The Magazine

Looking at Rembrandt

A portrait of the Dutch Master at 400.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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However, the glow would tragically fade, or rather become the hectic flush of tuberculosis on Saskia's cheeks: In 1642 she died at the age of 30, and was buried in the plain cloth shroud prescribed by Calvinist law. In 1639 Rembrandt had produced a prescient etching that showed a newly married couple paying their obeisance to Death: To the skeleton arising from the grave, the bride holds out a flower, an offering to tide Death over until He can claim her beauteous self. No sacrifice--not even the three infants who preceded Saskia to the grave--could propitiate the Reaper. He took what He wanted when He wanted it.

Work and love--or at any rate, work and sex--remained Rembrandt's way of holding off the darkness. Saskia was not long gone when her surviving son's nurse, Geertje Dircx, took her place in Rembrandt's bed. During the years of their affair, Rembrandt turned out sexual etchings so frank and coarse as hardly to be considered erotic: a faceless monk in a cornfield plowing some faceless woman whose clenched feet and straining legs are all one sees of her; a cavalier whose plumed headgear dangles from the bedpost servicing a lady who demonstrates no particular thrill at the privilege.

In 1649 the arrival in Rembrandt's household of a younger and much prettier servant, Hendrickje Stoffels, announced a new romantic dispensation, and Geertje was not pleased to be sent packing. No doubt this is the stuff that has Rembrandt the Musical salaciously wailing the blues: Geertje's charging Rembrandt with breach of promise and his publicly denying her claims that she was his mistress; the pregnant Hendrickje's being hounded before an ecclesiastical court and officially proclaimed Rembrandt's whore, while Rembrandt, who had left the Reformed Church, skates by without reprimand; Rembrandt's getting his own back against Geertje and then some, by contriving to have her declared mentally incompetent and confined to a virtual dungeon for five years.

The sexual scandal was topped off by financial ruin as dissatisfied customers for grand commissions, and the artist's own insatiable taste for the finer things in life, plunged Rembrandt into bankruptcy. When death came at last, in 1669, it may not have seemed entirely unwelcome.

Few lives have known the tempestuous ethical and emotional amplitude of Rembrandt's, and in his work one sees the sun-graced uplands and the pits of degradation, sometimes at once. His Bathsheba (1654), for which Hendrickje was likely the model, shows the nude Hebrew beauty having her feet washed by a gray-visaged servingwoman; in Bathsheba's hand is the letter from King David commanding her to come to him, for he has fallen in love at the sight of her, though she is the wife of Uriah.

Rich adornments--an earring, a necklace, a bracelet--bespeak her familiarity with luxury, and Bathsheba's sensuality is palpable, her lush body radiant where the light falls on her breasts and belly. But her lower body is in shadow, as the darkness of David's longing and her own--David shall arrange Uriah's death, and David and Bathsheba's infant son shall die--falls across her purity like advancing night. And it is with a strange melting ache that Bathsheba looks at her servant, who in turn is utterly absorbed in the job at hand. Importunate longing is in the mistress's look, and one cannot but think that she is wishing she were not Bathsheba anymore but could be this lowly servant instead.

It is, of course, but a pang of misgiving Bathsheba feels, not a moral compulsion strong enough to overcome the king's lust, or her own. Rembrandt captures the moment of trial for a woman whose taste for finery, even for grandeur, and whose regard for her own beauty, already proclaim her lost. The artist understands what it means to want the thing you want most, even though it might cost you your decency and self-respect and the life of someone you once claimed to love.

From early in his career, Rembrandt knows the perils of staking everything on a critical moral decision. Even men we commonly think of as saints and heroes fear at times that they have lost all, and Rembrandt portrays them as simply spent, unable any longer to continue the struggle. His The Apostle Paul (1630) shows a haggard old man whose struggle is not to elucidate some crux of heavenly wisdom but to keep from falling asleep over his work. Behind him, bathed in pale golden light, a pair of scimitars hangs from a roof beam, and one is reminded that Paul was beheaded for allegiance to the faith. However, here is not a martyr ripening toward a heroic end but a worn-out thinker in danger of nodding off into his eternal slumber. Earthly agonies and heavenly aspirations no longer touch him; his drooping gaze settles on a desk piled with books that are just a shadowy jumble. He looks forward to nothing. Paul has given everything he had to his appointed task, and the immensity of the task has finished him.