Rembrandt and the Terrible Twos


Last week, I went to see the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in London.  This isn’t a review (although I agree with all those I’ve read and it’s a must-see) and it isn’t analysis or a critique.  It’s that there were two small drawings in the exhibition that reminded me of another small drawing that I’d choose if I could have any drawing ever made.

The small drawings in the exhibition were of, respectively, a lion and a woman.  In fact, the drawing of the woman – a nude – appears on a bag that’s for sale in the shop at the end of the exhibition; I resisted.  Both works are at the sketch end of the drawing spectrum, but the lines leap from the page.

The drawing they reminded me of is also by Rembrandt and I saw it at an exhibition at the Royal Academy more than a decade ago.  It’s little more than postcard-size and shows a woman – presumably, the mother – wrestling with a small and writhing child.  It’s called The Naughty Child, so it’s to be assumed that the child is at fault in some way, but I suspect that’s not the child’s view.  It doesn’t take much imagination to hear that ear-piercing scream ringing out from the page, the one that only toddlers seem able to perfect.

There’s what appears to be a shoe, caught on paper as it flies through the air, the result of legs flailing in defiance, beyond the reach of the mother’s arms.  But this is a battle the mother is going to win.  The look of determination on her face is rivalled only by the look of frustration on that of the child – caught, held, thoroughly in trouble and feeling very hard done by.

And to reinforce that child-against-grown-ups view of the world, there are three on-lookers.  The tantrum has taken place on the street and that gives the women nearby licence to judge – and you know that they’re judging the mother, not the child, and that the mother knows that.  It increases her resolve to make the child behave and, more importantly, to get the child back inside her own four walls.

It’s the terrible twos brilliantly immortalised in a sketch.  I love it.