“In its simplicity, it is one of Rembrandt’s most impressive sketches,” wrote Otto Benesch, the cataloguer of the artist’s drawings, and this small study indisputably ranks among the finest examples of his ability to evoke, with a few strokes of the pen and brush, the essential topographical features and atmospheric impression of a landscape. The spare lines, interacting with the reserved areas of the lightly toned paper, create a convincing illusion of spatial recession in a vista that encompasses a fence along a road, a farmstead in the middle distance, and flat, watery polder land stretching to a mill on the horizon. Rembrandt executed Landscape with a Farmstead using both pen and brush, although primarily the brush, even in many of the finer lines.
Very few landscapes belong to the “core” drawings that can be attributed to Rembrandt with confidence. Consequently, although the attribution of the Harvard study to him has never been questioned, it is difficult to establish his authorship on grounds other than its sheer mastery and the similarity of its technique to that of other generally accepted studies of this type. Landscape with a Farmstead dates from about 1650, one of Rembrandt’s most productive periods as a landscape draftsman and printmaker. It shares with landscape prints and other drawings datable to the early 1650s the oblong format, diagonally receding space, and economical handling. Benesch compared it to a sketch at Chatsworth, which is similar in size and equally refined in handling (Fig. 1), and its delicate technique also recalls that of Landscape with the House with the Little Tower in the J. Paul Getty Museum (see 1979.210, Fig. 2).
By 1906, when Cornelis Hofstede de Groot published the sheet in the first comprehensive catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings, it already bore the title A Winter Landscape. Most authors have concurred, describing the view as a winter scene with snow-covered roofs and fields. However, this is not certain. The impression of snow may be the result of the uncommonly extensive reserve of unworked paper, by which means Rembrandt intended to capture summarily the appearance of a landscape in bright light. The few trees appear to be in full foliage. In another drawing, which very likely depicts a winter scene, Rembrandt took care to leave the branches bare (Fig. 2), while in the Harvard sketch he uses the zigzag strokes that, in other landscapes, indicate a tree in leaf.
In his 1915 book on the sites depicted in Rembrandt’s landscapes, Frits Lugt suggested that the farmstead might have been located along the Amstel River, between the country house Kostverloren and the village of Ouderkerk. Rembrandt drew and etched several views in this area, including the so-called Six’s Bridge, the farmstead drawing reproduced in Figure 1, and perhaps A Farm on the Amsteldijk(?) (2004.181) . However, the absence of recognizable landmarks in the Harvard study precludes a definitive identification of the site. Like many farms in the low-lying country around Amsterdam, this one was probably near water: the gatelike structures to the left of the house and in the right foreground would support small drawbridges over ditches, and the taller pole behind the sagging fence rails in the right foreground might belong to a ubiquitous type of support used for hauling and drying fishing nets.