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Portraits: Saskia as Flora: woman, shepherdess or goddess?

Portraits: Saskia as Flora: woman, shepherdess or goddess?
Rembrandt, 1634
Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia

Rembrandt Harmenesz van Rijn (1606 - 1669) or Rembrandt was real genius of baroque painting. The pre-eminent artist of Dutch Golden Age (1585 - 1717) is considered a revolutionary innovator of his time. To achieve unexpected realistic effect of detail he developed an original and striking visual language based on use of contrasting colours and chiaroscuro technique from one side and academic practice of careful, methodical study of face expression, hands gestures, body poses, psychology of seduction and sexual lust from the other. He discovered that the simple act of dressing up a model does not change that person automatically into the historical or mythological figure he or she is posing. However, the act of painting the dressed model in his or her theatrical presentation and choice of technique can do so so. As result the finished work does not merely illustrate the presented human body but gives it the narrative, psychological and spiritual dimensions.

This year we are celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of Rembrandt's birth. Our small portrait gallery also wants to join the world celebration of his birth with portrait of ”Saskia as Flora.” He painted this goddess of spring and flowers three times: 1634 ( Saskia as Flora, Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia), 1635 (Saskia as Flora, National Gallery of London, UK) and 1641 (Saskia with a red flower, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany).

It is very well known that Rembrandt was a prolific portraitist of his time. His reputation among his contemporaries, his self-respect and esteem, his wealth and prosperity largely depended on his activities in this field. Every new portrait was proceeded with a series of preparatory drawings. Preserved till our time drawings show an intensity of his observation of the model and its psychology, the way the light and contour define human form, the fascination with the transformation that different clothing and the light effect can creates, the examination of the means, methods and tricks that can produce the atmosphere of dramatic melancholy, astonisment, sorrow, unhappiness from one side and enjoyment, excitement and euphoria from the other. In his work as a portraitists, Rembrandt kept the close relationship with his model. For him as a painter the most important was not only showing the likeness of the sitter, his her face and clothing but also the emotional, intellectual and psychological aspects of sitter's mind.

The model with whom Rembrandt had the closest relationship was his muse, model and beloved wife in one person Saskia van Uylenbburgh (1612 - 1642). She was a daughter of 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 a 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. These wonderfully tender portraits of her indicate that it must have been a blissful union.

In Roman religion, Flora was a goddess of flowers and fertility. Her festival, the Floralia (Apr. 28 - May 1) was instituted 238 BC, and was celebrated with great cheerfulness, happiness and sexual extravagancy. The legend says that one spring day, she was walking through the fields. 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 regain 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, whose head is decorated with a garland of flowers composed of marigolds, a columbine, anemones, forget-me-not and a tulip, which would suggest that she is a personification of Flora. Rembrandt has devoted particular attention to the textures, stripes and trimmings of her rich garment. However, observant look at the picture uncovers, that it is rather difficult to distinguish her true identity. Is she a pastoral figure, shepherdess, personification of Flora- Roman goddess of spring, flowers and fertility, or simply richly dressed woman? The pathos of splendor and sharp realism rather than divine beauty of richly dressed young woman encourage to draw a hypothesis that the portrait may have been a preliminary study for a historical or biblical figure of woman that Rembrandt was painting around this time. None of the scholars and art critics exclude the possibility that Saskia may have been depicted as a mythological female figure. Rembrandt's strong tendency to demythologize his mythological subjects leave this question open. What seems clear is that Rembrandt was playing with ideas of female beauty, sensuousness, purity, seductiveness and sexual attraction inspired by magnificent sensuality of Titian's Flora (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizzi, Italy).

The introduction of Anthony van Dyck's more flamboyant, exuberance style in portraiture suited public taste more than Rembrandt's austere naturalism. Refusing to adapt to the new fashion in portraiture was one of the causes of his increasing isolation, loneliness and poverty at the end of his life. In the beginning of his career he was the most fashionable and well-paid portraitists in Amsterdam. He received 50 portraits commissions a year, most of them extremely well paid. Cosmopolitan 17th century Amsterdam was a good market for portraiture. Rich citizens, mercantile patricians, surgeons, religious conservative leaders, renowned preachers, foreign residents and visiting diplomats, all required portraits. His portraits were very realistic. They retained an artistic integrity and deep insight into the suggestive individual psychology that would became of Rembrandt trademark. However, after 1646 Rembrandt was rejected by the leading patrons of Amsterdam and The Hague. Rembrandt's rejection was caused partly by his stress after Saskia's death, unpleasant incident with his administration of Saskia's estate, an affair with Geertghe Dircx, who sued him for breach of promise of marriage and partly by his personal difficulties to resign from his fascination with repulsive figures moving out of darkness and drama of the everyday life. Although continually being troubled with financial problems, Rembrandt retained his dignity as popular artist and teacher of his time.