Rembrandt and Saskia: a love story for the ages

In 2019, exhibitions across the Netherlands will mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. And at their heart lie the portraits of his wife, charting their short, doomed marriage

Rembrandt drew Saskia van Uylenburgh for the first time three days after their engagement, in the summer of 1633. His future wife is a picture of spirited allure. She smiles back at him from beneath the brim of a wide straw hat, lips shining, hair tousled, eyes glowing with intelligence and humour. In her hand is a flower; round her hat are several more, perhaps gifts from her lover. Soon she will marry this prodigy, who is sitting so close to her on the other side of the table – the most famous artist in Amsterdam.

Saskia is posing on this June day in the gallery of Hendrick van Uylenburgh, her much older cousin and Rembrandt’s principal dealer. The painter is actually living and working on the premises. Several of his early masterpieces have already been painted in this grand four-storey building on the Amstel canal, including the shattering The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, with its gathering of medics in white ruffs leaning carelessly over the poor dead body, only half aware of their own mortality. This first huge commission had already brought its maker wealth and renown; and once married, Rembrandt and Saskia will not stay with cousin Hendrick for too much longer. As soon as he has mustered the colossal sums required, Rembrandt will buy the ruinously extravagant house next door, in what is now Jodenbreestraat 4. There he will draw and paint Saskia over and over again, in the agonisingly brief span of their marriage.

Saskia having her hair combed, in bed, asleep or looking enticingly back at her husband; Saskia seen from the inner courtyard, beaming from a casement window. These pen and ink drawings, dashed off with intense concentration, were found in a folder after the artist’s death. They are like the pages of a private diary. And along with his several hundred etchings, surely the greatest in the history of art, they will all be on view in 2019 – the Year of Rembrandt.

It is 350 years since Rembrandt died at the age of 63, destitute, his decline as dramatic as his rise. His rough magic had long since fallen out of fashion with the Dutch, and he was buried, like Mozart, in a pauper’s grave. But his resurrection as the outstanding chronicler of the human face, daily altered by experience, and of the heart’s journey through love, grief, despair and every imaginable emotion, was almost immediate; and it is never-ending. Van Gogh, who once wrote that he would give a decade of his life just to sit in front of The Jewish Bride for a fortnight, spoke for mankind: “Rembrandt says things for which there are no words in any language.”

Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume
Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume. Photograph: UIG via Getty Images

The Jewish Bride – that portrait of two long-dead Netherlanders, his hand on her breast, hers gently covering his, in a gesture of such mutual adoration – will star in All the Rembrandts, which opens at the Rijksmuseum in February with 22 paintings and all of the etchings. The Mauritshuis in The Hague will be showing another 18 canvases, including Dr Tulp. And so many of his paintings, prints and drawings will appear in so many different cities, that anyone with the slightest interest in the greatest of Dutch painters, so inexhaustibly profound, so magnificently original, might try to get to the Netherlands in the coming year. Begin with Amsterdam, and from here every other crucial exhibition – at his birthplace in Leiden, in Delft, Dordrecht, Leeuwarden and The Hague – is easily reached on one of the country’s swift and reliable trains.

But for me, the first of these commemorative shows is by far the most surprising. Rembrandt and Saskia at the Fries Museum, in the northern city of Leeuwarden, is unprecedented: an intimate portrait of the artist’s marriage in images, objects and words. Rembrandt was 28 when he married Saskia in 1634; 36 when she died, leaving him with a baby son and a sorrow so destructive he gave up painting in oils for several years. The measure of his loss is apparent, too, in the nature of these images of Saskia and their happiness, made before (and in one case after) her death. Here is the artist’s heart.

Leeuwarden is Saskia’s hometown. A miniature Amsterdam of humpbacked bridges and narrow streets, you can walk round it in half an hour. A canal-ringed oval, it looks very much as it did in the 17th century – bright, cobbled streets of thriving shops and Dutch gable houses. Saskia was born here in 1612, youngest child of Rombertus van Uylenburgh, a leading lawyer who was also mayor of the city – in those days the capital of Friesland. He was rich; the family house is a veritable mansion. It is still standing, four floors of high, shuttered windows, and from its front door you can walk in one minute to all the places Saskia went: over the bridge to the lace shops, the bustling dairy market, the weighing station where heavy spherical cheeses were measured before their slow voyage by barge out across Europe. Family life was busy too. Rombertus was a founder of the nearby University of Franeker, and a friend of the stadtholder (the provincial noble) whose spectacularly beautiful house is now a hotel where modern couples can get married.

Saskia was educated, fearless, and wealthy. She lost her mother at seven and her father at 12, and was brought up by an older sister. But still she did not just accept the first proposal from some wily old Frieslander offering protection in exchange for her money. She waited, she studied, she spent time with artists and intellectuals; on her journey to Amsterdam to visit Hendrick in 1633, Saskia’s companions were two illustrious painters. Both appear in life-size contemporary portraits, along with her piratical one-eyed uncle: all three would be guests at her wedding.

