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Three women in Rembrandt`s life: a goddess, a mistress and a maid

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"Don't ever confuse genius and saint," biographers of Rembrandt warn us, approaching a complex theme of the artist’s private life. It’s all about love and death, sin and innocence, devotion and betrayal. Arthive is going to tell you the stories of the three faithful companions to the great Dutchman.
In his book 'Rembrandt’s Eyes', Simon Schama says, "Rembrandt cannot and does not seek to share the kingdom of high art with the base nature of physical life, felt by the tips of fingers, as required by the set of artistic rules. A half-naked woman, who scattered her clothes around her, cannot be considered naked, which means that her image in this temporary, transitional state must necessarily embarrass or seem obscene. However, Rembrandt was able not only to continuously cross the line between art and everyday life, but also to make a delightfully rich storyline from this 'wandering'."

Maxim Kantor, a Russian painter, writer, and essayist, in his book 'Thistle. Philosophy of Oil Painting' wrote these lines about Rembrandt, "Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn was a very sad artist. Only in the beginning had he an easy life, then it went hard, and he did not paint laughing people in his maturity."

Saskia van Uylenburgh

She has wide-set eyes looking a little bit condescending, soft, rounded chin, indecisive smile (grumps would call it a wry smile), curly hair, as light as feathers, by which we detect her even on the engravings, depicted from the back.

This is Saskia van Uylenburgh, the youngest daughter of Leeuwarden burgomaster and the beloved wife of a young painter from Leiden, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. On the portrait above she makes an ambiguous gesture, chaste and seductive at the same time. She covers her breast with one hand and offers a daisy to the artist with another one — a symbol of an unbreakable marital fidelity.

Isn’t it strange? Leeuwarden is in the north of the Netherlands, Leiden is in the south. She was a purebred noblewoman, albeit from a province, and he was a son of a miller, grinding and delivering to a marketplace malt, not flour. Where did they have a chance to meet?
Amsterdam happened to be their meeting place, where the ambitious Rembrandt came to become wealthy and famous, and modest Saskia arrived to visit her relatives. In fact, by the moment they met, she was not a spoiled youngest daughter of a burgomaster but an orphan, for she has lost both of her parents several years before. Saskia’s mother died when she was 7 years old, her father passed away when the girl was 12. Her parents had eight siblings. At least three of her sisters were safe and sound when Saskia met Rembrandt. They were happily married and very pleased to accommodate their youngest sister, so meek and dutiful. Saskia stayed in houses of one or another sisters and cousins. She helped them to run the household. Rembrandt was friends with her uncle Hendrick Gerritsz van Uylenburgh, a talented and successful merchant, or as we say now, he was an influential Dutch Golden Age art dealer.

Hendrick van Uylenburgh returned from Poland where his family fled to because of religious persecution, and set up as an artist in Amsterdam. He opened a studio, employed other artists, and started selling their work as well as his own. His workshop shortly became well-known as a good place to by a good picture. In 1631−32, Hendrick took Rembrandt into his studio and, as a wily merchant, used his chief talented painter as a poster boy in his entrepreneurship.

Business was blooming. Portraits made by Rembrandt was so popular that he, supported by van Uylenburgh, took liberties to set unbelievable prices. The portrayal of a human face painted by the young genius costed 50 florins, and the author could demand for a full-size portrait up to 600 florins! Never before or after that most successful period in Rembrandt’s life, has the artist ever made such progress in a society. Van Uylenburgh and Van Rijn came out together a lot, and it was a kind of natural for Rembrandt to ask Hendrick for his niece’s hand. At that time, Saskia came to Amsterdam from her Friesland and calmly and quietly lived in a house of Jan Cornelis Sylvius, a preacher of the Dutch Reformed Church, who was husband to her elder cousin, Aaltje.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The little Jewish bride (Portrait of Saskia)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Portrait Of Jan Cornelis Sylvia
  • The Little Jewish Bride (Saskia as St. Catherine). Etching and drypoint. 1638. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
  • Jan Cornelis Sylvius, Preacher. Etching, engraving & drypoint. 1646. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
This portrait of laughing Saskia was produced by Rembrandt in 1633, the year they got acquainted. The painter was 27, and his future wife was 6 years younger. Here, the young lady looks coquettish and wears a sly smile as each and every young woman does, whose heart pounds faster in a correct hunch of an essential and immutable happiness.
Strictness, piety and virtue composed the atmosphere in a house of Cornelis Sylvius where Saskia lived. The same was everywhere in the independent Netherlands after Protestant Reformation at that time.

