Rembrandt, Saskia and me #8

This is the eighth instalment of a journey of exploration starting from a 1636 Rembrandt etching, Self Portrait with Saskia. In the previous part we heard of their first year or so of marriage, and left them together in their first grand house enjoying the fruits of Rembrandt’s success. It is now time to return to the starting point, and consider the etching in the context of its creation.

Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636
Line etching, image 104 x 92 mm (slightly irregular) on plate 105 x 96 mm (irreg), printed on white laid paper 107 x 97 mm (irreg), no watermark
Bought from Hanson’s Auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire, at their sale of 29 June 2017 where lot 636 as ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait with Saskia (B.19), etching, 10.5cm x 9.5cm, framed’.
Collection Professor David Hill

The etching has often been reproduced, and is usually given as the principal representation of this important period in Rembrandt’s life. It does not ever seem to have been given full consideration in the light of its specific context. They were married in 1634 and the truth is that there has been a chronological elephant lumbering about in this room for nearly four hundred years and no-one, at least in the recent literature including Simon Schama’s monumental Rembrandt’s Eyes of 1999, the National Gallery of Scotland’s Rembrandt’s Women of 2001, Ben Broos’s Saskia: De Vrouw van Rembrandt of 2012 or most recently the Fries Museum’s Rembrandt & Saskia: Love and Marriage in the Dutch Golden Age from 2019, appears to have seen it.

Through 1635 Rembrandt enjoyed growing success and the couple lived very well. Saskia’s pregnancy ran its full and evidently happy course, and she was delivered of a baby boy in December 1635. He was named Rombertus after Saskia’s father and baptised on December 15 in the Oude Kerk, the principal church in Amsterdam. Johannes Sylvius, the pastor of the city of Amsterdam, and his wife, Saskia’s cousin Aejlte Uylenburgh were the witnesses. The event must have seemed to cement the bonds that had been forged between Rembrandt and the Uylenburgh family over the previous few years.

The blessing inscribed in naming the boy after Saskia’s distinguished father – the former mayor of Leeuwarden, proved little protection against the age’s wanton destruction of infant souls. Rombertus died at scarcely two months old. The cause of death is not known. Infant mortality rates were extraordinarily high during these times and Amsterdam seems to have been swept by disease with grim regularity.

Simon Schama (p.369) describes 1635 as ‘the worst plague year in living memory, more horrifying than any Amsterdammer could recall. One in five of the population perished in the contagion. Those who could fled to the countryside. Those who could not waited for the angel of death to pass and prayed that their groins and armpits would not begin to mark with fatal purple, like the stain of sloes. The littlest were the most vulnerable of all. Rembrandt and Saskia’s first child, named Rombertus, after Saskia’s father, survived barely two months. He was buried by his father and mother in the Zuiderkerk, close by Hendrick’s house, on February 15, 1636, just another baby to add to the hecatomb of innocents taken by the monstrous epidemic.’

One source says 20,000 perished in Rembrandt’s home town of Leyden, and others that in 1636 there were major outbreaks in Newcastle, Hull and London. A fifth of the population of Amsterdam as estimated by Schama could have numbered 30,000 souls. Poor little Rombertus took his place in a massacre of thousands of infants taken in a single year. Saskia carried the child in a period which for her was one of household independence and prosperity. She and her husband must have planned the nursery in the new house, engaged a nurse, bought crib and layette, hangings and baby lace, organised the baptism in the city’s grandest church, and thought about how the child would carry history into the future by bearing the name of his illustrious maternal grandfather.

The date tells us only that it was made in the year of their loss, but the expressions suggest immediate proximity. Saskia looks distracted, introspected, her eyes focused on something not in this world: Rembrandt’s face lacks all animation except for a set jaw, and his eyes pierce through a mask of shade.

In the most substantial recent critical biography, Rembrandt’s Eyes, 1999, Simon Schama does not make any direct connection with the bereavement, but does consider the more general situation (p.369): ‘Once again, Rembrandt threw convention to the winds, or at least reinvented it. For the etching has no precedent and no successor.. The compositional novelty was to align husband and wife not parallel to the picture plane but at near right angles to it. On the one hand this preserved the customary hierarchy of the marriage portrait, with Saskia notionally seated ‘behind’ her husband. Yet, not least because of the brilliant lighting that falls on her rather solemn features.. Saskia can also be read as seated opposite Rembrandt on the far side of the table. The visual implication is that once he is done with his work, he will turn to face her. For the moment, however, the work is everything. And the alignment of arm and head at right angles to each other also has the additional, all-important effect of engaging a third party – the beholder – in this work. Rembrandt’s sketching arm, cropped at the bottom, is pushed so far forward to the picture space that his whole presence seems to project through it, through the looking glass on which his stare is intensely concentrated as he works, his hand moving in ‘blind’ obedience to the instinctive instruction of the eye. It is as though we were behind a two-way mirror, with the artist staring simultaneously at us and at himself. Surreptitiously the beholder becomes both observer and object of observation; and Rembrandt’s wife looks (from an angle) at us looking at him looking at us. This is as intimate as it gets.’

