Rembrandt painted his beloved wife Saskia van Uylenburgh as Flora, goddess of spring and flowers, three times: in 1634, 1635 (Saskia as Flora, National Gallery of London, UK) and 1641 (Saskia with a red flower, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany).
Today we are going to focus on the earliest portrait, from 1634. It was a happy year for Rembrandt – the year of their marriage. In this work he combined elements of pastoral and historical portraits and the painting visibly shows the love and admiration the artist felt for the young woman.
Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612 – 1642) was the daughter of the burgomaster of Leeuwarden and a cousin of the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh for whom Rembrandt worked for four years between 1631 and 1635. Marriage with Saskia brought him a substantial dowry as well as the true love of his life and patrician status. During the 1630s Saskia herself was to be the subject of the largest number of single portraits.
Three of their children died shortly after birth and were buried in the nearby Zuiderkerk. The sole survivor was Titus, who was named after his mother’s sister Titia (Tietje) van Uylenburgh. Saskia died the year after he was born, in Amsterdam, aged 29, probably from tuberculosis. She was buried in the Oude Kerk.
Saskia allowed Rembrandt to use their son’s inheritance as long as he did not remarry. If Titus died without issue, Rembrandt would be the heir of the movable property. Rembrandt hired Geertje Dircx as a wetnurse; in 1649 she expected him to marry her. The next year Rembrandt had her locked up in a house of correction when Hendrickje Stoffels became his new housekeeper and mistress. In 1662 Rembrandt, has been in financial trouble for several years, sold Saskia’s grave. Hendrickje died the following year.
But coming back to the painting itself. In Roman religion, Flora was the goddess of flowers and fertility. Her festival, the Floralia (Apr. 28 – May 1) was celebrated with great cheerfulness, happiness and sexual extravagance. The legend says that one spring day, she was walking through the fields when Zephyrus, the wind of spring saw her and fell in love with her. He stole her away and they married. To prove his love for her he allowed her to reign over all the flowers in gardens, meadows and cultivated fields. Among the many gifts that the goddess brings to humans, together with an infinite variety of flowers is honey.
Rembrandt depicted the woman he loved as a woman of pleasant appearance, adorned with jewels and precious fabrics. The pathos of splendor and sharp realism rather than the divine beauty of the richly dressed young woman suggest that the portrait may have been a preliminary study for a historical or biblical figure of a woman that Rembrandt was painting around this time. But it’s only an assumption!
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