In the absence of Saskia’s parents, Rembrandt asked her sisters and brothers-in-law for Saskia’s hand and discussed details of their upcoming engagement in May 1633. Apparently, it was important for him to make a positive impression on these people. The Uylenburghs were members of the Mennonite community, one of the most pacifist and pious Protestant denominations. Rembrandt did not want to appear an idle spendthrift or a bohemian wastrel. Basing on their consent, he has succeeded at that moment.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Saskia-the bride (Saskia in a straw hat)







Portrait of Saskia in a Straw Hat (or Portrait of Saskia as a Bride)
is stored in a Staatliche Museen in Berlin. It is made by silverpoint, a small fine rod of silver inserted into a wooden rod, on a specially prepared parchment. The inscription on it was added by Rembrandt at least a year after the drawing was made. It reads: "This was drawn after my wife, when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were engaged 8 June 1633." Over time, light silver lines have darkened and we enjoy the portrait in brown-black tones. Nonetheless, there is probably no image of Saskia made by Rembrandt as fresh and tranquil as it is in this etching.

On 10 June, 1634 Rembrandt and Saskia announced their marriage in Oude Kerk, a church in Amsterdam. In three weeks, they had a wedding ceremony in St. Annaparochie in Friesland. Although it is said that Rembrandt showed Saskia’s relatives his mother’s written consent to their wedding, evidently none of Rembrandt’s family attended the marriage. Successful artist preferred to forget that he came from a family of simple but certainly not poor millers.

We cannot consider their marriage to be idillic, for Rembrandt most likely has not received his parents' blessing. And in three or four years, it was the Uylenburghs family’s turn to be offended and outraged. Their brother-in-law, Rembrandt the artist, painted his self-portrait with Saskia that was too far from the image of аsceticism and piety.

His famous 'Prodigal Son in the Brothel,' which is kept in Dresden, has a definite portrait resemblance between Rembrandt and the young fellow with his back to viewers. And as he turns around to us, we see him laughing and reaching his hand out with a glass of wine as if inviting us to immediately partake his celebration. There are plenty of dishes on the table, including a roasted peacock, which stands here for the rampant luxury. And there is a harlot with the face of Saskia on the fellow’s lap. We should not forget that it’s not the image of an artist but of a prodigal son, a biblical character. Rembrandt would also show us what happened to him later.

This picture was made at the juncture between genre and history paintings and it has done Rembrandt a sorry service. His first biographers started writing about the artist basing on it. They turned him into a lecher, boozing and wasting his time and money, ignoring the fact that the 'Prodigal Son in the Brothel' might not have had any roots in the author’s biography. Even if it had, Saskia was totally safe. Even in such a boozing air she keeps stern and serious expression on her face.
Rembrandt’s things were going really well during the first five or six years of his marriage, and he had acquired a real passion for antiquities. Visiting the auctions organized by Hendrick van Uylenburgh, he kept buying up rare books, exotic items, jewelry and exquisite accessories for Saskia as a must have. He felt a great delight from embellishing his beloved woman with his own hands: covering her with the thinnest veils, expensive fabrics and large pearls.
For several times, Rembrandt depicted his Saksia as Flora, a Roman goddess of spring, flowers and blossoms in general, to whom prayers were offered for the prospering of the ripe fruits of field and tree. He evidently saw her as a personification of his own flourishing, a period of the happy fertile blooming. He awaited not only joy and pleasure from her but also fertility.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Portrait of Saskia in Arcadian costume
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Flora (Portrait Of Saskia)
  • Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume, 1635. National Gallery, London, UK
  • Flora
    Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

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    , 1634. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
However, Rembrandt’s firstborn baby named after Saskia’s father Rumbertus, died after only 2 months because of the devastating plague in Amsterdam in 1636. By year of 1640, as biographers evidenced, there had already been three small family tombstones in the nearby Zuiderkerk. After Rumbertus, two more baby children died in a short period after birth. Both of them were named Cornelia, after Rembrandt’s mother, as if he tried to make some amends of his neglecting her blessing.
Rembrandt’s etching on light weight laid paper Three Heads of Women, One Lightly Etched illustrates how Saskia’s face changed over the time, and how her husband matured in his mastering of physiognomy skills. The farther had he developed his abilities to depict subtle shades of human experiences, the more realistic his artworks appeared. In this etching, along with a desperate sorrow of a woman who has lost her precious children one by one, we also notice the humility of, а believer before the brutal will of the Creator, which transforms sadness into a state of a heightened spirituality.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Love and Death






Rembrandt has made his etching Death Appearing to a Wedded Couple from an Open Grave in 1639. The ominous allegorical significance had the artist put in it. A beau, wearing a beret with a plumage (which Rembrandt usually wore himself in his self-portraits), freezed by the edge of the grave, and his lady, with her hair reminding us of Saskia’s curls, handed her flower not to her beloved man, as Saskia had offered a daisy to Rembrandt before, but to a death in front of her. Death is traditionally rendered here as a skeleton. Its hand, outstretched ardently, is ready to take somebody else to the grave. And sure enough it would have happened this way.

