We should have but a very imperfect idea of Rembrandt's work if we did not learn something about the portraits he painted. It was for these that he was most esteemed in his own day, being the fashionable portrait painter of Amsterdam at a time when every person of means wished to have his likeness painted. A collection of his works of this kind would almost bring back again the citizens of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, so life-like are these wonderful canvases. Among them we should find the various members of his family, his father and mother, his sister, his servant, his son, and most interesting of all, his beloved wife, Saskia.

Saskia was born in Friesland, one of nine children of a wealthy patrician family. Her father, Rombertus van Uylenborch, was a distinguished lawyer, who had had several important political missions intrusted to him. At one time he was sent as a messenger to William of Orange, and was sitting at table with that prince just before his assassination. He died in 1624, leaving Saskia an orphan, as she had lost her mother five years before. The little girl of twelve now began to live in turn with her married sisters. At the age of twenty she came to Amsterdam to live for a while with her cousin, the wife of a minister, Jan Cornelis Sylvius, whose face we know from one of Rembrandt's etchings. Saskia had also another cousin living in Amsterdam, Hendrick van Uylenborch, a man of artistic tastes, who had not succeeded as a painter, and had become a dealer in bric-à-brac and engravings. He was an old friend of Rembrandt; and when the young painter came to seek his fortune in the great city in 1631, he had made his home for a while with the art dealer.

It was doubtless Hendrick who introduced Rembrandt to Saskia. Probably the beginning of their acquaintance was through Rembrandt's painting Saskia's portrait in 1632. The relation between them soon grew quite friendly, for in the same year the young girl sat two or three times again to the painter. The friendship presently ended in courtship, and when Rembrandt pressed his suit the marriage seemed a very proper one. Saskia was of a fine family and had a sufficient dowry.

Rembrandt, though the son of a miller, was already a famous painter, much sought after for portraits, and with a promising career before him. The engagement was therefore approved by her guardians, but marriage being deferred till she came of age, the courtship lasted two happy years. During this time Rembrandt painted his lady love over and over again. It was one of his artistic methods to paint the same person many times. He was not one of the superficial painters who turn constantly from one model to another in search of new effects. He liked to make an exhaustive study of a single face in many moods, with many expressions and varied by different costumes.

Cassel Gallery

Saskia had small eyes and a round nose, and was not at all beautiful according to classical standards. Rembrandt, however, cared less for beauty than for expression, and Saskia's face was very expressive, at times merry and almost roguish, and again quite serious. She had also a brilliant complexion and an abundance of silky hair, waving from her forehead. The painter had collected in his studio many pretty and fantastic things to use in his pictures,—velvets and gold embroidered cloaks, Oriental stuffs, laces, necklaces, and jewels. With these he loved to deck Saskia, heightening her girlish charms with the play of light upon these adornments.

One of the most famous of the many portraits of Saskia at this time is the picture we have here. Because it is not signed and dated, after Rembrandt's usual custom, it is thought that it was intended as a gift for Saskia herself, and thus it has a romantic interest for us. Also it is painted with extreme care, as the work of a lover offering the choicest fruit of his art.

The artist has arranged a picturesque costume for his sitter,—a broad-brimmed hat of red velvet with a sweeping white feather, an elaborate dress with embroidered yoke and full sleeves, a rich mantle draped over one shoulder, necklace, earrings, and bracelets of pearls. Her expression is more serious here than usual, though very happy, as if she was thinking of her lover; and in her hand she carries a sprig of rosemary, which in Holland is the symbol of betrothal, holding it near her heart.

The marriage finally took place in June, 1634, in the town of Bildt. The bridal pair then returned to Amsterdam to a happy home life. Rembrandt had no greater pleasure than in the quiet family circle, and Saskia had a simple loving nature, entirely devoted to her husband's happiness. A few years later Rembrandt moved into a fine house in the Breestraat, which he furnished richly with choice paintings and works of art.

A succession of portraits shows that the painter continued to paint his wife with loving pride. He represented her as a Jewish bride, as Flora, as an Odalisque, a Judith, a Susanna, and a Bathsheba. There is one painting of the husband and wife together, Saskia perched like a child on Rembrandt's knee, as he flourishes a wine-glass in the air. In another picture (an etching) they sit together at a table about the evening lamp, the wife with her needle-work, the artist with his engraving. The love between them is the brightest spot in Rembrandt's history, clouded as it was with many disappointments and troubles. As a celebrated writer has expressed it, Saskia was "a ray of sunshine in the perpetual chiaroscuro of his life."