After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist. He received many commissions for portraits and history paintings, and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
The tragic story of Lucretia, recounted by Livy, took place in Rome in the sixth century BC during the reign of the tyrannical ruler Tarquinius Superbus. Rembrandt portrays Lucretia in utter anguish, right before her act of suicide. The tension surrounding that awful moment poignantly captures the moral dilemma of a woman forced to choose between life and honor.
Lucretia's husband, Collatinus, had boasted to his fellow soldiers that her loyalty and virtue were greater than that of their wives. Taking him up on the challenge, the men immediately rode to Rome where they discovered Lucretia and her handmaidens spinning wool. Lucretia's very virtue enflamed the desire of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the tyrant, who secretly returned to the house a few days later. Lucretia received him as an honored guest, but he later betrayed that hospitality by entering her chamber and threatening to kill her if she did not yield to him. The next day Lucretia summoned her father and husband, disclosed what had happened, and told them that, even though they deemed her an innocent victim, she was determined to end her life in order to reclaim her honor. Lucretia then drew a knife from her robe, drove it into her heart, and died. Overwhelmed by grief and anger, Lucretia’s father, her husband, and two accompanying friends swore to avenge her death. Lucretia's rape and death triggered a revolt that led to the overthrow of monarchical tyranny and the creation of the Roman Republic.
In a moment of inner anguish Lucretia stands, with arms outstretched, just prior to her act of suicide. Although her body faces the viewer, she looks down toward the sharply pointed dagger clenched in her right hand. She holds her left hand open at the same height as the right, as though part of her resists completing the self-destructive act. The tension surrounding that awful moment emphasizes the human drama of a woman caught in the moral dilemma of choosing between life and honor, a choice that would take on symbolic connotations.
The tragedy of Lucretia’s impending suicide is intensified in the contrast Rembrandt develops between her elegant attire and the poignancy of her gesture and expressions. Richly adorned with golden diadem, pearl earrings, pearl necklace, and a chain with a golden pendant from which hangs a tear-shaped pearl, she is a regal figure. Her golden dress with a cape that falls over her out-stretched arms adds to her splendor. Rembrandt, however, arranged her robes so as to emphasize her vulnerability. The clasps that hook her dress at the bodice hang unfastened. With her dress parted, her chest covered only by the white chemise that fits so gracefully, she is about to thrust the dagger into her heart.
The tragic story of Lucretia, recounted by Livy, took place during the reign of the tyrannical ruler Tarquinius Superbus in Rome in the sixth century BC. While away during the siege of Ardea, Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, boasted that her loyalty and virtue were greater than that of his compatriots' wives. Taking up the challenge, the men at camp rode immediately to Rome where they discovered Lucretia alone with her handmaidens, spinning wool while other wives were idly enjoying their leisure. Lucretia’s very virtue, however, inflamed the desire of Tarquinius’ son, Sextus Tarquinius, who returned without Collatinus’ knowledge a few days later. Having been received as an honored guest, he later stole secretly to Lucretia’s chamber, drew his sword, and threatened to kill her if she did not yield to him. She resisted, but when Sextus Tarquinius threatened to kill his own slave as well and place their naked bodies together to give the appearance that they had been killed in the act of adultery, she yielded to his demands rather than die in such disgrace.
The next day Lucretia summoned her father and husband to her side and related what had happened, stressing that only her body had been violated, not her heart. Despite their protestations of her innocence, she was determined to make the moral choice that fate had forced upon her, saying: “Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve.” Livy relates that with these words Lucretia drew a knife from under her robe, drove it into her heart, and fell forward, dead.
Livy, The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (Aylesbury, 1973), book 1, LIX, 99.
Overwhelmed by grief, Lucretia’s father, her husband, and two accompanying friends swore to avenge her death. Her suicide helped rouse the anger of the populace against the tyrannical rule of Tarquinius Superbus, who was forced into exile. Sextus Tarquinius, who was also driven from Rome, was assassinated shortly thereafter. In Livy’s account Lucretia embodied chastity, but her tragedy assumed wider political dimensions because she was also considered a metaphor for Rome itself. Lucretia’s rape came to symbolize the tyrannical subjugation of the city by Tarquinius Superbus and his family.