In early 1640s, Saskia was waiting for another baby. However, her husband and her relatives were aware that she was doomed. Saskia had consumption or tuberculosis. Rembrandt made a plenty of etchings depicting her sick. He possessed that sort of an artistic mentality that did not allow him to turn away from the scary, painful and sad scenes. It seems that it made right the opposite effect. Rembrandt might be recognized as a 'modern' artist because he was one of the first artists in art history who was able to show life as it was, not better than reality itself.
In love and peace did Rembrandt and Saskia nurse their half-a-year-old baby, a fair-haired Titus. And the same way, in absolute harmony, did they write the last will of Saskia the other day. Saskia wanted her inheritance to go to Titus and Rembrandt, as long as he did not remarry. If he, however, would have a willing to, the rights to administer the inheritance would go to Saskia’s relatives. Rembrandt did not even think to question it. So whatever, it was fair.

Saskia passed away in 1640, aged 29. Rembrandt did not buried her near their kids in Zuiderkerk, but carried her corps to the Oude Kerk. They’ve made their wedding vow in there, and his brother-in-law Jan Cornelis Sylvius still served there as a preacher. Rembrandt hoped that his pious prayers would make Saskia`s afterlife easier since they could not support her here on Earth.

When Rembrandt came back home to his deserted house, which actually had put him into debts three years before, and therefore сaused Saskia’s concern and reasoned her scolding him, the artist took off his wife’s portrait painted 10 years before in order to repaint it. This portrait, produced by Rembrandt in the beginning of their marriage, depicted Saskia wearing a red hat and standing in strict profile. The copy of the first version made by Govert Flinck has survived. It helped the researchers to found out that the portrait had looked different before.

Saskia’s blouse and her outward garments were barely defined by Rembrandt in the fist version. Her dress was not embroidered with a plentiful decoration. There was no plumage on her scarlet hat and no mink coat on her shoulders. The painting was much more simple and unsophisticated. In the repainted version, though, Rembrandt transformed his beloved woman into a Renaissance princess, he wrapped her in fur and velvet and put the expensive jewelry and accessories on her, but he deprived her of something essential and important. In contrast to her other portraits, Saskia seems extremely beautiful in this one, although she is cold and distant. Simon Shama thinks that here Saskia turned into a shining jewel, bending under the mass of pearl necklaces, and disappeared in a cabinet of curiosities of her husband along with his other treasures forever.

It might be the way Rembrandt said farewell to his wife and paid his last respects to her in such a way.

Geertje Dircx

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Woman in severogermanskim outfit (Gertie Dirks?)

What about her face? We fail to find it in the artworks by Rembrandt. We have never seen it, just her figure. In one of the artist’s drawings she is depicted standing on the porch of the house speaking with someone in the street dressed in a peasant frock typical for the northern provinces. This portrait by Rembrandt has disappeared. (According to Paul Dearg’s book 'Rembrandt').

The admirers of Rembrandt’s genius would prefer to know nothing about Geertje Dircx and her love affairs with the artist as though no seductive nanny of Titus had ever existed, as though Rembrandt did not betray Saskia`s love first, as though he did not do the same cruelty to Geertje though in a much more meany way.

Unfortunately, she evidently existed in Rembrandt’s life — nobody could avoid the reality.

Titus was nine months when Saskia died. His father, who loved the boy most of all, was very busy working most of his time at the workshop. Important patrons stayed away from Rembrandt confused with the growing naturalism of his portraits, but the artist was stubbornly and fanatically seeking his own artistic manner. Rembrandt lost himself in work.
The little boy urgently needed attention and care, so a young widow of Abraham Claesz, a trumpeter, entered Rembrandt’s service. Very soon the nurse took care not only for the toddler but for his father as well. Geertje became Rembrandt’s lover, they did not hide from public their sinful sexual relations. This affair was an anodyne to Rembrandt’s grief; he even gave some jewellery of his late wife to his lover Geertje as a gift.