Her character is apparent in her choice of Rembrandt, the son of a miller, rebellious, wild, at least as theatrical as his early self-portraits suggest. He had already painted the showstopping Self-Portrait With Dishevelled Hair now in the Rijksmuseum, and which she would have known, since he kept it among his studio works. Here, Rembrandt is a lone soul in the forests of the night, eyes blacker than the darkness around him. He has positioned himself at the exact boundary between that blackness and a shaft of light that ignites his smooth cheek and a flash of white lace collar, showing off his superb gift for flesh and fabric. But his features are hidden in shadow, allowing his true face – his true identity, you might say – to remain beyond reach. The dazzle is in the staging, and yet the staging is all concealment. You have to search for Rembrandt; and when you find him there is a second shock: that he is looking straight back, already had you in his sights.

Self-Portrait with Saskia, 1636.
Self-Portrait with Saskia, 1636. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

To see Rembrandt’s self-portraits, scattered across the Netherlands, is to see that he scarcely looks the same from one painting to the next. His hair is tawny, brown or auburn, his nose waxes and wanes, from bulbous potato to sharp nib; he is head in air, and suave, he is down and out, and flaccid. These paintings give a true sense of inner mutability, of a personality – and appearance – that is ever-changing and never fixed; the qualities that make Rembrandt so human, so proverbially Shakespearean.

And what is so revelatory about the depictions of her, seen together, is that he accords the same grace to Saskia. His young wife never looks the same from day to day. That first drawing gives some rudimentary characteristics: small, ripe mouth, the slight double chin that will become considerably more pronounced, lively round eyes and soft tendrils of hair. But in the paintings, this hair may be long and fair, or strawberry blond, or even quite red. She looks alert and flirtatious in an early drawing; stouter and more beady in the famous etching where they are both reflected in the same mirror together; he confidently looking up to get his image, she sitting just behind him at the table, watchful in velvet. She is having her hair done by a maid, she is exhausted in bed, possibly from pregnancy, illness or both. In one sheet of studies, she appears five times – young and fair in the middle, with light eyelashes; more careworn and heavy-nosed below. What did she actually look like?

There is a portrait of Saskia, probably by Govert Flinck, one of the painters who accompanied her to Amsterdam, in which she appears pasty, plump and auburn, though the lovely mouth with its slightly protuberant lower lip is instantly recognisable. But what strikes is just how limited she seems. It is just the same when you come across Jan Lievens’s portrait of his friend Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum; in itself a highly accomplished piece of painting, yet its subject appears narrow, reduced and finite, compared to the wild and unbound self-portraits by Rembrandt on the walls around it.

There are a dozen likenesses of Saskia. She is an expensively dressed Dutch wife, reading, lolling, looking down at some unseen object in her lap. She is got up as a goddess in a flowing golden dress. Rembrandt draws her in pearls, strings of them in her hair, round her neck, dangling from her ears. Could this have been how she looked on their wedding day? They travelled to Friesland for the ceremony through flatlands that look to the modern eye like unfolding Dutch paintings, cows out of Aelbert Cuyp, water and windmills by Jacob van Ruisdael, and of course Rembrandt’s own drawings of the low horizons. His mother gave the necessary permission to a notary back in Amsterdam. The document is in the Fries Museum, signed X with her mark. But neither she nor any of his other relatives attended the wedding.

Saskia’s family became alarmed when he bought their expensive new home in Amsterdam; he even had to sign some legal promises to keep the van Uylenburghs happy. It is now a stupendous museum.

There is nothing to compare with the immediacy of the Rembrandtshuis: the chance to look out of the studio windows and see the same streets Rembrandt saw, the same water flowing away into the Dutch distance, the same light in which he worked every day. To clamber up the steep wooden stairs to the room where he slept with Saskia, and where she is seen in a quickfire sketch in their bed. She has just raised a pensive hand to her cheek; his hasty strokes record the movements of her arm like stop-motion footage.

The Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam
The Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam Photograph: Alamy

Six of the nine rooms in this high house were devoted to art. Saskia could hardly have got away from her husband’s work: students on the top floor, assistants in the studio and buyers in the hall, with a special viewing throne by the front window. Even now, the scent of linseed oil drifts through the building, the wooden etching press is still cranked into daily use, the props box is stuffed, and the large room in which Rembrandt kept his art collection still contains “a great quantity of horns, shells and coral branches, casts taken from life, and many other curiosities”, as described in the inventory made after his death.

The studio is nothing like the lonely garret of romantic tradition, but an enormous room warmed by a pair of towering stoves. On the floor above, Rembrandt’s proteges worked in the kind of cubicles you see in art colleges even now. The drying lines for his newly minted prints are still there, and tables for mixing expensive pigments. Rembrandt, who bought works by Dürer, Holbein, Raphael and Titian, who couldn’t resist a stuffed crocodile or an outsize conch, was nothing if not spendthrift.

