The sitter – whom Rembrandt did not name – has an almost regal poise. She looks down on us from a slight height, her right hand resting on what must be part of the arm of a chair, but which has the air of a sceptre. She wears expensive pearl earrings and jewellery and what seems to be a fur mantle. All these might hint at the trappings of royalty, yet this is also an intimate – even erotically charged – portrait. Her dress seems to be unfastened and the mantle falls slightly open, revealing much more of her breast than would have been acceptable in a formal portrait of the time.
So this portrait, probably painted in the mid-1650s, is most likely Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s housekeeper. They became lovers and, in 1654, had a daughter, Cornelia. A Woman bathing in a Stream, also in the National Gallery’s collection, may be of Hendrickje too – see what you think.
Something doesn’t quite add up about this mysterious portrait. The sitter – Rembrandt did not identify her – has an almost regal poise. She looks down on us from a slight height. Her right hand resting on what must be part of the arm of a chair, but which has the lustre of gold and the air of a sceptre. She wears expensive pearl earrings and a gold chain, and the jewels threaded into the scarf or ribbons in her hair shimmer in the light which seems to come from a window high to her right. The mantle around her shoulders has been sketched only roughly and is hard to interpret, but the way it lies in heavy folds suggests it may be a luxurious white fur.
All these might hint at the trappings of royalty, yet this is also an intimate, even erotically charged, portrait. She is wearing a dress of lilac-coloured silk, which seems to be unfastened at the front; beneath that, a loose undershirt, perhaps also partly undone. She reaches inside the mantle and it falls slightly open, revealing much more of her breast than would have been acceptable in a formal portrait of the time. X-ray images show that Rembrandt changed the arrangement of the hands to create this effect: they were originally clasped much more modestly in her lap.
Since this is far too risqué to be a formally commissioned portrait of a client, who is this young woman whom Rembrandt wanted to depict with such intimacy? It would help if we could be sure when it was painted. There is a date in the bottom left corner, by the signature, which seems to read either 1639 or 1659. But both this and the signature may have been added later, by someone else. Certainly the earlier date, when Rembrandt’s wife Saskia was still alive, seems unlikely. Rembrandt’s love life provides some clues, however.
After Saskia died in 1642, Rembrandt never remarried, almost certainly because he would have lost much-needed income from the dowry she left in her will. But he had affairs with the two women employed to look after their young son, Titus. Rembrandt fell out badly with the first, Geertje Dircx, when the 23-year old Hendrickje Stoffels joined the household in 1649. He and Hendrickje became lovers and, in 1654, had a daughter, Cornelia. Despite condemnation from the church council on account of her pregnancy outside marriage – she was ’severely punished, admonished to repentance, and excluded from the Lord’s Supper [communion]' – she continued to live with her lover until her early death, probably from the plague of 1663.
While he and Hendrickje were together in the 1650s Rembrandt made and dated several informal paintings of what appears to be the same young woman – someone who looks remarkably similar to the person in this portrait. None of the canvases is documented with a name, but most art historians accept that they must represent Hendrickje. A date of 1659, as inscribed here, is therefore possible, but she would have been about 35 and she seems younger here, so a date of 1654–6 has been suggested. A Woman bathing in a Stream may also be of Hendrickje. See what you think.
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