We could only assume that it was either just a love sick, which made the artist neglect the roughness of their relations and nonmorality of such kind of a gift, or just the desire to get rid of his deep sorrow, still hurting and painful. Though, many times later on Rembrandt would be sorry for this.

He evidently enjoyed his passion; the erotic theme is explicitly revealed in his etchings of the time of his love affair with Geertje (The Sleeping Herdsman, the Monk in the Cornfield, ‘Ledikant' or ‘Lit à la française'). We cannot but mention the collection of prints Rembrandt had been acquiring during his life, which included classical examples of erotic art, like Agostino Caracci’s erotic engravings or illustrations by Marcantonio Raimondi and Giulio Romano to Pietro Aretino’s book 'Sonetti lussuriosi'. These erotic etchings by Rembrandt do not cozy up to mythology like those of his predecessors, but according to Simon Schama they depict a heavy awkwardness of the animal like coition. It looks like Rembrandt did not intend to elevate his way of life at that period of time but realistically depicted his love affair instead, which was just sex, coition and no-nonsense relations.
A few years after their affair had started, Geertje went to a notary to legalize her will. She bequethed all the jewellry gifted by Rembrandt and her portrait by the artist (likely to be lost) should be inherited by Titus after her death.

Art historians are not unanimous in interpreting her act. Paul Dekarg assumed that Geertje treated Titus as if he had been her own son to become an integral part of the family; making sex with her, Rembrandt was not going to marry Geertje keeping in mind the testament of Saskia. He could loose all his fortune because of his re-marriage, so he did not intend to ignore this. Simon Schama assumed that Rembrandt’s attitude to Geertje made her act in such a way. The artist might have felt guilty because Titus could loose the jewellry of his mother, which he had to inherit instead of his father`s lover. It is known that in the late 1640s young Hendrickje Stoffels obtained work as Rembrandt’s housekeeper, and having lost his interest to Geertje the artist switched his attention to a 23-year-old beauty.

He was going to separate with Geertje peacefully and offered her annual alimentation of 160 guilders (under the official contract), and she agreed first. Though, on leaving Rembrandt she appeared to be absolutely alone and changed her mind feeling cut to the heart. First, she pawned Saskia’s jewellries and then filed a lawsuit against the artist.

Rembrandt obediently visited the hearings where Geertje publicly testified that the artist had promised to marry her, and he had even given her a ring as a present, that it had not been once that he made sex with her. She insisted on either marriage or alimony regardless the alimony agreement she had signed before, under which she had to get 160 guilders annually. In the court she demanded more. The court hold that the sum of the alimony should be 200 guilders. She felt hurt and demanded more.

Then Rembrandt’s revenge was brutal, the artist’s reputation had been dented and he had nothing to loose. He bribed his neighbours to talk ill of Geertje. He managed to prove her disability (he accused her in mental disorder and evil life), and the woman was confined to an insane asylum for women; there were a lot of such kind of prisons in Holland at that time. Severe austerity reigned there; smell of leach and cooked peas was everywhere. The prostitutes and the homeless were reformed there working hard, their fingers aching after long hours working at the spinning wheels. Their souls and ears accepted nothing but endless instructions of their supervisors.

Geertje was released in five years (Rembrandt wanted her to be sentenced for 11 years of imprisonment). She was absolutely ill. In the mid-1650s she died without a chance of enjoying a cruel destiny of her offender; Rembrandt lost his patrons and crashed.
Could we be sure that we have never seen Geertje Dircx’s face? Or did we see it somewhere?

In the middle of the XX century Yuriy Kuznetsov, a Russian art expert from the Hermitage Museum carried out an X-ray scan of the Danaë by Rembrandt. There were some doubts as to this painting, which is famous for its stunning sensuality and erotism. Rembrandt produced it in about three years after his marriage to Saskia, he depicted a wedding ring on Danaë's wedding finger. It could be reasonably to assume that a model for this seducing and tempting image could be the wife of the artist. At the same time the sharp features of the lady in the painting are not alike the features of Saskia — plump, rounded and so familiar to us from the other portraits by Rembrandt.
In his short historical story entitled Under the Golden Rain Russian writer Valentin Pickul wrote about the scanning of the painting. The X-ray examination revealed the portrait of Saskia under the features of Danae. The image differed from the features we used to see in the artwork exhibited at the Hermitage Museum. The initial painting depicted the lady with the same hairdress as that of Saskia in her portrait by the artist, now at the Dresden City Art Gallery. Her neck was decorated with the same necklace that we could see in Saskia’s other portraits. X-ray scanning showed that in the first version of the painting the left palm of the model had been painted faced down like saying goodbye. In the later version we can see the left palm in an upward position. The thighs had been covered with a coverlet demonstrating tactful and careful attitude of the artist to his model. The final version of the artwork depicted the uncovered woman with changed features, which most likely resembled Geertje. The author finalized his description with the remark that Cupid repined for the pleasures that had been gone.