Self Portrait with Saskia: Detail of bounding line/ edge of mirror

The complexities of the composition are perhaps greater that even Schama intimates. He is obviously right that a mirror is being invoked. The etching is unusual in having a thick bounding line which is surely intended to represent the edge of a mirror. But Schama’s idea that the composition situates us behind a two-way mirror, looking through it to the artist at work is a very contemporary conceit. Rather, however, the composition is the direct representation of the mirror itself. We know that Rembrandt was right-handed, and he appears here reversed, exactly as he would have appeared to himself drawing his own reflection.

One item in the exhibition of Rembrandt and Saskia: Love and Marriage in the Dutch Golden Age, that I visited in Leeuwarden in January (see part #1) was a mirror dating from 1638. The involvement of a mirror in the Self-Portrait with Saskia is made all the more striking by the realisation that flat glass mirrors were a relatively recent invention. The technique of making glass of sufficient evenness and clarity; blemish-free and without colour cast, coupled with the alchemy of coating it with an immaculate coat of reflective silver was perfected only in Venice in the sixteenth century. The cognitive allure of such self-examination proved irresistible, and demand for Venetian mirrors boomed throughout Europe. It seems to have swept the continent like a mania. Venice guarded its secrets on pain of death, and mirrors became some of the most coveted items in the world. Mirrors of course flooded into Amsterdam, but were extraordinarily high value items at the time of this portrait and indeed remained so throughout the century.

Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636
Line etching, image 104 x 92 mm (slightly irregular) on plate 105 x 96 mm (irreg), printed on white laid paper 107 x 97 mm (irreg), no watermark
Bought from Hanson’s Auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire, at their sale of 29 June 2017 where lot 636 as ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait with Saskia (B.19), etching, 10.5cm x 9.5cm, framed’.
Collection Professor David Hill

The composition has yet another layer of complication. Were this a drawing it could straightforwardly be a transcription – however brilliant – of what was seen in the reflection. Because it is an etching, the printing process has reversed the image. In short, if Rembrandt had drawn his etching direct from the reflection, he would appear right handed in the print. So to produce an etching of a mirror image requires some thought and planning: It is literally a double-take.

Under the circumstances, this was quite an occasion for self-reflexivity. An artist with inflated ideas of what he might be: A velvet hat, ostrich feather, fur robes, a twirled moustache and flowing locks. His subject is a decent woman of patrician class, sober and demur. Neither is a great beauty. The artist is hardly a Rubens or a Van Dyck or even a Frans Hals, still less a Caravaggio, Titian or Leonardo. Both, rather, are denizens of the contemporary ordinary, making what they can of themselves, within the constraints of the real. They had money, possessions, situation, profession, and life, but towards what purpose? These two are caught between their pretensions and their reality. It as if Rembrandt has taken the characters flaunting their good fortune in the Dresden portrait, and unseated them with the tribulations of existence and self-doubt. The etching does not need to acknowledge the private circumstances of its making, at least in terms of the death of Rombertus, but instead it transmutes those circumstances into public questions of the human condition and purpose. To confront and represent that condition was always the ambition of Rembrandt’s art, no matter at how dear a cost fate supplied his materials.



Rembrandt, Saskia and me #7

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.

* The Uylenburgh House, Rembrandt lives here from late 1631/early 1632. In 1639 he bought the house next door – now the Rembrandt House Museum.

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.

Best viewed full size. Click on image to enlarge.

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.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Self Portrait with Saskia, c.1635
Oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm
Dresden Gemalgalerie

Image source: By Rembrandt – fAFXpfS8tdF_Eg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

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.




Rembrandt, Saskia and me #6

This is the sixth instalment of a journey of exploration starting from a 1636 Rembrandt etching, Self Portrait with Saskia. Here we hear of their engagement and wedding.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Self Portrait in a Cap and Scarf with the Face Dark, 1633
Etching, 132 x 103 mm
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of the Fries Museum

By 1633 Rembrandt, working under Hendrick Uylenburgh’s management and in his house on the Breestraat, was quite the brightest star in the Amsterdam firmament. Commissions poured in and Rembrandt responded with one masterpiece after another. Nonetheless, as is all too frequently the case, even for those with real gifts, there is room for self-doubt, introspection and anxiety. In a succession of self-portraits Rembrandt paused to look askance at himself, and to wonder who and what he might be, where it might all be trending, and most worryingly, whether any of it might have any real value. Almost always his own reflection suggests that his role is at best being moulded from ordinary human clay, and at worst guilty of imposterism and in a state of panic. In a self-portrait etching of 1633 the shade over his eyes contrives merely to accentuate the sense of anxiety, rather than to mask it.

