Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the seventh instalment of a journey of exploration starting from a 1636 Rembrandt etching, Self Portrait with Saskia. In the last we heard of Rembrandt’s betrothal to Saskia Uylenburgh and their subsequent wedding. Here we hear of their early married life.
Following their wedding in St Annaparochie in Friesland on 22 June 1634, Rembrandt and Saskia set up home in the house of Saskia’s cousin Hendrick Uylenburgh in the Breestraat in Amsterdam. Rembrandt had lived there since late 1631 or early 1632, working as chief artist for Uylenburgh’s art business. During this time Rembrandt had established himself as one of the leading portraitists in the city, one of the most sought after masters with whom to study, but most importantly a burgher of the city and a member of the Guild of St Luke, his passport to practising as an independent artist in the city.
Conditions must have been a little cramped in the Uylenburgh household. The building had to accommodate the proprietor’s successful and diversified art dealership, selling old master and contemporary art, copies, etchings, drawings, valuations and appraisals, besides housing studios for the chief artist, Rembrandt and his pupils and assistants. Uylenburgh himself housed a sizeable family. His wife, Maria van Eyck was head of the household, and besides the complications of managing a building containing multifarious activities, stock, and property, she had to maintain the reception areas for customers, sort linen, laundry and kitchen and servants, and also had six children of her own to look after, all under nine years of age.
It was perhaps less than ideal circumstances in which to establish a role as Rembrandt’s wife, but thankfully Saskia had grown up in a busy household full of children, and was used to occupying a subordinate position to an established matriarch, as she had when living in her sister’s household at Sint Annaparochie. It was also a family affair. The proprietor and his new household member, were, after all first cousins.
It was not a situation that anyone can have expected would subsist for long, especially when, within a few months, the new bride discovered that she was expecting. They must have planned for the eventuality for she was barely at eight weeks when on 1 May 1635, the couple rented their own house not far away in the Nieuwe Doelenstraat.
The new house stood a couple of blocks away from the Breetstraat. It was a new build in a prestigious location overlooking the Amstel river, one of two houses developed by the city grandee, Willem Boreel. He was no less than the city pensionary – secretary and chief legal counsel – and one of the most powerful men in the city. The house must have been just as grand as Uylenburgh’s – the rent was similar at 600 guilders per year – and it must have seemed to Rembrandt and Saskia that they had truly arrived in Amsterdam society. When Rembrandt announced his move to one influential patron, he described the address as ‘next door to the Pensionary Borel’. What could possibly be finer?
Their cornucopia was flowing. The house has long since been redeveloped but it is pleasing to find the site currently occupied by one of Amsterdam’s liveliest and most cosmopolitan cafes, the Café Jaren. When we were there last summer it was thronged with young professionals, couples and parties of all description, from all over the world, taking drinks and sustenance, chatting, enjoying the view over the Amstel, taking in the ambience, or reading the papers, books and magazines that were provided.
Image source: By Rembrandt – fAFXpfS8tdF_Eg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21963240
And Rembrandt and Saskia appear to have lived life to the full. It must surely be from their first months in the house during 1635 that Rembrandt painted his great Self-Portrait with Saskia at Dresden. It is said by most scholars to represent ‘The Prodigal Son with the Whore’, and whilst there are related drawings that do obviously explore that theme, this is much more nuanced and ambivalent a subject. It is certainly a scene of pleasurable indulgence. A man who has everything that his heart could possibly desire, and a woman in the midst of that calmly content to play her part.
At first impression this is surely no more than anyone might desire. How close to this Rembrandt and Saskia’s life together might have been we do not know, but they certainly had all the trappings and the means. On the other hand the more one thinks about the picture, the more it begins to undo its own desirability. Rembrandt is inanely drunk, and leers stupidly at the viewer, his features slack and florid. Whatever of character, nobility, ability, and collectedness that sustains his gentlemanly status is lost. All except for Saskia, who stares out of the composition with some detachment and calmness. Content, it seems to be there, but with all her wits and patience about her. Just about happy enough for the time being, but evidently in control, certainly of herself, and to the extent that she can be, of him. If this is about Rembrandt and Saskia, it is about her having to put up with his weaknesses. If it is, as Rembrandt’s paintings always are, about something more general, it is about the duality of our carnal and aspirant natures, and how much better it might be to admit the one whilst in pursuit of the other. It seems plain that in Rembrandt’s life he thought he had found someone to save him from himself.
TO BE CONTINUED