Ian Donaldson, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformation (Oxford, 1982), 9, stresses the political significance of this point.
Rembrandt painted at least three images of Lucretia in his later years. The earliest of these is known only through an inventory of the possessions of Abraham Wijs and Sara de Potter, made on March 1, 1658. The inventory lists: “A large painting of Lucretia, by R: Van Rijn.”
Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York, 1979), doc. 1658/8, 418. “In ‘t Voorhuijs Een groot stuck schilderij van Lucretia van R: Van Rijn.”
The features in the Washington Lucretia resemble Rembrandt’s companion Hendrickje Stoffels, as she is seen in Rembrandt’s paintings from the mid-1650s (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, inv, no. 828B). Hendrickje, who appears much older in the portrait of 1660 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, had died in July 1663. The model Rembrandt used for the Minneapolis Lucretia is not found in other of Rembrandt’s paintings.
As Stechow has demonstrated, three traditions exist for the representation of the Lucretia story: “narrative combinations of various scenes pertaining to the legend; dramatic scenes concentrating entirely on Tarquinius’ misdeed; and single figures of Lucretia stabbing herself.”
Wolfgang Stechow, "Lucretia Statua," in Essays in Honor of Georg Swarzenski (Chicago and Berlin, 1951), 114.
First suggested by N. Beets (see N. Beets, “Een ‘print van Rafel’ en Rembrandt’s Lucretia,” Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant [January 1, 1914], I). Northern prints and paintings of Lucretia have a quite different character and do not seem to have influenced Rembrandt in his depictions of Lucretia; for the prints see Ilja M. Veldman, “Lessons for Ladies: A Selection of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Dutch Prints,” Simiolus 16 (1986): 113–127.
The most profound sixteenth-century images of Lucretia were created in Venice. In two memorable paintings, Tarquin and Lucretia (Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna) and Tarquin and Lucretia (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), Titian focused on the dramatic confrontation between Tarquin and Lucretia, capturing the animal energy of Tarquin blindly driven by lust.
For paintings attributed to Titian see Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, 3 vols. (London, 1975), 3:215, cat. no. x-24, 219, cat. no. x-33. For Veronese’s Lucretia see Kunsthistorisches Museum, Katalog der Gemäldegalerie I, Italiener, Spanier, Franzosen, Engländer (Vienna, 1965), 169, cat. no. 750.
Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, 3 vols. (London, 1975), 3:154–155, cat. no. 17.
No record of commissions exists for these works, nor other information concerning Rembrandt’s motivation for painting them. Schwartz has suggested that the paintings have political overtones.
Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: zijn leven, zijn schilderijen (Maarssen, 1984), 330, no. 382, repro. (English trans., Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings [New York, 1985], 330). It seems unlikely, however, that there is any pro-Orange or anti-Orange sentiment implied in these works, as Schwartz suggests.
For the parallels drawn between the story of Claudius Civilis and the foundation of the Dutch Republic as seen in the decorations of the Town Hall in Amsterdam see H. van de Waal, “The Iconographical Background to Rembrandt’s Civilis,” in H. van de Waal, Steps towards Rembrandt: Collected Articles 1937–1972, ed. R. H. Fuchs, trans. Patricia Wardle and Alan Griffiths (Amsterdam, 1974), 28–43.
The forceful impact of Rembrandt’s paintings of Lucretia, however, seems also to have resulted from personal associations the artist made between experiences in his life and the emotional traumas that he projected onto Lucretia at the time of her suicide. Only thus can we explain the essential transformation of the pictorial traditions for portraying this legendary Roman heroine that occurs in the two majestic paintings in Washington and Minneapolis.
Lucretia, in maintaining her honor through death, come to be revered as a symbol of chastity, honor, and faithfulness. Knuttel speculated that the 1664 Lucretia may have served as a psychological catharsis for Rembrandt after the death of his companion, Hendrickje, the previous year. Indeed, parallels can be found between Lucretia’s faithfulness and self-sacrifice and the indignities Hendrickje suffered as a result of her commitment to Rembrandt.
