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A Woman bathing in a Stream, 1654

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We see an attractive woman wading through the water and carefully raising her chemise. But who is this lady? Is it Susanna, the Old Testament heroine? Or was she modelled on Rembrandt’s lover? Opinions differ.

We see an attractive woman wading through the water and carefully raising her chemise. But who is this lady? Is it Susanna, the Old Testament heroine? Or was she modelled on Rembrandt’s lover? Opinions differ.

Suggestion of eroticism
At a time when other artists started painting in a much smoother style, in which each object was clearly depicted, Rembrandt chose a totally different approach. In this period, his brushstrokes became freer and he made do with a few daubs of paint to depict clothes, faces and hands. The portrait is nothing but a suggestion in paint. The young woman is completely absorbed in her own world. After draping her robe over a stone bank behind her, she is dressed scantily in a white chemise, which she lifts slightly while wading through a shallow pool. The scene takes place in a dark setting, lending it even more excitement.
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Unobserved

The woman believes she is alone and is looking at the water below her, rather than at another figure outside the painting or directly at us, the viewers. We are given the role of voyeur, with a secret glimpse of the partially bared breasts, thighs and even genitals of the unsuspecting woman. The impropriety of our glance and the expectation that the woman will reveal more of herself as she wades deeper into the water contribute to the erotic tone.

Susanna and the elders

On an earlier painting of Susanna, the woman feels observed. The spying eyes of the elders can be seen in the bushes.

Susanna

Art historians think that the Old Testament heroine Susanna may be depicted here. She is alone, without servants. The fashionable clothes she has just taken off are laid out behind her. The story goes that two elders came to the house of Susanna’s rich husband for a business meeting, where they saw Susanna in the garden. After spying on her for a while, their lust was stirred. They decided to hide until she was alone. When the time was ripe, they threw themselves on Susanna and demanded that she submit to them. Susanna wanted no part in it and refused. The men then accused her publicly of committing adultery with a young lover.

Hendrickje?

It is thought that Rembrandt’s lover, Hendrickje Stoffels, modelled for the bathing woman. The theme has clear correlations to what was happening in Rembrandt’s own life. The panel was painted in the year that Rembrandt and Hendrickje had a daughter, Cornelia. As they were not married, the elders of the church accused Hendrickje of fornication, which was the accusation levelled at Susanna by the biblical elders. Through this portrait, Rembrandt could have been giving his view of the allegations made by the church.

  • Viewer

    In all aspects of the bathing woman, there is a suggestion of something that viewers have to fill in themselves

  • Hendrickje Stoffels

    On this portrait, too, we think we can identify Rembrandt’s lover Hendrickje Stoffels. But we cannot know for certain.

Or not Hendrickje?

But there are also doubts about whether Hendrickje was really the woman depicted. We do not know for certain what Hendrickje looked like. There are no works that state who modelled for them. It is also quite unlikely that Rembrandt had his common-law wife pose in such an improper, undressed state. Posing nude was regarded as immoral in 17th-century Amsterdam, so artists had to resort to prostitutes for their models.

Over het schilderij

  • A Woman bathing in a Stream, 1654
  • Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
  • The National Gallery, London
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