It is thought that the woman in the painting is Hendrickje Stoffels, who was Rembrandt’s maid and who shared the second part of the artist’s life. Later she would become his lover and would remain by his side until the day he dies. At the time of this painting Hendrickje was pregnant with Rembrandt’s child.
We see her before us, immersing herself in the water. She looks down at her reflection in the water. She is completely absorbed in what she sees. Behind her we see a richly-coloured red dress which she has left behind before entering the water. She has rolled up her skirt up and she hesitatingly and gingerly steps into the cold water of a stream. She seems completely unaware that we are observing her. For us it is an intimate moment as we study her. It is not simply a woman bathing in a stream. Look how Rembrandt has allowed the light to fall on her, illuminating her skin and chemise. The painting can be seen in the National Gallery, London.
I concluded my last blog about Rembrandt von Rijn and his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh with her death from consumption just before her thirtieth birthday. In today’s blog I will look how, even from her grave, Saskia managed to have an effect on Rembrandt’s life and I want to move on and look at two other ladies who entered Rembrandt’s life, one of whom featured in a number of his paintings and is thought to have modelled for one of his more famous paintings, Woman Bathing in a Stream. That lady was Hendrickje Stoffels.
With Saskia’s death in June 1642, the thirty-six year old Rembrandt was left alone with his nine month old son Titus. He needed help with bringing up his son and so living in the household at the time was Geertje Dircx who had been acting as Titus’ wet nurse. It is more than likely she was living in the house since Titus was born and before Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, died. Geertje was born in Edam around 1610, where she had been brought up by her father, Dirck Pieters and her mother, Jannetje Jans. She had married a ship’s bugler, Abraham Claesz, in 1634 but he had died following year. It is thought that she had received little education and could neither read nor write. There is a great deal of conjecture about Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje who was just four years his junior. Was she more than just the wet nurse for Rembrandt’s son? Did she and the artist have a sexual relationship? If theirs was a very close relationship then why did they not marry? By all accounts she was not a woman of great beauty as the Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, described her as:
“…a little farm woman……rather small of person but well made in appearance and plump of body….”
For the answer to the question of marriage between the two, we have to consider the power Saskia wielded, even from her grave.
What we do know is that for some reason, a few weeks before her death, Saskia had drawn up a new will and in it she left her share of hers and Rembrandt’s combined estate, not to Rembrandt, but to their baby son Titus, which would be given to him when he came of age. However, Saskia’s will also stated that any interest accrued from her part of their joint estate could be used by Rembrandt as he was the father and guardian of their son. As strange as the terms of the will seem, it was legally binding. So what were the possible reasons for the terms of her will which she signed a fortnight before she died? Was she concerned by the way Rembrandt spent their money on property and his art collection? Maybe, as Rembrandt was having a very successful period selling his art work, she didn’t think he needed her money and therefore she would rather it was invested for her son to reap its benefit when he was older. Unfortunately for Rembrandt he was soon to need this money as his success as an artist, which had provided him with a life of prosperity, was soon to dip and his financial position became ever more serious. However what was probably more surprising about the will was a codicil which stated that if Rembrandt should marry again all Saskia’s money would be returned to her family, the Uylenburghs. So you can see that Saskia still controlled Rembrandt from her grave!