His first portrait of Saskia suggests an altogether more collected mood.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), “Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh,” 1633. Silverpoint on parchment, 18.5 x 10.7 cm. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. Inscription (trans.): “This was portrayed after my wife when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were married. June 8, 1633.”

To see the image in the museum’s online catalogue click here.

The drawing marks a particularly happy point in their relationship: The portrait is inscribed:
‘dit is near mijn huysvrou geconterfeyt
Do sy 21 jaer oud was den derden
Dach als wij getroudt waeren
Den 8e Junijus

My Dutch is almost non-existent, but this might be given as: ‘This is a portrait of my housewife/ who is 21 years old [taken] on the third/ Day after our betrothal/ 8th June/ 1633’

I think we should let Simon Schama [‘Rembrandt’s Eyes’, p.365] describe the drawing for us;
Saskia’s face and upper body are caught in a fresh, early summer light. She sits at a table, her elbow resting on an inclined surface that looks much like an artist’s sketching support, leaning forward toward he betrothed, self-consciously the love object. Her features are lightly but exactly described, as if by fingertip exploration. Intimate details are quickly traced with the attentiveness of a lover carefully registering an inventory of small treasures: a wisp of hair lying against her right cheek; the puppy-fat folds at the throat circled by a pearl necklace..; the slight rise of bone at the tip off he retroussé nose; the gathered fabric of her blouse, filled with the bosom that rests on her right arm; the faint pressure of her tapered index finger against her left cheekbone, the underside of her thumb propping up he head. And at the centre, dramatized by the dashing sweep of the wide-brimmed straw hat, is Saskia’s heart-shaped face with its faintly snob nose; its Cupid’s-bow mount, the shaded join between the upper and slightly drooping lower lip exactly described, sketched; and its almond-shaped eyes, amused, flattered, good-humoredly tolerating the examination. Flowers encircle the crown of her hat; another is held by the stalk, its head drooping slightly. She is his bloom, a child of nature, the Frisian meadow girl, the bringer of springtime fertility, bright and dewy. Dit is near mijn huysvrou geconterfeyt do sy 21 jaer oud was den derden dach als wij getroudt waeren den 8 Junijus 1633’… readshis inscription. But it seems less a statement of possession than of amazed declaration. See this. This schatje, this precious little piece of work; she is my wife-to-be, my great good fortune’.

It is almost as if Rembrandt had to write the fact down in order to begin to process it. What is clear to sense is that staring into Saskia’s face melted away every scratch of self-doubt and anxiety that had written itself into his self-portrait. He seems to be looking at no less than his salvation.

Betrothal was a serious business and a social contract. It involved family, inquisitions into property, prospects and propriety. Recent research by Ben Broos into the betrothal of Rembrandt and Saskia has established that it took place at a significant gathering of the Uylenburgh clan in Sint Annaparochie. The occasion was the baptism on 2 June 1633 of the third child of sister Hiskia and her husband, Gerrit van Loo. The little girl was named Sophia in the presence, as was customary, of a gathering of the wider family. Rembrandt presumably waited until the family festivities were concluded, and was then invited to present himself for examination. Questions would have been asked, perhaps even suspicions harboured, but the inquisition seems to have proved satisfactory, for on 5th June, by inference from the inscription on the portrait, their betrothal was sealed.

The exhibition at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden of ‘Rembrandt & Saskia: Love and Marriage in the Dutch Golden Age’, illustrates how serious a business this all was.

I found the whole thing fascinating, but a few things stick in my memory. In particular the betrothal hearts that open and close the exhibition. In Rembrandt and Saskia’s day it was common for a (presumably well-connected) suitor to present his intended with something like this. Often they contained a special small gift or message, and subsequently hung over the marital bed. Rembrandt would certainly have known craftsmen that specialised in such objects.

I also especially liked the mid-century bridal crown from the Amsterdam museum. One can certainly imagine Saskia wearing something like this at her own wedding.

Rembrandt had a whole year to wait after the betrothal in June 1633 before their wedding in June 1634. The portrait drawing must have been kept prominent in his apartments so that he could reflect on his pledge, and keep he picture bright in his mind. Amidst his many commissions he found time to bring her image to life on his easel. One of the principal products of this period is a splendid portrait at the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Young Woman in Fantasy Costume, 1633
oil on panel, h 65 cm × w 48 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-4057
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, cf;,33

And the Fries Museum at Leeuwarden has a close variant of this

Govert Flink (attrib.)
Portrait of Saskia Uylenburgh,
Signed and dated ‘Rembrandt 1633’
Oil on canvas,
Collection: The Fries Museum, Leeuwarden
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of the Fries Museum.

