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Amsterdamned 2: Unearthing the Skeletons in Rembrandt’s Closet

Posted on by Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The personal lives of great artists are often as intriguing as their work. Rembrandt is no exception. His life was plagued by misfortunes involving money, love, sex, family stress, and untimely death. For your guilty pleasure, allow us to present a scandalous tip on an artist whose life was, for the record, Amsterdamned.

Rembrandt van Rijn; Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap; c. 1640; Oil on panel; 28 5/16 x 21 7/8 x 2 1/2 in.; © Private Collection, New York

Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, came from money. As a good steward of the family fortune, she stipulated in her will that should Rembrandt remarry, their son, Titus, would be given her entire estate. Then she died, at age 29, likely of tuberculosis. This hitch complicated the rest of Rembrandt’s life.

Just before Saskia’s death, Rembrandt painted Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap. Sadly, Saskia would never live to old age.

Learn more about the skeletons in Rembrandt’s closet by visiting “Rembrandt in America” and picking up a copy of the exhibition catalog.

2 Responses to Amsterdamned 2: Unearthing the Skeletons in Rembrandt’s Closet

Paul says: July 28, 2012 at 6:18 am

Actually, Saskia brought almost no dowry to the marriage while Rembrandt was earning quite a lot as a young artist. Her will was perfectly ordinary, and there’s no evidence that she suffered from tuberculosis.

    admin says: August 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for checking out the MIA missives!
    I am going to reveal to our readers that you are a Rembrandt expert with full knowledge of everything I say here and that you are a close friend of mine. You are right that Saskia, an orphan, had little dowry. Her wealth at the time of her death was due to Rembrandt’s earnings. And yes, the clause in her will about her portion going to Titus in the event of Rembrandt’s remarriage was common. It was meant to protect the child from mistreatment by a step-parent. Such clauses could also be closely enforced, because the dead parent’s family could come into the money if the child subsequently died. Rembrandt had already experienced such close scrutiny, as we know from his 1638 libel suit filed to counter accusations that Saskia was profligate. As for Saskia’s illness, the tuberculosis hypothesis, that follows tradition dating from many decades ago and recently continued by Ben Broos, the scholar currently most deeply engaged with the study of Saskia’s life. Here’s a link to his short biography:
    Though there is no proof that Saskia died of tuberculosis, it does appear to have been some sort of wasting disease. Rembrandt himself seems to have documented her decline in prints (Bartsch 359 and 369) and possibly some of the drawings. Your suggestion elsewhere that her sickness may have arisen from complications at the time if Titus’s birth (September 1641) is also quite interesting.
    All in all, the important point is that Rembrandt had a number of well-documented personal problems that had a real impact on his career and his art. I think that this show is proving so successful because our visitors are engaging with Rembrandt’s art in unusual depth (roughly 30 paintings–depending on one’s opinion at the edges–and some three dozen etchings!) and with Rembrandt’s personal and professional life. They also encounter some of the questions that historians and connoisseurs face in trying to come to terms with Rembrandt. Certainly, we cannot show every facet of his career, but one comes away with a very human experience of the man and his art. I’m looking forward to sharing the show with you when you are here next month. I’m sure that we will have lots to discuss!

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