The love story behind Rembrandt’s ‘Lucretia’

When looking at a painting on the wall of a museum, it can be hard to remember that at one point the paint was still wet on the canvas, and that the artist holding the brush was just as flawed and human as the rest of us.

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Lucretia, 1666

by Rembrandt van Rijn

Dutch, 1606-69

Property of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Take Rembrandt’s “Lucretia”; the painting holds pride of place in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ current Rembrandt exhibition and is considered one of the gems of the MIA’s permanent collection.

While the painting depicts a pivotal woman in Roman history, MIA curator Tom Rassieur believes the work served also as the cry of a man who had lost his lover to society’s fickle whims.

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Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels

by Rembrandt Van Rijn

Property of the Louvre

Meet Hendrickje Stoffels. Stoffels came into Rembrandt’s life in the late 1640s, said Rassieur, well after his wife died.

Rembrandt was not free to remarry because of his wife’s will. They formed a loving relationship and lived as husband and wife until she became pregnant and was forced to confess to living as a whore. She was excommunicated, lost her standing in society, and became a pariah. She and Rembrandt were no longer acceptable in higher levels of society, and he lost much of his patronage. This was one of the things that led to his bankruptcy. They had to move far away, and she died in 1663.

Rembrandt blamed Hendrickje’s death on those who condemned her. Three years later Rembrandt painted “Lucretia,” but Rassieur said it’s not difficult to see that the inspiration for this portrait was his lost love.

Look at the Lucretia tale — a young noblewoman accosted by a tyrant king who said if you don’t sleep with me I’ll kill you and put you in your bed with your dead manservant. Instead she took her own life. So here you have the story of two young women who were wronged at the hands of powerful people.

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Detail of Rembrandt’s “Lucretia”

Many painters have depicted the story of Lucretia. But Rembrandt’s work stands out. It’s a deeply personal work, in which the viewer gazes into the eyes of Lucretia after she’s stabbed herself, resigned to her death. As Rassieur explained:

Other artists will show a balletic rendition, with Tarquin lunging at her, but Rembrandt makes it a deeply emotional moment. Her life is literally pouring out of her body. Other paintings are much more about the physical violation than the emotional violation.

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Tarquinius and Lucretia

by Tiziano Vecelli (known in English as Titian)

painted 1571

Property of Fitzwilliam Museum

In many ways, Rassieur said, this was the height of Rembrandt’s career. He was at his peak in terms of talent, but no longer subject to the whims of the bourgeoisie. His work showed his debt to two great artistic influences: Titian and Apelles.

Some of Titian’s most beautiful works were courtesan portraits, but in those days they were able to lead lives of stature. Rembrandt is in essence doing the same thing with Hendrickje, but depicting how she was destroyed instead of elevated, as she might have been in an earlier time.

Rembrandt’s use of paint varies dramatically across the canvas, from paper-thin to almost sculptural thickness.

The range of approach that he has in a single picture to the very spare work with barely any paint on the ground, to the thickly laid-on paint, to the scraping with the trowel, or the tiny highlights that capture her wound, or the look in her eyes. In some places you can even see the brownish under layer; it’s incredibly efficient painting.

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Detail of Rembrandt’s Lucretia: the gash of Lucretia’s wound is depicted with a single stroke of white.

Rassieur said close examinations of the painting reveal Rembrandt likely completed “Lucretia” in a single day, painting “wet on wet” with no second thoughts.

He really just went for it, he knew what he wanted. “Lucretia” also has this feel of being unfinished — he pours all his artistic and personal interests into this single painting. It’s a primal scream.

It’s important, Rassieur added, to keep this painting in the context of its time. Seeing a Rembrandt painting such as this one in the 17th century was akin to a miracle for anyone not of the upper class. It was a rare occurrence with a weighty impact.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve devoted most of my life to Rembrandt; he’s such a genius, that every time you come to his work you can learn a little bit more about them, about him and about yourself.

Rassieur said it reminds him of something Van Gogh said about Rembrandt:

Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. Rembrandt is truly called a magician … that’s not an easy calling.

You can see MIA’s exhibition Rembrandt in America, including his portrait of Lucretia, through September 16.

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