The latter version is currently attributed to Govert Flink, I have no doubt for good reason. But I do have to say that seeing in the exhibition at Leeuwarden, next to an undoubted Self-Portrait of Rembrandt from the Burrell collection in Glasgow

I could see no obvious qualitative reason to doubt an attribution to Rembrandt. In fact quite the reverse; it is quite one of the best pictures in the whole exhibition.

During the year between their betrothal and the wedding ceremony, there was legal business to sort out with regard to Saskia’s share of the family inheritance. Saskia went to help out in Frankener when her sister died suddenly and left her husband, Professor of Theology Johnannes Maccovius, bereft with a young son. Her presence in the household might not have been altogether proper, were it not for the fact that she was publicly betrothed to Rembrandt. The artist also had arrangements to make. There were formalities to observe with church and law, and also with his own family.

One particularly thought-provoking exhibit at Leeuuwarden, was a document from the archives at Leiden. It was bound in a large vellum volume displayed in a a case beneath a portrait of Rembrandt’s mother, and records her giving formal permission for her son to marry. It was something of a surprise to me to learn that this was quite normal at this time, even well after the usual age of majority. The document certainly underlines the importance of marriage as a social political contract in this age. Accordingly within a few days of the artist going to register his legal intentions in Amsterdam, his mother went to a notary in Leiden to have a formal document drawn up of her consent.

Today, 14 June 1634, before me, Adriaen Paedts, notary public, and the witnesses mentioned below, appeared the Hon. Neeltgen willemsdr. van zuijtbrouck, widow and legatee of the property of Harman Gerritsz van Rhijn, citizin of this city, well-know to me, the notary, and declared that she has voluntarily given her consents, permits, and does by this [instrument] – for her son, the Hon. Mr. Rembrandt Harmansz van Rhijn, painter to marry the Hon. Saskia v. Uylenburch, a young maiden from Lieuwerden in Vrieslant. And [Rembrandt], who for this purpose has made known and announced his wedding banns at the appropriate place and which meets with his approval, will subsequently proceed with the civil marriage and its solemninzation.
Assisted by her son, Adriaen Harmansz van Rhijn, the guardian chosen for this purpose, the deponent promise to fulfull, live up to, and sustain her consent and permission at all times according to law.
Furthermore, she hereby declares to give her irrevocable consent and approval of her aformentioned son Rembrant van Rhijn’s registration and announcement of his marriage without evidence of her consent with the Commissioners of Marital Affairs in Amsterdam, which pleaser her immensely.
On account of this, the deponent expresses her thanks to the Hon. Commississioners and begs them to treat her voluntary consent with equal weight, as if she were present personally.
And she has requested me, the notary, to draw up and deliver a formal document of this so that it can be used whenever required.
All this was done and transpired in good faith and without malice. Enacted and passed after it had been read clearly and entirely to the deponent, on the day, month and year mentioned above, at my, the notary’s, house, located her in Maerssemanssteech, in the presinhabitants of this city, as reliable witnesses requested herefore apart frome me, the notary. this is the mark made by Neeltgen Willemsdr. herself.
C.A. Paedts, 1634
Frederick de Quade, 1634
what I confirm:
A. Paedts, notary public signed.
[in the upper left margin] this document has been transcribed formally

It is interesting that she could not write. The document says that it was read to the deponent, and she signed it with a mark that had to be witnessed by the notary. These were very different families, the van Rijns and the Uylenburghs. The millers and bakers from Leiden were of the tradesmen’s stock; the Uylenburgh literate, Latin-educated, lawyers and burghers. Rembrandt was transcending a social divide. Through his own Latin education and cultural investment, he was the living representative of new possibilities of social mobility. To put it in academic terms he had learned to operate, even excel, in the cultural discourse of the established classes.

With the formal preparations completed, events progressed apace, and on 2 July the Uylenburgh clan assembled again in Sint Annaparochie, to walk with Rembrandt and Saskia to the little church and witness the wedding ceremony. None of Rembrandt’s family appear to have been present.

The sculpture of Rembrandt and Saskia outside the church at Sint Annaparochie does the pleasant service of giving them a tangible presence in the place. But it is sentimental and naïve in a manner far removed from the considerations the were really at play in their marriage. Saskia was indeed special. In marrying her, Rembrandt publically secured a position in cultured, literary and established society. He would soon have served his three years as an Amsterdam resident and could join the guild. He might still have carried some shadow of his background about him, but he would at least have a decent platform on which to build his reputation. It must have seemed to him as if he had at last entered upon his hard-earned estate.

I’m away now for a short while, so this is perhaps a good opportunity to let Rembrandt and his bride enjoy their married life together in peace. We will consider the etching of Self Portrait with Saskia in the light of all this upon my return..

