Today Rembrandt is considered one of the greatest artists ever, known for his remarkable drawing from life and attention to detail. However, not all of his works were met with praise during his lifetime. Curator Olenka Horbatsch explores how his naturalistic depictions of women caused controversy in the 17th century.
Rembrandt's depictions of women
17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) was a keen observer of the natural world. While contemporary artists idealised the world around them in their art, Rembrandt’s prints and drawings reveal a fascination with depicting unmediated reality. Rembrandt’s representation of women in particular demonstrates how he rejected the artistic conventions of the day.
This black chalk drawing of Diana is the artist’s earliest known study of a female nude (c. 1630–1631). Traditionally Diana, the chaste mythological goddess of the hunt, was portrayed in art as an epitome of female beauty. Drawing from a live model, Rembrandt depicts Diana caught in a private moment, her sagging, wrinkled skin on view. In the etching made after the drawing, Rembrandt details the surface texture of Diana’s dimpled thighs. Rembrandt removes Diana from the mythological narrative, and depicts the earthy flesh of the model before him. Rembrandt thus blurs the boundaries between myth and reality – in the drawing, only the roughly sketched quiver of arrows hanging behind the figure identifies her as the goddess Diana.
Rembrandt’s drawings of the domestic realm offer an intimate look at the women in his life. The pen-and-ink drawing, Woman lying awake (c. 1635–1640), is thought to represent his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh. She may have been confined to bed during child birth, or because of ill-health – she died in 1642, eight years after their marriage in 1634. In the drawing, Rembrandt concentrates on the drapery folds, turning a private moment into a careful examination of line. Rembrandt often used his wife as model for his historical and mythological paintings.
Almost 20 years later, Rembrandt depicts a young woman sleeping, almost certainly Hendrickje Stoffels, his common-law wife from his late years. The graceful brush-and-wash drawing evokes intimacy with minimal details – his loose brushstrokes, characteristic of his late style, frame the composition. The three drawings of women by Rembrandt span early, middle and late periods in the artist’s life – they have distinct functions, styles, and media. From a detailed representation of Diana’s flesh, through the careful study of drapery in Saskia’s bed, to a tender portrayal of the sleeping Hendrickje, they all exhibit an intimacy and directness that is characteristic of the artist.
In representations of the Fall of Man throughout western art, style takes on both theological significance and erotic charge. Traditionally, the first couple was depicted as an embodiment of ideal proportions and beauty – Albrecht Dürer, for example, modelled his figures on Greek statues to emphasise that humans were made in God’s image. Rembrandt was an avid art collector, and owned a portfolio of prints by Dürer. He took inspiration from the German artist’s composition, but rendered his figures in a characteristically unidealised way, adding a layer of psychological depth to the narrative. Rembrandt’s Adam and Eve lack the grace and beauty of Dürer’s figures – their hunched posture and contorted faces suggests the pair is shown at a critical moment of decision. Rembrandt emphasised the human element in his religious scenes – lifelike details provide fresh insight into well-known narratives. By including details observed from life (from live models and domestic moments, to exotic animals that passed through Amsterdam) Rembrandt’s careful study and unflinching representation of the natural world makes his work accessible and intriguing to the modern viewer.
Rembrandt’s depictions of women elicited harsh criticism in his lifetime and in the subsequent centuries. Shortly after his death, Dutch poet Andries Pels (1631–1681) complained that Rembrandt deliberately chose to represent ‘vulgar peasant women’ in place of a ‘Greek Venus.’ British author Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846) wrote in the 18th century that Rembrandt’s ‘notions of the delicate forms of women would have frightened an arctic bear.’ The reception of Rembrandt’s women says more about the tastes and conventions of the day. In 19th-century France, for example, artists and printmakers were drawn to Rembrandt’s unmediated representations and innovative techniques. Rembrandt’s women have always been a source of fascination, and his stark and intimate portrayals of women make them captivating to modern audiences.
The British Museum holds one the most comprehensive collections of Rembrandt's prints and drawings. Prints and drawings cannot be on permanent display due to the light-sensitive nature of works of paper. However, the collection can be viewed in the Department of Prints and Drawings Study Room by appointment.