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Rembrandt and the Women
Was Rembrandt Art History's First Feminist ?

Impressions from an art exhibition in London, December 2001

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Rembrandt in General        Rembrandt and the Women

In 1991, The Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the National Gallery of Scotland, had arranged together an exhibition about the women in Rembrandt's art. The exhibition had already toured Berlin and Amsterdam, showing the works of Rembrandt and his scholars. On my way to this exhibition I asked myself whether it was worth while to choose this theme for an international exhibition?  Would it tell something that had been unknown about him until now?  Or was this just a substitute for a "big" Rembrandt-exhibition?

About halfway through the exhibition I sensed the answers to my questions.  The exhibition showed works from nearly all his preferred subjects -- portraits, biblical and mythological motifs, and everyday scenes -- and within all the techniques he mastered:  painting, drawing and etching.  The exhibition brought the viewer very close to the most central themes of his art:  the exploration of the human psyche and the display of human reactions. 

Rembrandt. "Branded Woman". Etching.

Rembrandt was a sensitive interpreter of women and their lives, and at a central point in his art Rembrandt separated himself both from his predecessors and his contemporaries in 17th century Holland. 

He never painted female models living up to art history's traditional demands for classic proportions and eternal youth.  But he often chose to paint women who were obviously branded by life. 

Age, childbirths and bad nutrition are evident factors in their faces and their bodies.  At times shockingly evident, but Rembrandt never did anything to "embellish" them, on the contrary he depicted them with their actual looks and life experiences shining through. 

This uncompromising attitude brought him great artistic opposition in his time and his works may still strike the viewer as amazing.  Because he painted what he saw, without trying to embellish anything, he is truly considered the art history's first feminist. 

  • Rembrandt: "Branded Woman". Etching. 

The exhibition introduced the visitors to the three most important women in Rembrandt's life.  First the wife Saskia, who died young after 9 years of marriage;  then the housekeeper Geertje, who disappeared out of his life after a few years as a consequence of a dramatic break-up, and finally the young maid Hendrickje, with whom he lived together for 15 years before she died.  Of the three women it is only his wife Saskia, who can be pointed out with certainty.  Geertje played only a minor part in his life.  But the young maid, Hendrickje, must have thrilled the mature artist, since he during the 1650s often painted a beautiful dark-eyed brunette, always fascinating the viewer with her strong charisma and pensive expression.  

Niger 1981. Rembrandt. The artist's first wife, Saskia. Manama 1972. Rembrandt. Geertje (or Hendrickje?) Niger 1981. Rembrandt. The artist's second wife, Hendrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt has undoubtedly looked at women with great pleasure, both dressed and undressed, but he never reduced them to sex objects.  Except for a few works, which are evidently made to order, he always painted women's personality and character.  Rembrandt's women are strong; they think, sense and act.  In this way Rembrandt's art has no comparison to others' arts, neither in the past, the present nor the immediate posterity.  

Mongolia 1981. Rembrandt. Painting allegedly depicting "Hendrickje in Bed".

One question that has often been asked in relation to Rembrandt, is whether to which degree his private life is reflected in his many domestic sceneries.  

The answer blows in the wind, simply because no decent woman of the time could permit herself to model, not even for her husband, who was always surrounded by assistants and pupils in his study.  

So, if he has chosen a motif from his own home - for instance of a woman in a bed in a recognizable room - he has meticulously avoided to "portray" her, so today's viewer can only believe that the woman might be either Saskia or Hendrickje, but cannot know for sure.  

USSR 1976. Rembrandt. "Danae".

In spite of the ugliness of branded women and everyday life, Rembrandt certainly also had his poetic side, which is shown in this lovely portrait of "Flora", a young and slender woman, nicely dressed up with a wreath of flowers around her hair, and looking timidly, yet with curious eyes on the world. 

USSR 1973. Rembrandt. "Flora".

Last, but not least, I must show you a wonderful portrait of another very important woman in Rembrandt's life, his mother. The portrait shows a stout and self-relying woman who knows what she wants, who has gotten the most out of her life, and who is obviously proud of her achievements. Her charisma is enormous, and she radiates self-confidence and tranquility. 

Rembrandt. Etching of the artist's mother (1631). Rwanda 1973. Rembrandt. The artist's mother reading a book.

Hundreds of Rembrandt-paintings have been issued world wide; I have only shown a small part of the huge issuance of Rembrandt-stamps, and hope they will give you a taste for this remarkable Dutch artist of the Baroque period, who has influenced his posterity so widely. 

Rembrandt in General        Rembrandt and the Women

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