Rembrandt’s Saskia is coming home

The Amsterdam Museum announced a special loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington: Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, painted 1634-40. According to the Museum’s press release it is the first time the portrait can be seen in Europe since 1894. Saskia’s portrait will be on loan to the museum for two years. It will go on display on 2 August, Saskia’s birthday. It is a lovely portrait, showing her adorned with a beautifully painted transparent veil. Is it she though?

Rembrandt, portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, ca. 1634-40, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Rembrandt, portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, ca. 1634-40, National Gallery of Art, Washington

There have been many misunderstandings about what Rembrandt’s wife looked like. In the past, people have been tempted to label too many Rembrandt paintings showing a woman with wavy dark blond hair, a light complexion and, shall we say, a tendency towards chubbiness, as “Saskia”. But if you think about it, there are just too many physical discrepancies between these women. One should also consider that, as the daughter of an important Frisian family (her father, mayor of Leeuwarden, happened to be a witness of the murder of the Prince of Orange in 1584 in Delft) and, moreover, the wife of a then very distinguished painter, she wouldn’t have allowed her husband to paint her in just any role he chose. Unlike, for instance, Jan Steen’s wife, who complained bitterly to a friend that her husband invariably cast her as a public woman in his paintings and what would the neighbours think!


Kupferstichkabinett,Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

From the few representations we do have of Saskia, especially etchings and drawings, some show an evident intimacy, such as the charming drawing of her wearing a straw hat in the Kupferstichkabinet in Berlin, which he inscribed: “Dit is naer mijn huisvrou geconterfeyt / do sy 21 jaer oud was den derden / dach als wij getroudt waeren / den 8 Junijus / 1633 (This was portrayed after my wife when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were married. June 8, 1633)”. They were married the next year, what he means is most probably betrothal.

Here and in some other drawings she has a somewhat beaky nose with a little sharp bump along the bridge. From that and the shape of her face in the few certain images of her it is possible to identify a small number of drawings, etchings and only a few paintings that are, with certainty, Saskia van Uylenburg, wife of Rembrandt van Rijn and mother of his four children, of whom only one survived infancy.


Probably c. 1642, Groninger Museum. Sometimes dated 1635, which would coincide with the birth of their first son, Rombertus, who died two months after birth

The face in the Washington portrait shows those characteristics. Recent restoration has established that it was begun shortly after she and Rembrandt were married and finished a few years later, perhaps 1640.

Mogelijk nieuwe Rembrandt ontdekt

The portrait said to represent Saskia, which emerged in 2012, 400 years after her birth

Let us look at another potential Saskia portrait, one that emerged in 2012. Using our criteria, we see an attempt at rendering the right kind of nose, but this nose is broader. Even at first glance, there is just too much missing here, notably the subtlety and a reverence almost with which Rembrandt painted his wife. The painting is clearly also less accomplished than the Washington portrait. The two experts invariably called upon to authenticate Rembrandt paintings, Ernst van de Wetering and restorer Martin Bijl, eventually gave their verdict: it is definitely not a Rembrandt. Possibly a painting by Govert Flinck, an early Amsterdam student of Rembrandt. You could almost hear a sigh of disappointment going through the auction houses.

Press release Amsterdam Museum: