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A Young Woman sleeping, ca. 1654

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This drawing of a woman taking a quick nap is very typical of Rembrandt, an artist who was always recording little scenes in his everyday life. With a few brushstrokes on paper, he gets to the essence of the image before him.

Rembrandt was fascinated by what he saw going on right around him: the natural environment, people in the street and also is own life at home. If something unusual captured his attention, he made a quick sketch of it. Here, we can just picture Rembrandt as he sees his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels resting in an unguarded moment. Drawings were often meant as exercises for a drawing: studies not intended for anyone else to see. This drawing gives us the feeling of looking over the artist’s shoulder into his personal life.

Incomparably loose draughtsmanship

It’s one of Rembrandt’s most famous drawings: A Young Woman sleeping (ca. 1654). It usually hangs in the British Museum in London. Now on display in the Rijksmuseum, we can see Rembrandt’s incomparably loose yet spot-on draughtsmanship in this sketch of his beloved Hendrickje. The subject is typical of Rembrandt’s later work: the observation of an intimate moment as seen from a few feet away. 

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‘From life’

Rembrandt had a keen eye for what he saw around him. He often recorded his observations in very accurate drawings. He saw these exercises as observing ‘from life’ as he put it himself. He drew wild animals that he saw at fairs or sketched the body of a young woman who had been sentenced to death and whose corpse dangled from a gallows on a field near the IJ as a frightful deterrent to crime. Often, however, it was the intimate and heart-warming moments that Rembrandt drew: pictures of children, people in the street, plants and animals, landscapes, and people he loved. 

Rembrandt’s common-law wife
The woman portrayed in this drawing, A Young Woman sleeping (ca. 1654) is probably Rembrandt’s beloved Hendrickje Stoffels (1626–1663). Hendrickje, twenty years younger than Rembrandt, had served as his housekeeper and later lived with him in a romantic relationship that lasted many years. She is thought to appear often in his paintings, always as an attractive young woman: a natural beauty, frequently depicted in a suggestive pose. 

Rembrandt painted the attractive young common-law wife in poses referring to erotic feelings

A modest background

Hendrickje came from a modest background. It was financial reasons that kept Rembrandt from marrying her. Marrying Hendrickje would have meant losing much of what he inherited from his first wife, Saskia Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a wealthy family and died at a young age. According to her will, their son would inherit half of the couple’s assets should Rembrandt remarry. Since more than 20,000 guilders was at stake - an amount that back then could have purchased a splendid canal-side house – a marriage to Hendrickje was out of the question.

We can also recognise Rembrandt’s beloved Hendrickje in various other works such as this provocative woman in a door opening.

When Hendrickje was pregnant with her daughter Cornelia, she received a severe reprimand from the Dutch Reformed Church. She also had to appear before the church council and was charged with fornication. Obviously, this was extremely unpleasant for her. But their liaison was not that favourable for Rembrandt, either. He would have done better to have married a woman from the upper classes with acquaintances who could have helped him acquire new commissions. Smart pupils of Rembrandt such as Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck did manage to marry these kinds of women. Rembrandt chose the woman he really loved. Hendrickje gave him a lifetime of love, her services as a housekeeper and later her services as a business agent as well. She acted as his model, bore him a daughter and lived with him from the time he was 43 until he reached the age of 57. 

Over het schilderij

  • A Young Woman sleeping (Hendrickje Stoffels?), about 1654
  • Brush and brown wash, with some white bodycolour; framing lines in pen and brown ink, 24.6 x 20.3 cm
  • The British Museum
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