In a portrait of Saskia got up as Flora, painted the year of their wedding, she appears with an armful of flowers in an abundant gleaming dress. She looks pregnant; and she was, with their first child, Rombertus, named after her father. He died at birth. The next two babies, both daughters, lived only a few days. But their fourth child survived, grew up and became a painter too. We know Titus from Rembrandt’s penetrating portraits of his son, handsome but always anxious. He looks up from his homework, trying to figure out the answers; he becomes a hesitant young pupil in the studio, a teenager who will eventually grow into a dark-eyed gentleman with lustrous long hair. The centre of Titus’s face often received so much painterly attention – loving, questioning, revising – that you could, as a contemporary once commented, pick these portraits up by the nose.

Rembrandt painted all three generations of his family so continuously that their faces are indelibly familiar: his mother, bony, much-creased, so often the model for old women in the Bible and classical myth; himself, his wife and their son as all sorts of characters, but also as themselves. In Leeuwarden these three are reunited for the first time since Rembrandt’s death in an extraordinarily moving trio of portraits. Saskia died at the age of 29, only a few months after the birth of Titus, probably of consumption or plague; it seems a miracle that the child survived. Titus grew up with this painting of his mother: this is how he knew her, how he saw Saskia in their house every day, through his father’s art.

Rembrandt earned much, and he lost much. Self-portraits among the hundred and more paintings on show in Leiden, Amsterdam and The Hague in 2019 will trace the arc of his life from truculent youth to young star in gold chains, and from successful businessman to widowed old sage, no more collectors at the door. His debts mounted. He was forced to sell the house and most of his collection of art and artefacts for a pittance to avoid bankruptcy in the late 1650s, and moved with Titus to rented lodgings on the poorer side of town. He was even reduced to selling Saskia’s tomb at the Westerkerk; though it didn’t stop him bidding for a Holbein a few months later.

If there was no solace for Saskia’s loss, Rembrandt at least managed to hire a nurse called Geertje Dircx to look after Titus. His affair with Geertje lasted six years, until she was supplanted by a young maid called Hendrickje Stoffels. Hendrickje is believed to be the model for several of Rembrandt’s most sensuous works, including the young woman bathing in a stream in the National Gallery in London, the water’s reflections redoubling the light on her pearly skin. It is sometimes said that Hendrickje was more beautiful than Saskia, but how can anyone tell? What Rembrandt gave Saskia, his one and only wife, was the infinity of psychological nuances that he gave himself: the understanding of both mind and eye.

Half-length Figure of Saskia in a Red Hat. 1642.
Half-length Figure of Saskia in a Red Hat. completed in 1642 after her death, on show this year in the Netherlands for the first time in 250 years. Photograph: Alamy

Among the masterworks at the Mauritshuis will be Rembrandt’s late self-portrait in an old beret, quite possibly the last he ever painted. By now he had outlived everyone he loved; and the paint rises at every level to the tragedy of his life’s experience: the face wintry, pensive, sorrowful, faintly ashamed, the paint seeming to fail even as it rises to a pitch of profundity. In the autumn, the Rijksmuseum will pair Rembrandt with Velázquez, his contemporary and peer; and towards the year’s end, the Lakenhal Museum in Leiden will return to the very beginning with masterpieces from Rembrandt’s early career. Almost a third of his 300 or so paintings will be on show in the Netherlands through 2019.

But there is one picture that is rarely seen, and has not moved from the wall in a German castle on which it has been hanging for the past 250 years. It is the great portrait of Saskia that concludes the Fries Museum show. Rembrandt had painted his wife not long after their marriage. But he did not complete the picture until after her death in 1642. He kept her likeness with him, among his close possessions, until financial troubles forced him to sell his own works, as well those in his collection. It was bought by his old friend, the collector Jan Six. Around 1750, the portrait passed to the Elector of Hesse-Kassel, and it has been in Kassel ever since, until now. Saskia has come home to Leeuwarden especially for this exhibition.

What a magnetic painting it is: Saskia in red velvet and gold, beneath a vast and voluptuous hat, suddenly seen, for the first and last time, in profile. How delicate she now looks, with her glowing skin, the lower lip much more subtle and sensuous, the face full of shrewd and steady intelligence. It immediately confirms the remark made by the notary Saskia summoned a week or so before her death, to write down her last will and testament: she had lost neither her wits nor her sense of humour.

Time runs back to the start, and there is her neat little mouth, the sense of her small pearly teeth, the slight double chin, the red-gold hair. She is no longer sick, pregnant or tired, but restored to her spry young self. This is in the gift of her husband and his art; brushing in her soft ear lobe, her fresh complexion, her self-possession and everlasting youth. After her death, Rembrandt added an elegant ostrich feather to her hat and put a sprig of rosemary in her hand. Rosemary for remembrance.

For full listings of Rembrandt exhibitions in the Netherlands in 2019, go to


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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