Rembrandt's Lucretia

Several years ago, I got the chance to view the NCMA’s Rembrandt exhibition pretty much alone. I wrote the following back then but never published it. Here it is, with some editing.

This time, in an unusual shift from my obsession with Rembrandt's self-portraits, I focused most of my viewing time on the history paintings. The history paintings seemed to contain ideologies that we're still embodying today, and this post focuses on one painting as an example of how we might find some relevance in Rembrandt's work to our lives today.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Lucretia. Oil on Canvas. 43.4 x 36.3”. 1666.

Lucretia is one of the more intense pieces at the NCMA's Rembrandt in America. It has a greater variety of mark-making techniques than in any other painting in the show. There are rough daubs, messy knife-marks, tight brushstrokes, interlocking textures, a small amount of sgraffito, and much more besides. The edges sometimes get a bit lost up close, and some of the rendering breaks down into marks that don't follow the forms. What's so fascinating about the piece is that there are sections of painting that are uncontrolled to the point of being terrible and horrible, but those exact sections are so well-defined and studied that it contributes further to the content of the piece, which is itself terrible and horrible.

A quick refresher on the history of Lucretia: she was raped by the son of the last Tarquin King of Rome while her husband was away at war. Lucretia then either called her husband or went to him, begged for vengeance against the King's son, and stabbed herself in the heart, dying at his feet. Because of this offense, her husband then instigated the overthrow of the Tarquins, who were replaced by two elected consuls and later, emperors.

The way I see it, Lucretia's death is a story of personal actions that have wider public effects. We still see this sort of thing happen all the time--probably half of the political scandals in recent memory are some combination of personal sexual action and wider political consequence.

Restricting the view of this piece to Lucretia herself, we see her right at the moment of her death, just after her stabbing. It was her sense of honor that propelled her to take her own life. The stain of rape, to her, must have been completely unrecoverable, making her less than a human. Knowing that she would have no societal existence, the personal action of suicide became political at the moment she asked for vengeance. In a sense, she had to actualize her political existence by dying. This is a perfect way to define politics in its culturally relevant sense. Politics is the way that larger forces mobilize us in our daily existence. It's not simply the bickering of senators or the public opinion as a whole--it's the set of structures that pervade society down to the smallest level. (I think that this is the conception of politics that we're seeing at work in recent protests. They're protesting the pervasive structures within our society which force our actions.)

Another way to look at Lucretia is from the point of view of victimization. We think now of rape victims as, well, victims. We encourage recovery, therapy, and prosecution of the aggressor. There is no responsibility on the part of the victim, and this is as it should be. Currently, the personal and political strength of a rape victim comes from survival. But historically speaking, it was not always this way, as we can see in the story of Lucretia. Of course, rape was an offense with respect to the rapist, but it also had the effect of shaming the victim and even legal consequences for the victim. In certain cultures, women would never be able to marry, and already existing marriages were discontinued.

The painting itself is a portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, who was Rembrandt's maid, and later lover, with whom he had a child. She died in 1663 during an outbreak of the plague, which makes Lucretia, painted in 1666, a posthumous portrait of her. That, in itself, injects the piece with even more personal meaning. Here, she is alone, dying, with one hand holding a knife, and the other holding a rope, perhaps connected to a servant's bell. Why did Rembrandt choose Hendrickje as the model for the piece? It's obviously mournful, but is there a connection of the emotional content of Hendrickje's death and Lucretia's death?

What's probably most interesting about this painting is that he's putting Hendrickje in death again. It's as if he's re-contextualizing her death, which is sort of odd. Does the painting elevate Hendrickje's death? Does it highlight its meaninglessness? The piece becomes a two-fold history painting--both recent history and the far past, and it's conflation of subjects resonates with great complexity in the interaction of the personal and the political.

The painting is doubly fictional. It brings Hendrickje back as a character, barely alive, perpetually on the cusp of death, playing a historical figure who is more or less a character, having passed from historical fact to the realm of legend and myth. Some background on Hendrickje's relationship with Rembrandt will help unfold those connections. She was 20 years younger, first his maid, then his lover. They had a child together, but they never married because Rembrandt would have then lost the inheritance from his first marriage to Saskia von Uylenburgh, which would have put him in bankruptcy.

Hendrickje's relationship with Rembrandt was kept from advancing in a legitimized way because of political and economic structures regarding marriage, and her death was more or less without political meaning, which may explain the setting of Lucretia. Within the bounds of the painting itself, the subject is stripped of its political context and brought to a personal level. When looking at Lucretia, we exist politically (we become Lucretia's spouse, Lucius Tarquinius, with her dying in front of us), and at the same time, we exist personally (we become Rembrandt mourning for Hendrickje).