Becoming Rembrandt


Martin Gayford asserts the painter’s style “changed to one of profound originality” in the early 1650s – and holds up “The Jewish Bride” as an example of that mature brilliance:

There are two figures in the painting, a man and a woman; he is embracing her in the tenderest of ways. ‘What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting!’ as Vincent [van Gogh] wrote to his brother Theo in 1885. It scarcely mattered that he, like all his contemporaries, was under a misapprehension about the subject.

That familiar title, ‘The Jewish Bride’, was not Rembrandt’s; it first appeared in 1835, and with it a mistaken view that the scene was a contemporary one from the artist’s lifetime. In reality, as Jonathan Bikker, the research curator at the Rijksmuseum, pointed out to me as we stood in front of the picture, the story he was painting was a Biblical one, that of Isaac and Rebecca (or Rebekah). The two were married, but such was Rebecca’s beauty that Isaac — a refugee in Philistine lands — feared it would lead a Philistine to kill him, and marry her himself. Cautiously, he pretended that he was her brother. One day, however, ‘Abimelech, king of the Philistines, looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.’ This is the incident that Rembrandt painted. But, characteristically, he omitted the figure of King Abimelech.

Consequently, we, rather than the Philistine king, become the witnesses of the couple, and what we see is the emotion between them. This is one of the most modern things about Rembrandt. ‘You don’t have to know all about the subject of the painting,’ Gregor Weber observed. ‘You feel straight away that it is about intimacy.’

(Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride,” circa 1667, via Wikimedia Commons)