Arts Everyday Living: Happy Birthday Rembrandt—Portrait of his Wife Saskia, Story of Love

Have you noticed that July is a major birthday month for artists? We have already celebrated the births of  American master James McNeill Whistler (July 11, 1834) and Austrian icon Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862). Our next honoree is the immortal Rembrandt van Rijn, born on July 15, 1606, who tops any list of the greatest painters of art history.

Since 1942, the National Gallery of Art has been the home of the memorable portrait of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, whom he met in his early days in Amsterdam, after moving from his native Leiden. Already a rising star of the Dutch capital and its art world, Rembrandt would soon marry Saskia, the wealthy cousin of his landlord.

Probably done shortly after their wedding, Saskia is almost radiant, her face illuminated by a warm and  glowing light, typical of Rembrandt’s style. Still a youthful 22, Saskia stares directly at us, looking confident and eager to start this new stage of her life as the spouse of a successful man. The rich clothing and conspicuous jewelry affirming  her rightful place in a competitive society.*


Rembrandt, Saskia van Uylenburgh, the Wife of the artist, 1634/1635 and completed 1638/1640, oil on panel, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Yet, she seems a secondary figure to her husband in their double portrait, Rembrandt more intent on interacting with us, even appearing to ignore Saskia. Focusing on each one of us with his charismatic eyes, while attired in a flamboyant hat and costume. Holding too the means or tool of creative expression, proof of his continued achievement as well as dominance of his artistic contemporaries.

But how would you interpret the expression of Saskia? How does she compare to her other portrayal?


Rembrandt, Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636, etching, Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Yet, she is the center of attention again in this etching of multiple Saskias—-except for two figures, one with the turban on our upper left, the other possibly a profile of young man in the lower area, near Rembrandt’s signature. Reflecting a variety of moods, from pensive to pleasant to attentive.


Rembrandt, Studies of the Head of Saskia and Others, 1636, etching, Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Finally, Rembrandt reveals to posterity the dying Saskia, who has endured long term illness and the loss of children, only their son Titus surviving into adulthood. Now resigned to her fate with a combination of sadness and exhaustion, no longer resisting the inevitable end.


Rembrandt, Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress (Saskia), c. 1641-1642, etching with touches of drypoint, Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

*One of the questions regarding the portrait is why did it take Rembrandt so long to complete it?





In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.

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