In 1654 Hendrickje, who lived with Rembrandt but was not married to him, had been publicly disgraced when a tribune of the Dutch Reformed Church condemned her for “living in sin like a whore” with the artist. After Hendrickje’s death in 1663, Rembrandt may have linked the tribulations she had suffered and the emotional traumas he projected onto Lucretia. The resemblance of Lucretia to Hendrickje as she appeared in the mid-1650s (see note 4) seems to reinforce this hypothesis. For his part, Rembrandt identified himself with a historical figure in his Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul of 1661 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), in which the sword of Paul’s martyrdom protrudes from Rembrandt’s chest.
The mythology surrounding Lucretia, however, was complex. While she was honored for her faithfulness she was also criticized by later Christians for having taken her own life, which was seen as a greater evil than adultery and a life of shame. As Garrard has written: “In Roman terms, Lucretia killed herself not out of guilt, but out of shame, concerned for her reputation and for the precedent of pardon that she might set for voluntary adulterers. Christian writers, schooled in a religion that placed the highest premium on the innocence of one’s personal conscience, regarded such values as excessively concerned with appearances and the opinion of others.”
Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton, 1989), 219.
It may be, as Held has remarked, that Rembrandt drew upon a theatrical tradition to give added poignancy to the moment, for Lucretia, whose mouth is partially open, seems to address the dagger as though giving the closing monologue of this tragic drama.
Julius Held, “Das gesprochene Wort bei Rembrandt,” Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt Forschung, ed. Otto van Simson and Jan Kelch (Berlin, 1973), 123. The theatrical character of the image is reinforced by the suggestion of curtains hanging behind Lucretia. These may have been more apparent before the paint darkened and the background suffered from
Poor hand, why quiver’st thou in this decree?
Honour thyself to rid me of this shame;
For if I die, my honour lives in thee,
But if I live, thou livest in my defame.
This quotation was first associated with Rembrandt’s 1664 Lucretia by Jan Veth, “Rembrandt’s Lucretia,” Beelden en Groepen 25 (1914): 25.
Rembrandt’s late paintings, whether portraits, biblical accounts, or mythological stories, often take on an almost sacramental character in the way that the artist confronts the viewer with his images. His broad execution, rich colors, impressive use of chiaroscuro, and iconic compositional structure give these works unparalleled forcefulness. In Lucretia, all of these elements of his late style are evident. Particularly remarkable in this painting is his use of chiaroscuro to transform an essentially symmetrical and static pose into an active one. Lucretia is lit not from the front but from the left. Light thus strikes her head, right arm, and shoulder. The dagger blade glistens against her white cuff. Although her left arm is thrown into shadow, her outstretched left hand catches the light. Through these subtle means of emphasis, which until the mid-1980s had been hidden by thick, discolored layers of varnish, Rembrandt heightened the drama by reinforcing the psychological and physical tension of the scene.
The discolored varnish also had the effect of flattening the three-dimensional character of the image, which reduced the emotional impact of the scene by making the spatial relationships more difficult to decipher. One such critique against the painting was levied by Alfred Gold, “Die Sammlung Hielbuth,” Der Cicerone 13 (March 1921): 93.
Rembrandt painted this image using a broad range of techniques. He modeled the face quite densely by applying a sequence of paint layers. Some layers, such as the soft lavenders that model the shaded portions of the lower cheeks and chin, are quite smooth. Others, such as the pinks and oranges that highlight the cheekbones and the yellowish-whitish areas on the nose and forehead, are brushed on more vigorously. The eyes, nose, and mouth are broadly rendered. Specifics of eyebrows, eyelids, pupils of the eyes, nostrils, and lips were of little concern to the artist; instead he heightened and accented them with deft touches of rust-colored paint. One particularly bold stroke of ocher paint defines the upper left edge of the top lip.