Hendrickje Stoffels

She was a black-eyed small young lady, graceful and a little bit plump, attracting the attention of Rembrandt. She was two times younger the artist, famous all over Holland as the 'Apelles of Amsterdam', whom Hendrickje was going to serve.

The other lady, Geertje by name, could not decide whether she was a servant in the house or a housekeeper. She and Rembrandt were constantly quarreling, and the reasons were different: either the lunch was unbearable, or a bedsheet was not clean enough; a lot of faults could be invented when passion calmed down and they were not able to become friends.

Shortie Stoffels was not afraid. She was a daughter of a sergeant. All her brothers served in the army and her sisters married to the army men. Hendrickje was also a steadyfast tin soldier. When she had to testify upon a trial of the fact that Geertje Dircx had agreed to 160 guilders annually, Hendrickje did not hesitate to do that.
According to art historian Melissa Ricketts,

"Hendrickje was a modest common servant who became a lover of Rembrandt. She was a model for Rembrandt’s drawings and some paintings, for instance, for his 'Woman in Bed'. His artworks demonstrated sexuality of the model and the artist was evidently fascinated by her, depicting the details of her young flesh. Rembrandt had never hidden his relations with Geertje from Hendrickje, and she had never been boring and quarrelsome."
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Woman sleeping (Hendrickje)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Woman bathing in a stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?)
  • Young Woman Sleeping (Hendrickje Stoffels). 1654
  • Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels). 1655
After Geertje had left the house, Hendrickje Stoffels took the place of a housekeeper and became a good stepmother for Titus and a loving and faithful companion for his father. She clearly did not find her interest in their relations; she was aware of the fact that the artist was on the brink of ruin (finally, they went through the tough times together, including distrainment and bankruptcy) and that Rembrandt would have never married her regardless his love, because of Saskia’s will.
Unforturnately that was not the last difficulty.

In 1654, Rembrandt began painting his Bathsheba at Her Bath (or Bathsheba with King David’s Letter) the most beautiful nude in his oeuvre according to the common opinion. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a general of King David’s army, is sitting nude on pure white drapery, with a letter from her lover King David in her hand. She appears to be lost in thought. On the contrary to the previous traditional images of Bathsheba (including Rubens’s) depicting her light-minded and flirting: Rembrandt reveals sorrow in the subject’s face. She knows that she is pregnant; her husband has been in the army for several months; very soon her sin will be disclosed.
Hendrickje Stoffels granted Bathsheba the stunning curves of her flesh, having inherited her life story in return.

She had been ignoring the rumors behind her back for a long time. The neighbors called her a prostitute and a fallen woman because of her relations with the artist. By 1654, the couple had faced a serious problem. Hendrickje became pregnant at the beginning of the year, and in June her pregnancy became noticeable; Hendrickje and Rembrandt were summoned to the Church council.

Rembrandt was not charged because he was not a member of the Reformed Church. Hendrickje’s situation was much more serious. The charge of the Church council was "that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter". She admitted this and was banned from receiving communion. The verdict of the Church was that the woman had to be convicted of sin and quit her illegal relations with Rembrandt.

In October 1654, being faithful and courageous in her love to the artist, Hendrickje gave birth to a healthy child. It was a girl, the third daughter of Rembrandt, and he gave her a name of Cornelia without any hesitation. This daughter of Rembrandt survived, unlike both Saskia’s babies who had died before they become one year old. At least, she was known to get married in 1670, give birth to two boys, Rembrandt and Hendrick.

Hendrickje Stoffels died in 1663 at the age of 38; she devoted 15 years of her life to Rembrandt. The painter buried her and outlived this lover of him as well. Just mind it when you are looking at his late self-portraits with the face of a hard bitten and experienced old man who loved and suffered a lot.
  • Self-portrait. 1669
  • The Woman at an Open Door (Hendrickje Stoffels). 1656
Author: Anna Vcherashnyaia
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