Rembrandt van Rijn

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Rembrandt van Rijn

Susanna and the Elders

Suzanna in the Bath
Oil on panel, 76 x 91 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Susanna and the Elders (detail)

An examination of the series of versions by Rembrandt of the subject Susanna Surprised by the Elders reveals that the artist did not have a clear conception in mind before starting work, that it was not simply a question of translating what was in his imagination into pictorial form. They show that Rembrandt, when working on his structural conception of the picture, orientated himself increasingly in the course of his creative work to the visual effect that it would have on the observer. It was no different in the developing stages of The Staalmeesters. Rembrandt could not plan the subtle nuances when visualizing a temporal event; they had to be searched for in the process of observation. The series of different solutions for a subject makes it possible for us to follow this search.
The apocryphal text in the Bible to the Book of Daniel tells of Joakim, a respected figure who possessed an expensive house with a garden during the captivity of Israel in Babylon, where the Jews customarily met. Among these were two elders, who performed their judicial functions there, and were passionately in love with Joakim's wife, the beautiful Susanna. One day, accordingly, when she was taking her bath in the garden, the two men pounced on her together: "Look! The garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you, so consent and yield to us. If you refuse, we shall give evidence against you that there was a young man with you and that was why you sent your maids away. Susanna groaned and said: I see no way out. If I do this thing, the penalty is death; if I do not, you will have me at your mercy. Yet it is better to be at your mercy than to sin against the Lord." Susanna refuses, is slandered and sentenced to death. However, the elders are finally convicted as a result of the advice of a boy, who suggests that they be questioned separately. That boy is the young Daniel.


The first version

The first version of the Susanna subject takes as its starting point - as was the case with so many of Rembrandt's history pictures - a painting by his teacher, Lastman. The chalk drawing adopts the picture's large-scale overall structure, the grouping of figures and the important pieces of scenery: the castle in the background, the sphinx spouting water on which Susanna is sitting, the tree, and also on the far right the peacocks. With regard to the decisive structure of the incident, however, Rembrandt proceeds in a manner entirely free from that of his model. And - unlike his model - Rembrandt consistently structures the scene as a dialogue scene. The gestures of the elders as they speak make the alternatives of the blackmail clear. The one on the right is luring her with his finger, while the one on the left, standing close to Susanna, is indicating the castle with his thumb. Susanna is turning her back on the elders. The enticer, presumably the spokesman, meets her dismissive look. Susanna has therefore already understood what he is saying, and has rejected the notion. The speech is clear, but the manner in which the situation has come about, and the reason for his continuing with his speech after Susanna has made her decision, is not shown.

The second version

The second version is restricted almost entirely to the three figures involved. The elders do not speak: they act. The one on the right is approaching; the one on the left is pointing to the castle with a sweeping movement of one hand while taking hold of Susanna with the other. Susanna is cringing away from them, no longer dismissive heroine, as before, but defenceless victim. The purely actional scene now portrays as deed what was formerly content of speech. The first scene could be termed "Susanna's refusal", this one "Susanna beset by the elders".

A brush sketch

A brush sketch shows the third new conception, executed by Rembrandt in the Berlin painting. For this reason, it is the painting which will be the subject of our attention here. The dialogue scene of the first version ran the danger of indeed showing a speech but not the suspense-filled drama of the incident; the second runs the danger of going beyond the dialogue, with every consequence for the contradictory nature of the movement displayed in the picture. In comparison, the scene in the Berlin painting brings action and dialogue closer together. Only one of the elders has advanced as far as where Susanna is standing, watched by the other, who is pausing with his hand on the open garden gate. The former, standing in close proximity to Susanna, is staring at her as if awaiting an answer. His left hand, balled into a fist, is held under his chin; the upwards-pointing thumbtip still contains an allusion to the castle, albeit one that is considerably muted. He has grasped Susanna's cloth with the other hand: the alternatives of the blackmail are embodied by him alone. Rembrandt's exactitude becomes visible: in taking hold of Susanna's cloth, the elder has made his intentions clear; as yet, however, he has not touched Susanna herself. The scope of action given Susanna in the dialogue scene is returned to her, without the clarity of the action scene being lost. She is free to decide. She is standing bent forwards, one foot already in the water, the other still on the dry step down to the pool. She has lifted one hand, the fingers of which are slightly spread; with the other, she is attempting to hold together the loose cloth around her hips. Her face is shown in three-quarter profile. Her eyes are not concentrated on the same point: the right one is looking up towards the right, while the left one is directed out of the picture and meets the observer's gaze. Her mouth is slightly opened. As was seen with the figure of Volckert Jansz, in The Staalmeesters, her pose is ambiguous. Susanna is turning around, because she has been startled by the attack - or she is turning back to face the front and looking for a way of escape. Both possibilities allow her gaze fleetingly to meet that of the observer. The position of her feet is such as to enable her to continue into the water or to go back, or to remain for a moment where she is while she - third possibility - becomes conscious of her dilemma. This momentary pause, during which her eye, turned in upon herself, nevertheless falls upon the observer, marks the climax of the incident. However, this is no longer simultaneously the climax of the visible movement. Rather, her act of deciding is revealed in her lingering posture of temporary duration, and consequently signifies hardly any conflict with the static nature of the pictorial representation. It is in this light that her posture becomes an allusion to her inner activity: "Susanna, becoming aware of her dilemma, seeks a way of escape."