Rembrandt varied his painting techniques in Lucretia’s cape and dress according to the play of light falling across her figure. Where light hits her right arm, Rembrandt cast a golden tone with a rich mixture of yellow, white, red, and salmon-colored paints. Under the lightest areas of the shoulder, he first laid in a light gray layer to give an added luminosity to the paints. On the shaded left sleeve, the paint is much less dense. A deep brown and reddish brown layer covering the
The layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint.
Rembrandt utilized the palette knife even more frequently in the white of the left sleeve. Here he applied a rather dry paint onto the underlying brown layer to suggest the material’s transparency. More extensive use of the palette knife is seen in the dress near Lucretia’s waist. Here he spread broader areas of light-ocher paint with the knife to suggest the luminous character of the fabric. In general, the treatment of this area of the dress resembles that of the left sleeve where the underlying dark brown paint becomes an important ingredient in the overall color tonality. The one area with thick highlights in the dress is the belt, but even here Rembrandt did not really overlap paints. The accents of yellow, orange, and white are loosely applied and do not define the belt to any great degree.
While I find the painting techniques described here characteristic for Rembrandt, Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann (personal communication, 1993) is quite critical of the manner in which these areas are executed. He feels that the “paint has an abstract, unfunctional quality, and makes the impression of a method applied without regard for its reason.” He rejects the attribution to Rembrandt and notes that the painting has “strong similarities with works by Aert de Gelder.” This opinion is shared by Ernst van de Wetering, who argued in a lecture at the National Gallery of Art in January 2005 that Lucretia was painted by Aert de Gelder.
Stylistically, this painting resembles the so-called Jewish Bride in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The head of Lucretia is extremely close in type and in concept to that of the bride: both are built up in a comparable fashion. Remarkably similar are the ways in which the features are modeled with dense and somewhat roughly brushed strokes of paint. The similarities extend to the technique for the modeling of the pearls and even for indicating the gold diadem in the back of the hair. While most of the robes in the Jewish Bride are more densely painted than those of Lucretia and are built up almost exclusively with a palette knife, in the shaded area under the collar of the man Rembrandt used a modeling technique very similar to that seen in Lucretia’s left arm. Here he also used a brownish
A colored priming layer used to establish the tonality of the painting.
The similarities in technique in this area have become even more evident since the 1993 restoration of the Jewish Bride.
Similarities in painting technique also exist between this figure of Lucretia and that in Minneapolis, even though the latter work was painted two years later, in 1666. As is appropriate to its starker concept, Rembrandt applied his paints in a more angular fashion in the Minneapolis version than he did in the Washington painting. Still, the modeling of the facial features is once again comparable. One notices in particular the way the top lip is defined with a bold stroke of flesh-colored paint along its upper edge. Also similar is the use of an
A colored priming layer used to establish the tonality of the painting.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
center left: Rembrandt / 1664
Jean-Joseph-Pierre-Augustin Lapeyrière [1779-1831, known as Augustin Lapeyrière, then de Lapeyrière], Paris; (his sale, Galerie Le Brun, Paris, 19 April 1825 and days following [originally scheduled for 14 March 1825 and days following], no. 143). Michael M. Zachary [d. 1837], London; (sale, Phillips, London, 14-15 April 1826, 1st day, no. 64, bought in); (Zachary sale, Phillips, London, 31 May 1828, no. 25); purchased by Sir Thomas Lawrence [1769-1830] for Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro [1797-1864], London, and Novar House, near Evanton, Ross-shire, Scotland. Paul Pavlovich Demidoff [1839-1885], Prince of San Donato, near Florence; (his sale, at his residence, Florence, 15 March-10 April 1880, no. 1146). (Léon Gauchez, Paris); (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 13 July 1889, no. 56, bought in); (Léon Gauchez, Paris), until at least 1893. (Bourgeois & Cie., Paris); (Leo Nardus [1868-1955], Suresnes, France, and New York); Matthew Chaloner Durfee Borden [1842-1912], New York, by 1906; (his estate sale, American Art Association, New York, 13-14 February 1913, 1st day, no. 28); (M. Knoedler & Co., New York and Paris); sold 1913 to (Frederik Müller and Co., Amsterdam); sold 1913 to August Janssen [1863-1918], Amsterdam; his estate; sold 1919 with the entire Janssen collection to (Jacques Goudstikker, Amsterdam). Hermann Heilbuth [1861-1945], Copenhagen, by 1920. (Ehrich Brothers, New York), in 1921. (M. Knoedler & Co., New York and Paris); sold November 1921 to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 28 December 1934 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
Associated NamesAmerican Art Association
Borden, Matthew Challoner Durfee
Christie, Manson & Woods, Ltd.
