Rembrandt’s name shines so brightly in the sky of art that one may wonder if the immortal author of the Night Watch is not the greatest painter the world has ever known. What is most surprising, however, is that he has always been able to remain himself, that is to say, genial, amidst the ties and misfortunes that marked his existence. The splendours and the misery are in his life like light and shadow in his pictures; one even seems to recognize in the works of the unhappy period, an impetuosity, a power, a sort of exasperated fury, which are translated on the canvas in traits of fire.
The portrait of Heindrickje Stoffels that we give here does not go back to the sumptuous period of the artist, nor does it date from the years of total misery. Rembrandt has already experienced pain by losing his beloved wife Saskia; but he found a consoler and a devoted friend in Heindrickje Stoffels, his maid. Some biographers have blamed the great artist for this connection, judged by them to be unworthy of a genius like his own. A censure of this order has no use here. Heindrickje Stoffels comes to Rembrandt at the time of his greatest troubles and serves faithfully until his death. With the energy and clairvoyance of a loving heart, she applied herself to raising her master’s fortune: she began to sell the painter’s collections, hoping to bring back the ease. This sale only produces 5,000 florins. Rembrandt can no longer be saved; he can no longer pay for his house from the Joden Breestraat 44, bought by installment; the loans accumulate, aggravating his distress and soon he is declared bankrupt. Heindrickje succumbs to the trouble at the age of thirty-six. She had given Rembrandt two children who died young.
Rembrandt deeply loved Heindrickje Stoffels; her death opened a new wound in that heart which was already bleeding through so many wounds. This fidelity of the maid received her reward; her name survives, in the shadow of that of the master, and he immortalized his beautiful face in many canvases. Several portraits of Heindrickje Stoffels are known; the museum of Berlin has one of them, but that of the Louvre is the most beautiful.
Let us listen to Theophile Gautier, who speaks of this painting: “She is a girl of about twenty-five years of age, with regular features a little strong, brown eyes, thick and red lips, an abundant and creped brown-red hair, a calm, engaging and sweet physiognomy. A fur-lined coat covers her shoulders and reveals her fat, supple collar, her bouncing chest, half-covered by a pleated blouse. We cannot imagine the incredible power of life that Rembrandt knew how to lend to this figure bathed in the fluid gold of a magical color. The shadows of the cheeks, the chiaroscuro of the floor, the blond tone of the linen, the warm, transparent bitumen of the fur and the hair whose brown seems to be penetrated by the sun, the light of the forehead and the nose, the astonishing work of the brush which, with its hammering, renders the grain of the skin and the solidity of the flesh, make this portrait one of the masterpieces of art, a painting without rival.”
Rembrandt also left many portraits of his first wife Saskia, who was the relative of Hendrick van Uylemborch, the Amsterdam art dealer. A young girl, she had posed often 45 in front of him; she served several times as a model during her marriage. In the canvas which is now in Dresden, she is represented on the knees of her husband who holds a glass in his hand: this composition was severely judged, and it is mistakenly assimilated to a scene of debauchery. The Brera Museum in Milan has a beautiful portrait of Saskia, which is a lovely blonde tone. On the last effigies of the young woman is the famous pearl necklace bought for her by Rembrandt, and whose fabulous price, added to other prodigalities, had begun the ruin of the great artist. Saskia died at thirty, after eight years of a happy union. Of the three children she had given to Rembrandt, only one lived, Titus, who was later to join forces with those of Heindrickje Stoffels to try to stop his father on the way to bankruptcy.
But one last pain was reserved for Rembrandt; this son which he loved so much, died in his turn, leaving him alone in the world. He soon followed him into the grave, the fate having exhausted all his cruelties against him. The burial of the brilliant and luxurious Rembrandt cost 13 florins, like that of a sailor in the port.
The magnificent portrait of Heindrickje Stoffels, who once belonged to the Salon Carré, is to be found today at the end of the Great Gallery, in the part assigned to the Dutch School, and where the paintings of Rembrandt, abundantly represented in the Louvre, occupy an whole panel.
Height: 0.72.-Width: 0.60.- Bust full-scale.
Translated By Nicolae Sfetcu from the book “Louvre Museum”, by Armand Dayot