Hendrickje Stoffels (Young Girl at the Window) was painted by Rembrandt in 1657. It was painted in the same year he completed a portrait of his son Titus (Titus Reading) and it was during this time that the artist concentrated his portraiture work on people or family who lived nearby. Hendrickje, although uneducated and lacked the ability to read or write, was the perfect companion for Rembrandt. She supported him during his troubled times when he was mired down in bankruptcy proceedings. She also stuck with him despite the adverse comments from “respectable” neighbours and the Reform Church about her “state of whoredom” for being his live-in lover. She was determined to support Rembrandt through thick and thin and in this portrait of her we see that grim determination and her steadfast composure as she stands at the window of their house in Breestraat, Amsterdam. This portrait hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Before he felt the full force of pecuniary embarrassment, Rembrandt had another problem to solve, which was probably self-inflicted. Around about 1647, Rembrandt hired in a young maidservant, Hendrickje Stofefll. Hendrickje was the daughter of an army sergeant based in the garrison town of Bredevoort. In 1646, when she was just twenty years of age, her father was killed, the victim of an explosion of the gunpowder tower in Bredevoort. Hendrickje’s mother remarried the following year and her daughter was left to fend for herself. She moved to Amsterdam where she became a maidservant and later that year took up employment in Rembrandt’s house. Hendrickje was sixteen years younger than Geertje, who lived in the household as nurse to Rembrandt’s son, Titus. The two women did not get on well together. Hendrickje had characteristics which Geertje lacked. She was a quiet girl with a very pleasant manner and had the youthful looks which Geertje had lost. Although Hendrickje was twenty years younger than Rembrandt he was charmed by her as was his son Titus who was six years old when Hendrickje entered the household. Geertje soon became jealous at the way Rembrandt and Hendrickje became ever closer and she must have been horrified at the turn of events.
This portrait of his mistress, entitled Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, was completed by Rembrandt around 1656 and can now be found in the National Gallery, London. There is a sense of intimacy between artist and subject in this work. Look closely at the expression on Hendrickje’s face. It is one of poise and yet there is a degree of sensuality about the way she affectionately looks at Rembrandt, her lover and father of her child, as he concentrates on her portrait. One of the strange things about this work is that the signature and the date on the portrait were believed to have been added at a later date.
Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned is a maxim that summed up Geertje’s feelings, which led to her subsequent and somewhat foolhardy actions. Tensions in the Rembrandt household surfaced, culminating in the dismissal of Geertje. She then decided to take Rembrandt to court for refusing to honour his unwritten agreement to marry her. Knowing as we do the nature of Saskia’s will, in respect of Rembrandt re-marrying along with the unfavourable financial consequences for him if he was to remarry, there is little likelihood that he would ever have seriously proposed marriage to Geertje. Whether she had at one time been his lover is of course another matter! Rembrandt tried to come to a financial settlement with Geertje but she kept holding out for an ever more lucrative settlement. In the end the case went to court on October 23rd 1649 at the city’s Town Hall and the Commissioners of Marital Affairs, who sat in judgement, were told that Rembrandt had slept with Geertje, but that he had not made a promise to marry her. Their decision was to award Geertje an annuity of 200 guilders in alimony, a sum he continued to pay until 1655. However there was another twist to this saga. Geertje was found guilty of stealing Saskia’s jewelry which was part of Rembrandt’s estate. One of the prosecution witnesses was none other than Hendrickje Stoffels. Geertje was sent to the Spinhuis in Gouda (A spinhuis was a house of correction, a kind of workhouse) where she remained for five years.
Rembrandt and Hendrickje Stoffels lived together quite happily as lovers but in June 1654 the Council of the Reformed Church of Amsterdam got wind of this relationship and summoned Rembrandt and Hendrickje to stand before them. Rembrandt was not a practicing churchgoer so the matter against him was dropped. Hendrickje however was accused of whoredom and of living with a man, unwed. Being six months pregnant there was little point in denying the charge. Her fate was to suffer banishment from attending any special church occasions. She gave birth to Rembrandt’s daughter, Cornelia, on October 30th 1654. The name could well have been chosen because it was the name of Rembrandt’s mother or more poignantly because it was the name of the two daughters of Saskia and Rembrandt, who survived just a few weeks.
Hendrickje Stoffels died in July 1663, aged 37 and was buried in a rented grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church) on July 24th 1663. She was probably a victim of the bubonic plague which had swept through the city that year and had lasted for more than two years killing 10% of the city’s population.
Rembrandt van Rijn died on 4 October 1669 aged 63. He is buried in an anonymous rented grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk on the 8th October. His son Titus died one year earlier, aged 27.