Introduction to Nigel's lecture Rembrandt: an artist living in sin
In June 1654 the painter Rembrandt and his housemaid Hendrijcke Stoeffels were summoned to appear before the ecclesiastical court of the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam. Hendrickje had entered Rembrandt’s household as a servant in about 1645, three years after the death of his wife, Saskia. Although some may have raised an eyebrow at his living arrangements, nothing could be proved until June 1654, when it was visible to everyone that Hendrickje was pregnant. Rembrandt and Hendrijcke failed to show up at the court.
The church sent representatives to talk to Hendrickje, and she finally agreed to appear at a session of the church court on 23 July. Here she was called on to repent of her situation, and was excluded from taking the Lord’s Supper. The church court, although blunt in its wording (its summons described her as ‘living like a whore’), was not necessarily being draconian, just enforcing proper church discipline. However, Hendrickje stayed as she was with Rembrandt, and their daughter, Cornelia, was born in October. Rembrandt had previously with Saskia had two daughters both called Cornelia, named after his mother, but both died in infancy. Happily this Cornelia survived.
Why was Rembrandt himself dropped from subsequent charges? Perhaps it was discrimination, with the court being tougher on the woman than on the man. Possibly Rembrandt was no longer an active member of the Reformed Church: he is known at times to have seemed interested in the Mennonites, although it is highly unlikely that he joined them, and he was subsequently involved in the DRC as a godfather.
Either way, it is unlikely that Rembrandt would have changed his lifestyle, because he was in a fix. In 1634 he had married well and happily into a wealthy family. He was a very successful young painter about town, very much in love with his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. In 1639 they moved into a big house - still known as the Rembrandthuis – which was even then rather beyond his means, and was later to contribute to his financial difficulties. He collected works of art, ran a large studio with apprentices and students, and attempted to raise a large family. Sadly, all their first three children died in infancy; the fourth, Titus, was born in September 1641, and survived into adulthood (although only just). Tragically for Rembrandt, Saskia never recovered from the birth of Titus, and in June 1642, when Titus was not yet 1, she died.
When it was clear that Saskia was dying, she called for a lawyer and wrote her will. In this will she left her capital to Titus as the ultimate beneficiary; but the use of the capital was left to Rembrandt in his lifetime, provided he did not remarry. If he remarried, the capital would have to be paid to Titus.
This year 1642, however, was marked not only by the death of Saskia, but by a sea-change in Rembrandt’s fortunes as a painter. His major work of the year, which we now know as The Nightwatch, was a critical, and therefore commercial disaster. His income from portraiture, and particularly group portraiture, tailed off as his art became increasingly personal. His new reflective tone was fine if you wanted a genuine Rembrandt, but did not appeal to patrons who wanted something a bit more mainstream, or a work in which they themselves had a say. Amsterdam was gradually filling up with Rembrandt’s ex-pupils, who could do you a Rembrandt for less money and less hassle.
Rembrandt, for whatever reasons, refused to curtail his lifestyle: he maintained his large house and his habits as an art collector, and money inevitably became a problem Thus, although he seems genuinely to have fallen in love with Hendrickje, he could not marry her because he would lose the income from Saskia’s estate, and that would land him in financial ruin (although in the end financial ruin came to find him anyway in 1656 when he was declared bankrupt, and all his wonderful art collection was sold off).
Rembrandt was caught in a mess. Hendrickje brings love and security not just for Rembrandt but also for Titus, who seems to have been fond of her in return (later on, she and Titus would form a business partnership together in order to help Rembrandt.) But Rembrandt feels he can’t marry her, because that means the financial skids. What can he do? He feels that he has to live in sin.
One of the great features of the biblical doctrine of ‘sin’ is that sin makes a mess. Sin is not primarily about breaking rules, doing certain actions that are forbidden. Rather, sin means refusing God’s rule over you, and insisting on being ruler of your own life. So the effects of sin are not always simple, and cannot always be simply undone; they lead to confusion, to one sin upon another, to sin being done in response to sin, and another sin in response to that, until things are too wound up to be untied. It needs the power, brilliance and self-abasing grace of God to cut through the mess with Jesus’ death on the cross, taking on himself all the sin of all his people. In that way justice is done, sin is punished, but those who have committed it can be set free from its guilt, and start again. They can also look forward to the whole world being one day purged of sin and its effects, as it becomes the home of righteousness, where the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:6).
Rembrandt is caught in a mess caused by all sorts of sin: perhaps Saskia was guilty of jealousy, trying to stop Rembrandt remarrying; or of greed, trying to keep her wealth in her family. Perhaps Rembrandt did not adequately trust God to provide for his needs, if he did the right thing in marrying Hendrickje. Perhaps he was just weak and fearful.
It was in the year of Hendrickje’s pregnancy and court case that he painted the remarkable painting Bathsheba with David’s letter (now in the Louvre). The parallels between Bathsheba and Hendickje, who models for her, are striking. Bathsheba is unwillingly the object of illegitimate desire by a powerful man, and the pregnancy that arises from their sin precipitates a crisis. It does not seem particularly fanciful to suggest that Rembrandt is ruminating on his own position. It is certainly one of the frankest nudes he painted. It is interesting to note that in many other artists’ treatment of this theme, Bathsheba is portrayed as a temptress – the assumption being that if the man sins, it must be the woman’s fault for tempting him. But Rembrandt seems to show her as a victim, as she sadly holds in her hand David’s summons, which she can guess involves more than an invitation to tea. The fact that Rembrandt shows Bathsheba having just emerged from the bath as she holds the letter, reminds us that it was while she was bathing that David saw her. Is David spying on her again at this very moment? And what about us the viewers, who are also placed in the role of covetous voyeurism. It is almost as if Rembrandt is saying: mea culpa. And perhaps, ‘What would you have done?’
Lust, beauty, love, power – all immensely powerful forces of sin, and even the greatest, most powerful, most beautiful are prone to them. But this particular sin leads to terrible consequences – the murder of Uriah; the death of the child (an agony Rembrandt knows only too well); and God’s judgement that David’s household will henceforth always be subject to violence.
It is an extraordinary picture – one of the most beautiful nudes ever painted, and yet devoid of titillation; poingnant, overwhelmed with the sadness, the tragedy, that human sin brings.
Rembrandt is, as he knows and shows, literally as well as metaphorically, a painter ‘living in sin’.
[The lecture goes on to explore the changes that came over Rembrandt’s work in the 1640s and 1650s, by contrasting paintings on similar themes from the earlier and later periods. These changes are explored as likely expressions of his developing personal faith.]