Rembrandt, Saskia and me #5

This is the fifth instalment of a journey of exploration stimulated by a 1636 Rembrandt etching, Self Portrait with Saskia. Here we further explore the context of their relationship.

Hendrick Uylenburgh’s house was on the corner of the Breestraat and Zwanenbuurgwal immediately right of that in the centre of the image above that Rembrandt would later buy for himself, and which is now the Rembrandt House Museum.

Saskia Uylenburgh had connections even in Amsterdam. Her cousin, Hendrick Uylenburgh ran a significant art dealership from a large house in the Breestraat. He was the son of Uncle Gerrit, brother of Saskia’s father, who had emigrated to Krakow to become furniture-maker to the King of Poland. Hendrick’s brother Rombout became painter to the King. For a while, Hendrick became a significant broker of art in Poland and shipped quantities of major works from the Low Countries to the Royal Court and its circles. In 1625, however, he decided to adventure it all in the markets of Amsterdam.

Rembrandts neighbourhood
* The Uylenburgh House, Rembrandt lived here from late 1631/early 1632. In 1639 he bought the house next door – now the Rembrandt House Museum.

Hendrick quickly discovered Rembrandt in Leiden. He knew his business well, and saw an opportunity to do business with the prodigious young talent. A remarkable deal was struck. We don’t know the exact terms, but in 1631 Rembrandt paid Hendrick Uylenburgh 1000 florins. This was a VERY large sum of money for a twenty-five year old, the equivalent today, perhaps, of a hundred thousand pounds. Rembrandt had without doubt tasted some success in his early career in Leiden, but to be able to invest so much is quite extraordinary. And what could Hendrick Uylenburgh have offered that could possibly have been worth so much?

Rembrandt van Rijn
Self Portrait in a Soft Hat and a Patterned Cloak, 1631
Etching, 148 x 130 mm
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York RvR 8
Image courtesy of the Morgan Library

To see this image in the Morgan Library online catalogue click here.

Perhaps he did not yet occupy the role of gentleman artists quite comfortably in this self-portrait from the year that he struck his deal with Hendrick Uylenburgh; perhaps he never did, but Rembrandt certainly wanted to make it as an artist of standing and repute. Something like the success of Rubens might suit, and the place to achieve this was obviously Amsterdam. The city was the mercantile centre of the Netherlands, and possibly the most dynamic cultural hub in the entire western world. The trouble, however, was that an artist could not practice independently in the city without being a member of the Amsterdam guild, and to be eligible for the guild you had to be resident for two years. Here was the basis of a substantial bargain, worth almost everything to Rembrandt, and a huge boon, meanwhile, to Hendrick’s business. So late in 1631 or early in 1632, Rembrandt moved from Leiden to Amsterdam to take up residence as protegee and chief artist in Hendrick Uylenburgh’s art studio and dealership.

One of the great pleasures on this particular journey was to read Simon Schama’s monumental book ‘Rembrandt’s eyes’. One of the standout passages in the book is his description of Amsterdam in five senses that begins this part of the story. At Hendrick Uylenburgh’s house, Rembrandt made an immediate impact. Commissions for portraits flowed in, pupils paid to work under Rembrandt’s tutelage, the business gained a reputation for adventure and quality, and the value of its stock, both intellectual and in trade, rose.

Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669)
Oil on panel
* Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection
* Reproduced with permission.
* Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image source:,_possibly_Aeltje_Pietersdr_Uylenburgh

There was another Uylenburgh family association in Amsterdam. Another cousin, Aeltje, fourteen years older even than Hendrick, the daughter of a second brother of Saskia’s father, had moved there in 1610 with her preacher husband Johannes Cornelisz Sylvius.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Portrait of Johannes Sylvius, 1633
Etching on paper, 166 x 141 mm
Morgan Library, New York, RvR 357
Image courtesy of the Morgan Library
To see the image in the Morgan Library online catalogue click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

He was appointed Amsterdam city pastor in 1621, and by the early 1630s was a senior figure in the Amsterdam church. Rembrandt painted both their portraits in 1632 whilst working for Hendrick. That of Aejlte (Private collection loan to Boston Museum of Fine Arts) is especially fine. Aejlte would certainly have known of Saskia’s situation in Friesland, and had opportunity while sitting for the portrait to observe closely the probity and prospects of cousin Hendrick’s protegee. Broos proposes that Saskia came to stay in Amsterdam with Aejlte and Sylvius in 1633. Sadly, there is no documentation of any such visit, but there seems no doubt that some serious match-making was going on.



Rembrandt, Saskia and me #4

This is the fourth instalment of a journey of exploration stimulated by a 1636 Rembrandt etching, Self Portrait with Saskia. Here we further explore the relationship and marriage that led up to the composition.