Demidov, prince of San Donato, Paul Pavlovich
Galerie Le Brun
Knoedler & Company, M.
Knoedler & Company, M.
Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, The A.W.
Mellon, Andrew W.
Muller & Co., Frederik
Munro, Hugh Andrew Johnstone
Private Collection (NGA Former Owner)
Zachary, Michael M.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1832, no. 44.
- The Hudson-Fulton Celebration, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1909, no. 105.
- A Collection of Paintings [H. Heilbuth], Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 1920-1921, no. 63.
- Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 23, repro.
- Rembrandt's Lucretias, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1991-1992, brochure.
- Rembrandt's Women, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, no. 141, repro.
- Rembrandt?: The Master and his Workshop, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 2006, no. 18, repro.
- Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery, London; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2014-2015, no. 115, repro.
Exhibition History Notes
 In 1833 Alfred Joseph Woolmer (1805-1892) painted a fanciful view of the exhibition of 1832 in which Lucretia can be seen hanging prominently to the right of an arched doorway (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, inv. no. B 1981.25.694). Celina Fox, London World City, 1800-1840 (London, 1992), 447, repro. no. 383.
The original coarse, plain-weave fabric, composed of heavy, unevenly spun threads, has been lined. The top, right, and left edges have been trimmed slightly, leaving worn and ragged edges. The bottom was at one time used as a tacking margin, but has now been returned to the picture plane. Slight cusping present along the top and sides, but not the bottom, suggests a reduction in that dimension.
The double ground consists of a thick, gray lower layer and a moderately thin, dark brown upper layer. In the dark areas, particularly the background, the dark brown upper ground layer was incorporated into the design, and in the upper left and lower right quadrants the upper ground was deliberately scraped away to expose the gray lower ground layer as part of the composition. In the richly impasted details on the dress, paint was applied thickly and freely with broad brushwork. Paint was both blended wet-into-wet and scumbled with a dry brush to exploit the coarse canvas texture. Extensive use of the palette knife can be recognized in the proper left cuff and in the lower portion of the dress. Incisions with the butt end of the brush are found in the proper left cuff and on the neck.
Several pentimenti have become visible over time. The dagger was once 3.5 cm longer, and the sitter’s proper right sleeve has been altered. Stray brushmarks cross the dress and white blouse at right, suggesting alterations to the neckline.
The paint is in good condition with few losses. Wide-aperture drying crackle has formed on either side of the head. Moderate abrasion has occurred in the darks, and the bottom tacking margin has been overpainted to incorporate it into the design. Conservation treatment was carried out in 1985 to remove an aged, discolored varnish layer and discolored inpainting.
 The ground composition was analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using cross-sections (see report dated May 8, 1985, in NGA Conservation files).
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- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 283, no. 375, color repro.
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- Jensen, Knud W. De glade givere: museernes bedste billeder. Exh. cat. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, 1999: 111, repro.
- Minor, Vernon Hyde. Baroque and Rococo Art and Culture. New York, 1999: 170, repro.
- Schama, Simon. Rembrandt's Eyes. New York, 1999: 660, repro.
- Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 184, color repro.
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- Lloyd Williams, Julia. Rembrandt's Women. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Royal Academy of Arts, London. London, 2001: no. 141, repro.
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- Baines, Barbara J. Representing rape in the English early modern period. Mellen studies in literature: Jacobean drama 106. Lewiston, 2003: 250, repro. 15.
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- Quodbach, Esmée. "A forgotten episode from America's history of collecting: the rise and fall of art dealer Leo Nardus, 1894-1908." Simiolus 43, no. 4 (2021): 353-375, esp. 373 fig. 25.
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