The battle between building the perfect body and being content with what you’ve got is not a new story. With Geri, Calista and Vanessa all suffering for their happiness, REMBRANDT’S WOMEN shows us that big is most definitely beautiful.
Words: Hannah McGill
be special relationship between artists and their models has long been a source of prurient fascination. Biographers and ﬁlmmakers have dwelt lovingly on
the infatuations that spilled off the canvas in the studios of
Caravaggio. Picasso. Toulouse I.autrec and Francis Bacon.
Photographers. too. have charged connections with their
favoured muses. David Bailey‘s notorious romances with his
photographic subjects provided the inspiration for the
swinging snapper played by David llernrnings in Blow Up. a
character in turn. spoofed by Mike Myers as Austin Powers. There is. therefore. an extra special
frisson about the National Gallery Of
Scotland‘s lavish and prestigious new show.
lv’wnlmrmll's ll’mnen. Not only does it bring together some of the most prized works by a
the Dutch master (including Portrait ()f/f
flit/nun Aged 62. which was sold last year a for a record tl‘).8m): It also boasts an —
intimate biographical dimension. featuring as
it does Rembrandt’s lovingly intimate portraits of the women in his life. '- (‘hief among these subjects are his wife
Saskia. and his mistresses Hendrickje and
(ieertje. lidinburgh's Lumiere cinema is set
to complement the exhibition with
screenings of (‘harles Matton‘s biopic. Rembrandt. released
last year and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as the artist. Saskia van Uylenburgh (played by Johanna ter Steege in
the film) married Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn in l634.
The cousin of a high-flying art dealer. she had wealthy
contacts that helped to advance her husband‘s career:
however. its apparent from the loving tenderness with which
he painted her that this was far more than a marriage of
The couple had four children together. but only one. Titus. lived past infancy. and Rembrandt lost Saskia herself in 1642. Their collaboration as artist and model endured throughout their relationship: from the sketch he did of her to commemorate their engagement in |(i33. to the poignant portraits executed as she lay on her sickbed. wasting away from the tuberculosis that would kill her.
It wasn’t just through pictures that Saskia retained her influence beyond death. however. A clause in her will forbade Rembrandt from remarry'ing. which meant that neither (ieertje Dircx nor Hendrickje Stoffels was ever legally bound to him. (ieenje — Tittrs~ nursemaid — did her best. suing Rembrandt for breach of contract when he left her and obtaining a sizeable alimony settlement. Rembrandt evaded this responsibility by arranging for Geertje to be committed to a workhouse reformaton
Meanwhile. he found new happiness with his housemaid
Hendrickje. who bore him two more children. It is thought to have been Hendrickje who posed for some of Rcmbrandt‘s most beautiful and iconic portraits; including the breathtakingly simple and elegant sketch flit/mm .X'lt't'pr'rrc. and the loSS painting .-f lf'omun liar/1mg In .-f .X‘m'tun.
The latter work perfectly captures the physical frankness and irreverence that characterises Rembrandt‘s portrayal of women. Hendrickje is shown calf-deep in water. skirt gathered tip to expose her legs. smiling down at the water. as if alone. (‘lothed. but bare as well. she appears bra/en and coy at the same time. It‘s an intimate. playful painting. strf'fused with affection and probably painted for the artist‘s private pleasure alone.
Although Rembrandt‘s portraits of his female companions ~ Saskia in particular v are renowned for just such warmth and informality. they are not designed to flatter or to glamorise. Bellies sag. thighs dimple. chins bulge; this flesh is loved as much for its flaws as for its glories. Rembrandt rejected the smooth. flawless finish that was conventional in Dutch painting of the 15th century. preferring to load the canvas with thick. sensuously textured layers of paint. It stands to reason. therefore. that he also had little interest in the marble-smooth surfaces that passed for human flesh according to the accepted classical tradition.
llis passionate investment in the physical qualities of his medium extended to the artist‘s stretch—marks— and-all approach to the female form was controversial in its day; and it is no less intriguing now. in an age when digital technology permits ever greater control of the image. and the beauty iridustry is persistently criticised for its exacting physical standards.
Among the critics who objected to Rembrandt’s vulgarity was the Dutch poet Andries Pels. who characterised his countryman thus: 'If he painted. as sometimes would happen. a nude woman/lle chose no Greek Venus as his model/But rather a washerwoman . . . /l‘labby breasts. ill-shaped hands. nay. the traces of the lacings/()f the corsets on the stomach. of the garters on the legs/Must be visible. if Nature was to get her due.‘
Such fastidiousness is comparable with the tabloid hawks of today who swoop greedily on any female celebrity deemed to have ‘let herself go‘. Abundant female flesh still has the power to elicit shudders of distaste: look at the furore that ensued when Dawn French was photographed naked for list/(tire. or when Demi Moore graced the cover of faulty l'iu'r unclad and pregnant.
And those were images rendered acceptably sleek and smooth by the dedicated application of lighting. make-up and airbrushing. llad Dawn or Demi dared to expose any instances of the kind of puckering. dimpling. stretching and scarring glimpsed on Rembrandt‘s canvases. she would probably have been burned as a witch.
lronically. the increased presence of Western women in positions of power and influence has corresponded with an ever more obsessive and oppressive beauty cult: a force so insidious that it‘s difficult to imagine a size eighteen woman of today posing with the lush abandonment (jeertje Dirc/ displays in one of the exhibition‘s centrepieces. A Wmmm In Bed.
It‘s not about size. either. The persistent claim that modern women are under constant pressure to emulate the transparent
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