Govert Flink (attrib.)
Portrait of Saskia Uylenburgh,
Signed and dated ‘Rembrandt 1633’
Oil on canvas,
Collection: The Fries Museum, Leeuwarden
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of the Fries Museum.

Saskia Uylenburgh was born at 11 Ossekop, in a grand house not far from the centre of Leeuwarden. The house was only recently identified in research leading up to the 400th anniversary of her birth in 2012. It has a modern façade, but parts of the original building have been identified away from the street.

The Fries Museum has a splendid historical map of the city into which Saskia was born. It can be downloaded here. We can find the Uylenburgh house (marked as no.20) in the south-east quarter of the city, situated just beyond the noise and bustle of the market centre.

Map best viewed full-size. Click on image to enlarge. The full-sized version of the map can be downloaded here.

Map of Leeuwarden in 1603
Image courtesy of the Fries Museum

The house stretches back from the street further than any other in its neighbourhood, and the main part of the building is surrounded on three sides by garden and orchard. It must have been a splendid oasis of calm; or perhaps not, with eight children growing up in it.

Leeuwarden map, 1603
Detail of Saskia’s house, 11 Ossekop (no.20)

Saskia was the youngest of eight children. Her father, Rombertus Uylenburgh was one of the town’s leading citizens. As a young man, he studied law at the University of Heidelberg when Europe’s pre-eminent centre of Reformation humanism and culture. He rose to become the first mayor of Leeuwarden, was one of the founders of a University for Friesland at Frankener. This was only the second university to be founded in the Netherlands and might today have been the Dutch equivalent of Cambridge or Oxford had it not been closed by Napoleon. Rombertus served as mayor over several years, and also as city lawyer, regional lawyer, and finally as counsellor in the Court of Friesland.

The Weigh House, Leeuwarden
Photograph by David Hill, August 2018

The Uylenburgh house stood almost equidistant from the council chambers, the weigh house and the prison, and in effect a good part of regional trade, justice and commerce was regulated by Rombertus. He must have been well known to everyone of any consequence in the whole region, and indeed the United Provinces.

The Town Hall, Leeuwaden
Photograph by David Hill, January 2019
Rather later than the building that Saskia’s father would have known, but still suggestive of the grandness of his office as Mayor.

Saskia had was the youngest of seven children, three brothers and four sisters. All achieved respectable positions, the two eldest boys building successful careers in law and the youngest in the military. The sisters all married well, one to a lawyer, another to Professor of Theology at Franeker University, another to the regional administrator of the north Friesland region of Het Bilt and another to a senior official in the Dutch navy. The eldest siblings had left the house in Leeuwarden even before Saskia was born, and the house was progressively quietened by departures to University, marriage and the deaths of her mother in 1619 and her father in 1624. She was sixteen when the house was sold in 1628 and went to live with sister Hiskia and her regional administrator husband in Sint Annaparochie.

Govert Flink (attrib)
Portrait of Saskia (detail)
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of the Fries Museum

So Saskia was indeed something special. She had just come to the full flower of her maturity, she enjoyed a solid financial position in her own right and some expectations; she was well educated, literate and cultured, familiar with the workings of the church, trade and of civic law and government. Above all she was respectable, established and rich in family reputation and connections. She was also vulnerable. The youngest child, orphaned since the age of twelve, and ever since dependent on the support and shelter of immediate and extended family. Approaching the age of her majority, it must have seemed high time that she find a respectable position as a wife. Word seems to have gone out to find her a suitable match.


Rembrandt, Saskia and me #3

This is the third instalment of a journey stimulated by a 1636 Rembrandt etching, Self Portrait with Saskia. Here we begin to explore the relationship and marriage that led up to the composition.

Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636
Line etching, image 104 x 92 mm (slightly irregular) on plate 105 x 96 mm (irreg), printed on white laid paper 107 x 97 mm (irreg), no watermark
Bought from Hanson’s Auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire, at their sale of 29 June 2017 where lot 636 as ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait with Saskia (B.19), etching, 10.5cm x 9.5cm, framed’.
Collection Professor David Hill

I am by no means the first to take an interest in Rembrandt’s wife. Her story was largely unknown up to the nineteenth century, but since then a succession of scholars have gradually brought her into the light. Her life and subsequent marriage to Rembrandt’s has most recently been comprehensively researched by the Dutch scholar Ben Broos. His book Saskia: De Vrouw van Rembrandt, was published by W books in 2012. Surprisingly, since without doubt it is a major contribution to the Rembrandt literature, it was only published in Dutch.

The publication of Broos’s book marked the 400th anniversary of Saskia’s birth, which was celebrated enthusiastically by her home region of Friesland. The places with which she was associated were all highlighted and a guided tour published to the key sites.

The brochure is still on line and the complete text may be downloaded here. The text is all in Dutch, but if you haven’t used it before, you might be surprised how intelligible Google translate can be.

