Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume was painted by Rembrandt in 1635, The painting is housed in the National Gallery, London. Saskia who was twenty-three years old at the time and who had been married to Rembrandt for just twelve months, poses as Flora, goddess of spring. Rembrandt has dressed her as a deity of youth, rebirth and beauty, along with her rustic shepherdess’s staff . Sadly as we look on the happy smile on her face it is hard to believe that this young women would die seven years later, shortly before reaching the age of thirty.
My Daily Art Display today looks at some works of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. Today’s blog is not so much about him but of a woman who featured in many of his paintings, his first wife Saskia Uylenburgh.
Saskia van Uylenburgh was born on August 2nd 1612 in Leeuwarden, the capital city of the Dutch province of Friesland where her father, Rombertus Uylenburg was the mayor as well as the justice of the Court of Friesland. He had married Saskia’s mother, Siuckien Ulckedr Aessinga and they had three sons, Rombertus, Edzart and Ulricus and five daughters, Antje, Hiskia, Jelke, Tietcke and Saskia who was the youngest. Her father was fifty-eight years old when Saskia was born. Saskia’s uncle, Gerrit, the brother of her father, emigrated with his family to Krakov, Poland. He was the father of the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh who was to play an important part in Rembrandt’s early artistic career. Saskia experienced an affluent upbringing, living in a large family home and her parents were able to offer their children a comfortable lifestyle. Sadly when Saskia was just seven years of age her mother died and five years later her father passed away. So at the age of twelve, Saskia was orphaned and was brought up by her elder sisters, and brothers. Within four years of their father’s death all Saskia’s sisters had married and moved away from the family home. By 1628, Saskia, who was only sixteen years of age, was now the only unmarried daughter. The family home was sold and Saskia went to live with her sister Hiskia and her husband, Gerrit van Loo in Sint Annaparochie, a small town in the municipality of het Bilde and Gerrit became Saskia’s guardian. The van Loo household was a very welcoming place to Saskia and because of the affluence of her brother-in-law; she led a comfortable and contented lifestyle. However, in 1632 Saskia and the van Loo family had to hurriedly leave het Bilde due to unrest in the town and they moved to Leeuwarden.
Saskia as Flora was the first portrait Rembrandt did of his wife dressed as Flora, the Roman goddess of fertility and the season of spring and flowers. He completed the portrait in 1634 and it can now be found in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Rembrandt has portrayed his wife as a young goddess in a somewhat rustic setting. His new wife is festooned with flowers. She is dressed in a splendid and extravagant costume. This idyllic and pastoral setting was very popular with the upper-class Dutch society in the early seventeenth century. They had a love of all things to do with the romantic ideal of life in the countryside which they perceived as unadulterated bliss. The style of dress she wore for this portrait was often seen in local theatres during performances of pastoral plays.
Meanwhile, Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn to give him his full name), and who was six years older than Saskia, was born in Leiden in the Dutch Republic, on July 15, 1606. His father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, was a miller, and in 1589, aged twenty-one, had married Cornelia Neeltje Willemsdr. van Suijttbroeck , the Catholic daughter of a baker. The couple went on to have nine children , two of whom died in infancy. Rembrandt was the 8th child and his modest family upbringing was in direct contrast to that of his more affluent upbringing of his future wife, Saskia. However despite their modest means, Rembrandt’s parents were determined to give Rembrandt the best education they could afford and in 1613, when he was seven years old, he was enrolled at Leiden’s Latin school. He remained there for seven years and in 1620, aged fourteen years of age he enrolled at the University of Leiden. Rembrandt was less than impressed by the subjects he was being taught at the university and soon left to study art. He managed to gain an apprenticeship with the Leiden landscape painter, Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburgh, and he remained with him for three years. In 1624, Rembrandt went to Amsterdam where he was apprenticed for six months with the Dutch history painter, Pieter Lastman. In late 1624 Rembrandt left Amsterdam and returned to Leiden where he opened a studio which he shared with his friend and colleague Jan Lievens. The two young artists collaborated in over two dozen works, including paintings, etchings and drawings. In 1628, Constantijn Huygens, a scholar poet and diplomat wrote about his cultural visit to Leiden and his visit to Rembrandt and Lieven’s studio. He wrote of his meeting with “a noble pair of young painters who worked together side by side”. He watched them collaborate and commented:
“…Lievens was superior in invention and a certain grandeur in his daring themes while Rembrandt surpasses Lievens in his sure touch and in the liveliness of emotion…”
That said, it was Lievens that Huygens turned to for his portrait !
