Your Collection Around the World: Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman at Her Toilet, 1632–33, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 94.4 cm. NGC

Anyone familiar with the collections of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) will know that it contains an extraordinarily broad range of artistic production, both historical and contemporary. The depth and quality of the national collection accordingly results in frequent requests for loans to exhibitions across Canada and around the world.

This September, one of the Gallery’s Dutch masterworks takes the stage as part of an ambitious exhibition on Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, France. Featuring 53 works by the artist, Rembrandt in Confidence explores the entire trajectory of Rembrandt’s career, from his early days in Leiden, through his years of triumph in Amsterdam, to his challenging and experimental late style.

The exhibition is built around three paintings in the collection of the Musée Jacquemart-André, spanning Rembrandt’s career. Rounding out the presentation, 21 lenders from across Europe and North America have loaned a total of 18 paintings, 15 drawings and 17 etchings, showcasing Rembrandt’s mastery of both painting and the graphic arts. The Musée Jacquemart-André is the only venue for this exhibition, and the National Gallery was happy to lend its painting to such an exciting show.

Speaking of A Woman at Her Toilet, Eléonore Lacaille, Head of Exhibitions at the Paris museum, told NGC Magazine, “This is a very important work for the exhibition, because it straddles the Leiden period and Rembrandt’s early days in Amsterdam. It is an important stylistic hybrid for the artist, while also being a striking example of both historical painting and intimate portraiture.” 

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman at Her Toilet (detail), 1632–33, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 94.4 cm. NGC

The Gallery’s canvas was painted in 1632 or 1633 (the inscription is difficult to read), at a time when Rembrandt had decided to seek a new market for his works in Amsterdam. The choice of subject was strategic: while portraits of the great and the good dominated his production at this time, ambitious and inventive paintings like A Woman at Her Toilet would only add to his reputation. 

The painting is surprisingly controversial for a work that appears fairly conventional in subject matter. And therein lies the rub. No one is quite sure what the subject matter is, beyond a woman being primped to greet the world. Over the years, the painting has had a surprising number of titles: Saskia (Rembrandt’s wife), Lisbeth (his sister), The Jewish Bride, Esther, Bathsheba, and Heroine from the Old Testament.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman at Her Toilet (detail), 1632–33, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 94.4 cm. NGC

The confusion over both name and subject dates back to the first-known references to the painting in the 18th century, when it was known as The Jewish Wife or The Jewish Bride. The central figure’s rich jewellery and clothing imply a historical theme, and thus a biblical character, rather than one of Rembrandt’s contemporaries. But which one? Was she meant to be Bathsheba dressing for her first tryst with King David? Or was she Esther, putting on her finery to beg King Ahasuerus for the lives of her people? Or Judith, preparing to seduce and kill Holofernes, the enemy’s general? Still other names have been proposed, and the character’s identity remains a matter of speculation.

It is a stunning work by Rembrandt at the height of his artistic powers. From the richly embroidered drapery of her gown to the theatrical use of light, A Woman at Her Toilet is unmistakably Rembrandt. As Marion Barclay, the conservator who restored the work, once commented, “Rembrandt was a sorcerer with oil paint. He had the ability to impart an optical depth and sensuality to his pictures that simply cannot be achieved with any other medium.”

The painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1953, and was among the first of twelve major European paintings purchased from the prestigious collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein. In addition to Woman at her Toilet — then known as Bathsheba — the Gallery acquired important works dating from the Renaissance to the 18th century, immensely strengthening the collection’s range and depth at the time.

A Woman at Her Toilet will be part of the mid-career section of the exhibition in Paris, covering a four-year period following Rembrandt’s move to Amsterdam in the early 1630s. After settling in Amsterdam, Rembrandt began making a name for his vibrant and lively portraits of the city’s notables. He married Saskia in 1634, later settling into a large home in what was becoming a prosperous Jewish enclave.

Life was not easy for Rembrandt. A number of his children died, and he lost his beloved Saskia in 1642. In later years, he was dogged by financial difficulties, living beyond his means and even declaring bankruptcy in 1656. To make matters worse, his late, deeply personal style could prove a challenge to potential patrons, and he received fewer commissions. He died in Amsterdam — not in poverty, but fallen far from the heights of his career — and was buried in an unmarked grave. Sadly, his remains were later dug up and destroyed, as was the custom.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman at Her Toilet (detail), 1632–33, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 94.4 cm. NGC

This somewhat ignoble end is perhaps not surprising for a man who, for all his mastery of light, was also a master of the dark. In paintings such as A Woman at Her Toilet, the details in the shadows are as compelling as the figures taking centre stage. What is the maid thinking as she tends to her mistress? How are we to interpret the main figure’s enigmatic expression? Why did Rembrandt not make the subject matter clearer? Was it his intention that viewers should puzzle over it, and thus engage more deeply with the painting?

At the NGC, A Woman at Her Toilet joined a self-portrait of Rembrandt, purchased over a decade earlier. The two paintings were later joined by The Tribute Money (1629), purchased in 1967. Our knowledge of Rembrandt's art has grown immensely over the decades, but much remains open to debate — in particular, the attribution of paintings, which has resulted in sometimes bitter exchanges among scholars.

While A Woman at Her Toilet is universally agreed to be by the master himself, the Gallery's Rembrandt self-portrait was eventually recognized to be by an imitator. The status of The Tribute Money is more controversial: rejected by some, accepted by others, the Gallery has retained its attribution to Rembrandt. Stay tuned for an upcoming feature on exciting new curatorial findings on these three paintings.

Rembrandt in Confidence is on view at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, France until January 23, 2017.


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