That brochure has been supplemented by two more recent guides available <a href=”http://” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>here and <a href=”http://” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>here:

Saskia’s story quickly becomes compelling. Here is this extremely well-bred young woman, born into a very cultured and established family of provincial Leeuwarden suddenly translated into marriage with the artist son of a miller from Leiden, plying his trade in the teeming city of Amsterdam.

Best viewed full-size. Click on image to enlarge.

So it was last summer that I found myself little village of Sint Annaparochie, little more than a cluster of houses, shops and farms straggling along a dead straight roads and isolated it seems amongst hundreds of square miles of sky-swept fields.

The village seemed to take some reaching, even in a car. In the seventeenth century it would have been a journey of couple of days from Amsterdam, mostly by boat across the Zuideree. But it was here that Saskia lived for a few years from age sixteen in 1628. She helped keep house for her elder sister Hiskia and brother in law, Dr Gerrit van Loo, who was secretary to the administrator of the North Friesland region of Het Bilt. This was a rich agricultural land, and well connected by water to major markets nearby. Though Saskia’s future was as yet uncertain, her family was very well established amongst the Friesland elite, and for the time being she could enjoy a well upholstered, cultured and well-protected position.

They lived in the Regthuys (or courthouse) opposite the church and this can be seen in a late eighteenth-century watercolour belonging to the Fries Museum. It is the building with the sign board hanging from the gable.

The owner of a clothes shop on the site today, enthusiastically beckons visitors to step inside.

And although the front of the building has certainly been rebuilt, the plot stretches so far back from the street as to easily have accommodated a sizeable family and all offices.

Sint Annaparochie is a substantial enough place. A couple of doors from the site of Saskia’s house my companions discovered a truly wondrously large bricolage shop. The ladies came out with armfuls of useful and mostly decorative bargains. Further down the street, the most practically-minded of our party found one of the finest general hardware stores in his (extremely) extensive experience. Sint Annaparochie is a grounded, thrifty and hard-working place, but wondering up and down one could not help but be struck by how far removed it is from the cultural extravagance and hurly-burly of Amsterdam.

Yet it was here that Rembrandt came in 1634 to marry Saskia in the little church opposite the Regthaus.

Attractive as the church certainly is, it is not, sadly the same building as that Rembrandt and Saskia knew. This replaced their church. But to stand outside is nonetheless salutary. It is where it is that is most surprising; on the very northern fringe of the country. Rembrandt might easily, one supposes, have found a bride in his entrepot milieu of Leiden or Amsterdam, or instead have enjoyed the more dissolute existence for which painters were generally renowned. But for him to have journeyed out here to be married demands some explanation. She must have been pretty special, this Saskia Uylenburgh.

Rembrandt, Saskia and me #2

This is the second instalment in which I develop my interest Rembrandt’s wife. Here, I talk a little more about the etching that I bought.

Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636
Line etching, image 104 x 92 mm (slightly irregular) on plate 105 x 96 mm (irreg), printed on white laid paper 107 x 97 mm (irreg), no watermark
Bought from Hanson’s Auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire, 29 June 2017 where lot 636 as ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait with Saskia (B.19), etching, 10.5cm x 9.5cm, framed’.
Collection Professor David Hill

It appears that the auctioneers presumed this to be of relatively little interest, but it is in fact the same impression as one at the British Museum (1843,0607.12) and Christie’s offered another impression of the same state (perhaps not so fine) at their sale of Old Master Prints in New York 29 January 2019, lot 138. Links to images of these will be found below.

The impression is well inked, and crisply printed all round. There is only one small stain – barely visible towards the lower left on Saskia’s right arm, but besides that, quite a lot of surface ‘noise’ including a silvery residual ink cast, and various surface scratches, and some distinctive areas of foul biting. Such ‘noise’ marks on the plate are of particular importance to scholarship for they determine the place of an impression in the editioning sequence.

As purchased the etching was presented in a small limed softwood frame, under a white card mat (not acid free wants discarding) and mounted on a folding card window mount.

The backboard was packed with three empty envelopes addressed to Mr W[alter] J Strachan of 10 Pleasant Road, Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire; one dated 26 September 1971 and the others to the following day. In addition there was also a small piece of watercolour paper inscribed in pencil ‘Vous Souhaite une Bonnee Annee 1969’. The address is that of a private house, rather than business premises, so it is possible that the material identifies the owner at that time. So, whilst the print itself wants remounting in museum board, and given better framing, the mount and packing materials will be preserved.

On the back of the mount are several inscriptions: At the top ‘Mod. Reworked/ Basan-Bernard’; below that to the right ‘Vetted by/ Mr C J White/ BM/ who gave/this information’, with an arrow indicating a further inscription below: ‘3rd/ final state/ 17th-18th C’.

