Saskia van Uylenburgh, baptized on August 12, 1612, was raised in Leeuwarden, the principal city of the province of Friesland. Her family members were leading patricians of Leeuwarden, and her father, Rombertus Rommertsz van Uylenburgh, served as the city’s burgomaster. Two of Saskia’s cousins, Aaltje Pietersdr van Uylenburgh and Hendrik van Uylenburgh, lived in Amsterdam, and it was presumably on a visit there that Saskia met Rembrandt, who had moved from Leiden to live in the house of Hendrik van Uylenburgh in 1632. Van Uylenburgh was a painter and flourishing art dealer who developed an art “academy” that specialized in painting portraits. Rembrandt, who as early as 1631 invested in the business, initially lived with Van Uylenburgh and ran his “academy” until 1635.
Rembrandt and Saskia were betrothed on June 8, 1633. Married a year later on June 22, 1634, they had nine years together until Saskia’s death on June 14, 1642. The couple had four children, but only one, Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy.
Rembrandt’s many drawings, etchings, and paintings of Saskia have preserved an incredibly varied image of this intriguing woman. One sees through them her warmth and tenderness [fig. 1], but also a certain haughtiness; her robust energy and zest for life, but also the debilitating illnesses that frequently weakened her after the mid-1630s. One senses that a strong bond existed between Rembrandt and Saskia, but at the same time her upper-class upbringing and character seem to have made it difficult for her to fully conform to the kind of life she was expected to lead as the wife, and occasional model, of this extraordinary painter.
In this painting the personal nature of Rembrandt’s representation is enhanced by Saskia’s pose. Glancing over her right shoulder she looks out at the viewer. With her head tilted slightly forward she has a gentle yet engaging appearance. Nevertheless, one senses even in this appealing portrait the duality of Saskia’s nature. While she wears a fashionable, albeit conservative dress appropriate to her upbringing, the diaphanous shawl that covers her head and falls gently over her shoulders was not customary for a woman of her social standing. Its associations are arcadian, and similar veils are seen in representations of shepherdesses. Rembrandt almost certainly draped Saskia with the veil to achieve a softer, more intimate portrayal than a conventional bonnet would have allowed.
This painting, which is neither signed nor dated, was probably begun by Rembrandt around 1634–1635, shortly after his marriage to Saskia. The idealization of Saskia’s features, which derived from Rembrandt’s attempt to impart an arcadian quality to the portrait, makes it difficult to date this work by comparing her features to securely dated portraits of her. She is decidedly more attractive here than she appears in other paintings, as is evident in a comparison with Rembrandt’s portrait of Saskia in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, signed and dated 1633 [fig. 2]. In the Gallery’s painting Rembrandt has minimized Saskia’s double chin and softened her features. A close comparison, however, can be made between her features in this work and in the double portrait with Rembrandt, which was almost certainly executed in 1635 [fig. 3]. In both paintings Saskia looks out at the viewer in such a way that the similarities in the shapes of her wide eyes and fully rounded nose are particularly evident.
The remarkably varied techniques that Rembrandt used to convey different textures in this painting are also difficult to date precisely. The paint on the highlighted portion of the face is applied in a dense, enamel-like fashion with diagonal strokes of the brush. Underlying this dense layer is a thinner layer of a slightly darker flesh color, visible on the shaded side of her face, that must have defined, almost as an Imprimatura layer, the form of Saskia’s head. Over this layer Rembrandt placed freely executed strands of hair and the diaphanous shawl, which he highlighted with strokes of green, yellow, and orange. The shawl also overlays the elaborate form of Saskia’s collar, the diamond-shaped design of which was created with a rich variety of strokes executed wet-into-wet. Finally, Rembrandt indicated the gold chain she wears with a succession of rapid angular strokes that were deftly applied to suggest both the shapes of the links and the light reflecting off them.
The surety of the execution is characteristic of Rembrandt, particularly the sensitivity to the various effects of light as it illuminates the face, passes through the translucent veil, and reflects off the gold chain. Despite the painting’s qualities, its attribution to Rembrandt has been disputed by the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), which considers the painting to be the work of a pupil in the workshop from around 1640. Because of the late date ascribed to the work, the RRP has also concluded that the figure does not represent Saskia. The RRP therefore identified the painting as a Bust of a Young Woman. The RRP has buttressed its arguments for a late date for this work by comparing the technique involved with that in other paintings dated between 1639 and 1641. At the same time, the RRP pointed out differences in technique between this work and paintings from around 1640 to justify its rejection of the Rembrandt attribution.
The circular nature of these arguments is difficult to counter, in part because the extremely rigid interpretation of Rembrandt’s oeuvre found in the first volumes of the RRP has eliminated so many works from this period that seem acceptable within the parameters of his style. The RRP, for example, has rejected all bust-length portraits from Rembrandt’s oeuvre between 1635 and 1639 that might have served as points of comparison for an earlier dating. The one bit of technical evidence that might reinforce a date of about 1640 is that the wood support is poplar rather than oak; Rembrandt painted a few other paintings on poplar between 1639 and 1641. If, however, one studies the pattern of his use of other exceptional woods, including walnut and mahogany, it is clear that he used them over an extended period of time.
The X-radiographs taken in the mid-1970s [see X-radiography] provide interesting information about the genesis of this work that was not adequately considered by the RRP in their assessment of the painting [fig. 4]. They demonstrate that Saskia’s appearance in this portrait initially resembled the image in the Rijksmuseum painting (see [fig. 2]) to a greater extent than it does now. Not only did she originally have a pronounced double chin, she also had a bare neck, which was illuminated by a strong light below her hair, and a wide white collar that extended below the present edge of her black clothing. The background in the lower right was built up with lead white, and the contour between the background and the dress was different from what it is now. It would thus seem that Rembrandt substantially revised this image by reworking the face, changing the collar, and adding the veil.
The complex creative process of this painting helps explain some of the anomalies of this image that raised doubts about its attribution. While the character of the image clearly relates to images of Saskia from 1633 to 1635, the diversity of painting techniques evident in the final image is admittedly unusual for that period. Nevertheless, definite comparisons can be made between certain techniques found in this work and those in other of Rembrandt’s paintings from around 1635, in particular the use of white and pink accents for highlighting the nose and a strong black line to articulate the opening of the mouth. These comparisons, as well as the physiognomic relationship to images of Saskia from around 1633 to 1635, place the initial execution of this work in the mid-1630s. Rembrandt’s reworking of the image may well have occurred toward the end of the 1630s to judge from the freely executed veil, which has parallels in other works by him from about 1640. The style of her collar, moreover, relates to that found on the Bust of Rembrandt, signed and dated 163, in the Norton Simon Collection, Pasadena. A similar lozenge-shaped pattern on the collar can be found in Rembrandt’s etched Self-Portrait of 1638.
This painting is of particular interest within the Gallery’s collection because it was the first Rembrandt acquired by Peter A. B. Widener. He purchased it from Charles Sedelmeyer in 1894, perhaps at the recommendation of Wilhelm von Bode. The provenance of the painting has been confused with another portrait of Saskia in the earlier literature. The earliest documented owner of this painting is Bourchier Cleeve of Foots Cray Place, Kent, who died in 1760. Given the importance of Saskia in the life of Rembrandt, both during their marriage and through the confining stipulations of her testament, the presence of her portrait among the works by her husband in the National Gallery of Art heightens our appreciation of Rembrandt’s story.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014