The Lievens/Rembrandt partnership lasted until 1631 at which time Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and Lievens to England. In 1631 Rembrandt met Hendrick Uylenburgh, the cousin of Saskia, whose father had moved his family from Friesland to Krakov. Hendrick had been trained as a painter but had also been trained as a buyer of works of art. In 1625 he had moved to Amsterdam and the following year bought the art studio and business premises of the Dutch portrait painter Cornelis van der Voort who had died in late 1624. Rembrandt, the artist, and Hendrick Uylenburgh, the art dealer formed a business partnership which was mutually beneficial and Rembrandt moved into Uylenburgh’s house. Uylenburgh secured the artistic commissions, often portraits of the well-to-do Amsterdam folk and Rembrandt completed them. It was through this partnership that Rembrandt met Hendrik’s cousin Saskia in 1633.
One of the first works of art by Rembrandt to feature Saskia was a silverpoint portrait on prepared vellum of her entitled Saskia van Uylenburgh, which is housed at Berlin’s Staatlich Museen. She wears a broad straw hat which is decorated with flowers and she holds a flower in one hand. Her expression is one of happiness as she leans forward and stares lovingly at her husband-to-be. The portrait has an inscription by Rembrandt, in Dutch:
“…This was made when my wife was 21 years old, the third day after our betrothal – 8th of June 1633…”
Following a twelve month betrothal, Rembrandt and Saskia were married on July 22nd 1634 at the parish church of St Anna in Friesland. It is interesting to note that none of Rembrandt’s family went to the wedding so one must presume they were not enamoured by his choice of wife or maybe some time in the past, Rembrandt had, for some reason, severed links with his family. As was the case in those days Saskia brought a substantial dowry to the marriage, which caused some consternation with her relatives as early on the marriage they believed that Rembrandt was too free with Saskia’s money, frequently moving home and buying ever more expensive ones. However Rembrandt was not concerned as his artistic career seemed to have taken off. He was earning well from the sale of his paintings, especially his portraiture of the city’s bourgeoise, who often had to be added to a long waiting list of Rembrandt’s commissions. He was also bringing in money by tutoring aspiring artists who were not put off by his high tuition fees. After the wedding, the happy couple went to live at the home of Saskia’s cousin and Rembrandt’s partner, Hendrik and remained there until Saskia became pregnant with their first child.
In Saskia with a Red Flower, which Rembrandt painted in 1641, we see Saskia looking towards us, although at the time she would have been looking directly at her husband as he painted. Look at the tender and loving expression on her face. Look how her left hand is place upon her heart as a gesture of adoration, a simple symbol of love and loyalty towards her husband. In her right hand she holds a red flower which she offers her husband. The painting is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.
Although the financial situation of the couple could not have been better their personal life was about to be shattered. In December 1635 Saskia gave birth to their first child, a son whom they baptised Rumbartus. Sadly he died aged two months. In July 1638 Saskia gave birth to a daughter who they named Cornelia after Rembrandt’s mother but the baby died in the August, aged three weeks. Saskia gave birth to another daughter, once again christened Cornelia, on July 29th 1640 but she only survived less than a month dying in August. One can only imagine the torment and suffering, both mentally and physically, Saskia must have endured during this period of her life.
On September 22nd 1641 Saskia gave birth to a son, Titus, who survived childhood, became a painter like his father and lived to the age of twenty-seven. However the physical suffering from all those pregnancies took a toll on Saskia’s health and she died on June 14th 1642, a few months before her thirtieth birthday. The cause of death was recorded as consumption.
In my next blog I will look at the repercussions on Rembrandt of Saskia’s death and look at a painting of a woman who was to play an important part in his later life.