ear-piercing scream.

We feel for his mother. Brow knit, with her body centered and her weight moving forward, she does what mothers have to do, and have always had to do, and the child’s tantrum will be no match for her resolution. She will prevail.

But in the meantime, she has to suffer the criticism of a sententious elder who, standing just inside the doorway, shakes her finger and offers advice as to how things were done in her day. And to top it all off, the child’s friends and/or siblings are assembled in the doorway, cackling at this humiliating affront, and perhaps as well at the fact that the toddler’s dress, in the course of his struggle with his mother, has gotten lifted up and has exposed his nakedness.

This scene, familiar to anyone who has ever raised children, was recorded in 1635 by Rembrandt, using his favorite bistre ink applied with both pen and brush. Rembrandt and his wife Saskia had just had a first child of their own, Rumbartus, who survived only for two months, so children were very much on the artist’s mind. As a matter of fact, so many of the drawings that Rembrandt produced during the later 1630s were of mothers and children, that one of his collectors, Jan van de Cappelle, assembled an album of over 135 drawings depicting the Lives of Women and Children by Rembrandt.1

Done on a piece of paper about 8 x 6 in., the drawing was probably executed in a matter of minutes. Up close, it is a flurry of lines, scratches, and a few simple washes of tone, but stand back and there are five human beings in a setting involved in a timeless drama. The visual information is delivered with a swiftness and vigor that is breathtaking. Look at the figure of the elder. The position of the head in relation to the shoulder lets you know that she is crouching down, insinuating herself between the head of the child and the head of the mother­, a visual equivalent of interfering. As your eye moves down the line of the right shoulder, Rembrandt’s pen stops and slightly hooks the line under to make a notation of where the shoulder ends and the upper arm begins. Continuing down, the sequentially cascading curved lines give you the flow of the folds of the drapery, but notice how he doesn’t neglect to give you several horizontal elliptical lines, denoting the cylindrical quality of the form of the arm underneath.

All of the lines in the drawing are infused with information. Look at all of the mouths, and see how simply and quickly Rembrandt establishes their facial expressions. With an upturned stroke of the pen, one character smirks; with a shorter diagonal stroke, another one’s mouth gets set in determination; and with a broad, fat horizontal mark, there is a gaping rictus.

With another few summary indications, Rembrandt frames the scene in a doorway, and positions the mother and child on center stage. A broad wash of shadow throws the other two children into the recess along with the shadow that the mother casts on the wall. Rembrandt makes you feel the weight of the child, because some of the darkest darks in the drawing surround his body, and darks are one of the ways we have to denote weight. You feel the mother’s strength because Rembrandt has reinforced the position of her feet with strong lines, and has anchored her body to the ground with a strong cast shadow. The mother needs her weight established, because the child’s arms and legs thrash about at different angles, like the spokes of a wheel that is about to start spinning.

Rembrandt drew a lot. We have over 1400 of his drawings extant, and there were certainly many more. You do not get to be this good without reams of paper behind you. You get the feeling that Rembrandt, like Leonardo before him, carried paper and pen around with him wherever he went­, that he was the man on the street with the sketchbook. In an age before the photograph, with none of the constant barrage of reproduced images from books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, television, and film, visual artists had to capture their own references. Part of studio practice was the building of an inventory of studies which could serve as references for subsequent paintings. Our child’s face will reappear later that year on the terrified boy in The Rape of Ganymede, this time, the insistent mother being metamorphosed into the libidinous Zeus in the form of a giant eagle.2 But to Rembrandt, who always strove for the emotional reality of every subject, the observation of a child being carried away, was certainly to be of value, be it for a Ganymede or a Massacre of the Innocents.

This drawing is a miracle. There is so much knowledge and feeling in every line and touch. How could Rembrandt have drawn all this so quickly? It happens too fast to think everything through on a conscious level. He is making crucial split­-second decisions as he goes along. While he was studying the mother’s face, trying to get her exact expression, he must have seen the shoe go flying out of the corner of his eye, and remembered it for later, because the shoe would have hit the floor before he could even have gotten his pen out of the inkwell. A lesser artist wouldn’t have noticed it, or having noticed it, wouldn’t have felt its importance and would have left it out.

A drawing like this involves seeing, reacting, and remembering. With the pen in continual movement, the drawing embodies a seamless coordination of hand, eye, mind, and heart. The result is a statement that comes out of time, across time, a message to us of continuity and sympathy from the seventeenth century.

1. For a discussion of this and other Rembrandt drawings in their larger art-historical context, see Julia Lloyd Williams, Rembrandt’s Women, the catalog for one of the most moving Rembrandt shows I have ever seen.  (New York: Prestel, 2001): 129–­33.
2. Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt (London: John Murray, 1978): 44–­6.

Originally published May 2016 in LINEA.