Whilst all of this is suggestive, it remains slightly frustrating that nothing is quite certain as evidence of provenance. It would appear that the window mount and its neat lettering is that of a professional dealer. We have a date range of 1969-1971 in the letters and other packing. One prominent selling show at that time was (for example) Colnaghi’s ‘The age of Rembrandt: an exhibition of etchings’, 10th April to 9th May 1969. It might be possible that the mount will ultimately suggest a source.

There have been numerous catalogues of Rembrandt’s etchings. The first by Edme Francois Gersaint dates from 1751, and subsequent editions include those by Adam Bartsch, 1797, where this is no.19 and Arthur M Hind First ed 1912, 2nd, 1923, where this is no.144.

Hind lists three states, all represented in the British Museum, together with a further state ‘Modern, reworked: Basan-Bernard’. Of the impressions at the British Museum, (1843,0607.12) is identical and identified in the current online catalogue as state iii. To see that state in the BM catalogue click here

More recent catalogues include those of White and Boon, 2 vols 1969-70 (the original Hollstein catalogue, following Bartsch’s numbering, i.e 19), Gary Schwartz, 1977, 1988 (also follows Bartsch’s numbering) and the current definitive edition is The New Hollstein: Rembrandt (7 vols.) by Erik Hinterding and Jacob Rutgers, 2013, where this is no.158. The best general account of the artist’s work in the medium must be Christopher White’s ‘Rembrandt as an Etcher’, (1969) 2nd ed., published by Yale UP in 1999.

The most distinctive feature of this state is the patch of foul-biting to the right above Rembrandt’s shoulder, which presumably occurred when the right-hand part of the face was reworked with better definition and to conceal an earlier foul-biting mishap to the face. It ought to be observed that the reworking here much better defines the right contour of the face and the ear.

There are several scratches on the plate, notably those across Saskia’s breast and Rembrandt’s hand, with others on Rembrandt’s face. Here, these are less crisp than in earlier states, but better defined than in later impressions. Accidental scratches tend to become fainter through successive prints of an impression, as the copper plate gradually becomes worn smooth. An impression of exactly the same state was sold at Christie’s, New York on 29 January 2019, lot xxx, although from the reproduction that appears to be a later pull from this particular edition, for the scratches throughout there appear less distinct. To see the Christie’s impression on the auctioneer’s website click here.

Such scuffs and abrasions are the very stuff of the scholarship and connoisseurship of Rembrandt’s etchings. Soft copper is vulnerable to scratching and abrasion and professional printers go to great lengths to avoid marking their plates. Rembrandt on the other hand seems to positively embraced them as the integral expression of artistic process. In that, as in many other respects, he defined and shaped the aesthetics of artist printmaking.

Rembrandt, Saskia and me #1

I recently enjoyed an assignation with Mrs Rembrandt in her home town. She was born in Leeuwarden, the principal town of Friesland in North Holland, and was the daughter of no less a figure than the Mayor. She married Rembrandt aged twenty-one in 1634 and they lived together prosperously in Amsterdam during the years of Rembrandt’s rise to fame. Their time together was but eight years: She was not yet thirty when she died in 1642.

Our rendezvous was the exhibition of ‘Rembrandt and Saskia: Love and Marriage in the Dutch Golden Age’ at the Fries Museum (from 24 November 2018). This is, I have to say, one of the best plotted exhibitions that I have seen. It’s not a blockbuster by any means. In fact it is quite a minor Rembrandt show – just four paintings by him, a few drawings and a dozen or so etchings, with a whole lot of golden age context drawn from the partner museums. But the theme is so strong – Rembrandt’s relationship with his first love and only wife, Saskia Uylenburgh, and the illumination of the social context of love and marriage in the seventeenth century so well chosen, organised and displayed that the result is both enlightening and moving. You can catch it at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden until 17 March, and afterwards at the Gemaldegalerie in Kasssel, Germany, from 12 April to 11 August.

Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636
Line etching, image 104 x 92 mm (slightly irregular) on plate 105 x 96 mm (irreg), printed on white laid paper 107 x 97 mm (irreg), no watermark
Bought from Hanson’s Auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire, at their sale of 29 June 2017 where lot 636 as ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait with Saskia (B.19), etching, 10.5cm x 9.5cm, framed’.
Collection Professor David Hill

My personal interest in Saskia was sparked by the acquisition a little while ago of a small etching by Rembrandt of a Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636. It cost relatively little, and I bought it mostly as an excuse to learn something about Rembrandt’s etchings. It turned out to be much more substantial that its advertisement, but still more valuable as the starting-point of a most enjoyable voyage of exploration. Sublime sites, it transpires, are not necessarily all topographic. In this case the sublimity is entirely human.

I will issue this article in shorter sections than is usual for, and hopefully, more frequently. Let’s see where this might take us…