= The Crawford Arts Review: Ends Sunday 18 January. Part III - Towards a new interpretation of Rembrandt's 'The Jewish Bride'

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ends Sunday 18 January. Part III - Towards a new interpretation of Rembrandt's 'The Jewish Bride'

Let me first disclaim. The painting Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, dating from about 1665, was given the title 'The Jewish Bride' in the early 19th century. Scholars contest this title and I venture to agree.

I am a journalist, not an art historian. I write about art because I love art. I have an eye. It is even a rather primitive eye, though schooled. I simply go up to a work like this great painting and react to what I observe.

'The Jewish Bride' is a most famous double portrait 
 it's in London until 18 January when it returns to its home in the Rijksmuseum. In it, the man stands to the woman's right. His raised right arm reaches across his own and her body and his right hand, fingers straight, gently touches her fully clothed breast. As you will see from the image shown below, his left hand rests lightly, seemingly reassuringly, upon her shoulder.

Both subjects are dressed to the nines. This is the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age. Amsterdam and its port was a centre of world trade; Dutch ships brought back goods the whole world wanted and they made massive profits for Amsterdam's merchants. Everyone involved could afford rich clothes, big houses, and commission great works of art.

In this portrait, the way Rembrandt has positioned his two figures gives us a close-up view of the man's sleeve. It is sumptuous, richly embellished with gold, an example of the finest craftwork. All done with paint, the oily paste of pigment (see Parts I and II below).

In 1854, when Adriaan van der Hoop bequeathed this painting along with the rest of his collection to the City of Amsterdam, people came from far and wide to marvel over how Rembrandt orchestrated that golden blaze of light on that sleeve. We are still going up to the painting and doing exactly the same all these centuries later.

Art historians in their scholarship, not to mention visitors with their own specialisms in the arts and sciences, have wondered not only about the sleeve but about the identity of these two figures. Over the centuries, many theories have arisen. There are two main ones:

1.  As mentioned above, the painting may commemorate the bestowing of a necklace by her father (supposedly pictured) upon the eponymous Jewish Bride before her marriage. She's laden with jewellery: I personally don't see the significance of one more necklace – but perhaps I'm missing something here. The father, his hair the same youthful colour as the woman's, doesn't seem to be of a father's age either. Nor is he bestowing anything other than a hand on her chest. The 'Jewish Bride' title was first used at the beginning of the 19th century by an Amsterdam collector – and it stuck. Perhaps it's time to scrape off the label and rewrite it.

2.  This is a painting on a religious theme, the tender love between a man and a woman as depicted in the Old Testament. Historians, having linked this painting with an earlier drawing Rembrandt made of the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca, the consensus is that this is indeed they. The fact that they are both exotically dressed ties in with the fashion of so doing for such biblical figures.

While I admit to it being perhaps a brash piece of theorizing on my part, using not much more than the evidence of my own eyes, I would like to posit a new hypothesis. Rembrandt may well have borrowed the story of Isaac and Rebecca to exemplify all that is goodly in marriage but his true subjects I believe lived nearer to home. When Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam from Leiden in 1631 he lodged and worked in the house and studio of a celebrated art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh. There he met Uylenburgh's young relative, later to become Rembrandt's wife, Saskia.

By the time he and Saskia met and married in 1634, Rembrandt had become a citizen of Amsterdam, a member of the Guild of Painters, and was on his way to becoming one of his country's most highly paid artists. He was 28, Saskia 22. The numerous drawings he made of her suggest the two were very happy. Having a famous, astute, and well-connected art dealer for a father-in-law actually suggests a marriage made in heaven. The world was theirs.

But the next few years were filled with tragedy. One after another, three of the Van Rijn's children died in early infancy. It was not until 1641 that their son Titus was born and lived to adulthood. According to many authorities, Rembrandt worked on the Isaac and Rebecca painting between 1665 and 1669. By that time he had no beautiful marriage. Saskia had sickened and died months after giving birth to Titus. She was only 30, Rembrandt 36.

Could not Rembrandt in this painting be recalling an earlier time when he and Saskia were young and anticipating the birth of children to bless the marriage? Why else, studio requirements aside, did they move to that big new house on Breestraat?

Yes, the painting is of an intimate scene, as is widely acknowledged. Yes, the subjects' gestures tell us much: the trust they share for one thing. There is something though about the chaste nature of the figures that, to me, suggests something more formal is being enacted. The man is wearing a hat. Look at his hand – his gesture is no “grope”. 

What this painting says to me is that Saskia has announced to her husband that she may be pregnant and a doctor has been summoned. He could be there either at the behest of Rembrandt himself, of Saskia's father, or her uncle, her nearest relative in Amsterdam.  What the gold sleeve might be telling us is that this is the 'best’, the ‘most expensive’ doctor in town. Look at the man's gaze – it's faultlessly averted downwards, intent on reading the information from his hand. It is a doctor’s gaze. And what we are being shown is palpation, examination by touch. Look at the shy way her left hand hovers over his – as if confirming that she has given him permission to touch her breast. Look at the way her other hand hovers protectively over her belly. 

The man in the picture – whether father, husband or physician – with the gentlest of touches is ascertaining whether the woman's breast density has increased; whether the nipple is firm – both signs of early pregnancy. The expression on their faces, while tender and infinitely respectful, contains an element of anxiety: dare the protagonists hope for this blessing? Even more poignantly, if this is not a depiction of Saskia's first pregnancy, might this pregnancy succeed after the devastating outcomes of the previous ones?

Executing this double portrait at the age of 59 or so, could Rembrandt help but recall his own promise of happiness so soon to be dashed away? It seems entirely understandable to me that he would seek to disguise this most private of griefs and that he should do so using the deftest allegory, the so-called historicized portrait. Indeed, using a depiction of Isaac and Rebecca, gives a wholly appropriate spiritual quality to this earthly misfortune.

The portrait bears the hallmark of the things I've mentioned above because it records human emotions in the most authentic way – straight from the heart. The subjects' expressions seem to me, by some painterly magic, to finely represent their emotional polarity: hardly daring to hope but at the same time exulting that the Van Rijns might have a child, that this marriage might be blessed and bear fruit.

Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca,
known as The Jewish Bride
, about 1665
Oil on canvas, 121.5 × 166.5 cm
Signed and dated lower right: Rembrandt f. 16..
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from the
City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

Endnote: I am unfamiliar with Jewish marriage tradition. If bride and groom are forbidden to engage in marital relations before being wed, this would add a further layer of meaning; indeed, if they have not, and the lady is pregnant, it will be by another. Let me add a further historical layer: if the Amsterdam collector discussed earlier was being particularly circumspect in his naming of the work, it may indeed be the case that a further necklace would be bestowed as a reward for the girl agreeing to undergo a pregnancy test. And there I will leave it. Over to you, the reader; indeed, over to my estimable Dutch colleagues, who have lived with this painting for longer than I have. If you have any comments I'd love to hear them.

The painting is on show in Room 5 of the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing until Sunday 18 January as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, ticketed.

© Sally Crawford 05 January 2015. All rights reserved.

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