Naked Woman

The last version

The last version is offered by a reed-pen drawing from the year 1655. The two elders have advanced close to Susanna but from the left, and not, as previously, from the right. The scene is bordered on both sides by the suggestion of trees. The foreground is restricted through blocks indicating the edge and the steps of the pool. The castle towers over the scene and borders it to the rear, spreading across almost the entire surface of the picture. The enclosing wall of the pool is also presented head-on, like a barrier running across the whole width of the picture. Susanna's discarded clothing is lying there, indicated by means of an oblique S-shaped form with a vertical cluster of lines beneath it. Once again, one of the elders is pointing behind him with his thumb in the direction of the castle; the other, his fist under his chin and his other hand on Susanna's cloth, is standing on the steps of the pool. He would appear to be pushing Susanna from behind with his shoulder and elbow into the water, in which she is already standing up to her knees. She is bending forwards and holding her hands crossed, as if they were bound. Although it is impossible to be certain, it appears that she is holding her cloth in both hands. The Berlin painting, in depicting the one elder pausing at the garden gate, points not only to their entrance but also to the escape route kept open by the intruders against every eventuality. The later drawing reveals no such route. It is not shown how Susanna could have entered the water, nor is any space to be seen in which she could move. It could hardly be more readily apparent that she can move no farther, neither forwards nor backwards. None of the gestures points to rapid change. It is quite possible for them to continue as depicted. The gestures indicating the content of the words are also heavily reduced. The result of this is to considerably heighten the effect seen in the Berlin painting. Susanna is beset not just by one elder but by both of them at once. The rearward of the two would appear to be literally pushing the other forwards, to judge from the manner in which the latter is increasingly crowding Susanna, who has already been driven into the water. It looks as though the tender form must neutralize the pressure of the two massive figures. The variety of aspects, which led the observer to follow the actions of the figures in The Staalmeesters and the Berlin painting in the succession of the events, is revealed here as reduced, while the game of imagination appears stopped. However, this itself becomes an event: the absence of entrance and more particularly exit on a spatial level corresponds to that on the human level, since both literally and figuratively there is no way out. The recognition of a desperate situation was but one aspect among those offering potential explanations of Susanna's posture in the Berlin painting. Here, it represents the only explanation. In the Berlin work, one is made aware of the climax of the incident through a temporary break in the continuum of the sequence of other events. Here, the climax appears to be an everlasting present which has taken on duration: "Susanna in dire straits Susanna confronted with a dilemma".
However, this dramatic element, executed in such a complex and nuanced manner despite the static nature of the figures, is hardest to comprehend, on account of the possibilities suggested by the figures' positions. It is impossible to describe the richly differentiated and lifelike effect without describing the pictorial figurations of the lines themselves. This was also the case with what has been said about the drawing up to now, although it was not noted at the time. If one attempts to describe Susanna's facial expression, for instance, then one becomes aware of the fact that it can hardly be discerned. It is not possible for a real-life physiognomy to be so fashioned. Her face falls into two completely different halves, each doing something else. However, should one include this among the usual cursory elements typical of a sketch, then one renounces the possibility of naming those elements from which the dramatic impression of this drawing ensues.
Susanna's face is drawn as an oval. The tip of her nose points sharply to the left. Her left eyebrow cuts the angle of her nose horizontally, while the vertical line indicating her eye, which is turned to the left, combines with her eyebrow to form another point in a leftwards direction. Her mouth consists of a double line, also pointing to the left. She is turning back. Her eyes encounter the face of the elder, startled, horrified, strongly demurring. On the right-hand side of the oval, however, her mouth opens out, ending in a roundish shape. Quite appropriately, her right eye consists of a roundish element drawn down towards the lower right, and floats relatively freely within the white and comparatively large surface of the oval. An upwards look is thereby suggested, one with no particular direction, open, defenceless, begging for help.
The same is true if one attempts to name the elements giving rise to the realization of the pressure exerted by the elders that weighs upon Susanna. It may be seen, if one looks from right to left, that the bulky outlines of the figures' bodies, the enclosed areas of which are filled with many lines until they are solid, are inclined increasingly towards Susanna. A contrast is presented by the smaller, slimmer, linear shape without hatching that depicts Susanna, the appearance of which is consequently not heavy and which seems rather to be frail. As the lowest and last of the descending row, it is the role of the frail-looking linear shape to cushion the pronounced direction of the gaze coming from above. The result is an impression of pressure, without it being absolutely necessary to ascertain the details of the action from the figures. Thus it is that the character of the event becomes visible from Susanna's face, directly from the drawing's observable structural elements themselves, from angles, curves, and correspondingly placed points.
It is in this way that areas begin to take on dramatic effect which customarily remain unnoticed as staffage, background and trivia when one is concerned with understanding what is depicted. This enables one to notice all the more clearly what is taking place in the course of the observational act itself. In comparison with the figures, the sketched tree-shadow in the background reveals considerable hatching, the unrestrained effect of which is experienced not as something neutral but rather as representing an increasing threat. Something similar can be said about the distinct vertical lines which run from the cut-off tower in the top-right corner, via the tree trunk, down to the protruding edge of the square stone block at lower left. Continuous vertical lines generally create a calming and stabilizing effect. Here, however, the firmness of the vertical lines is weakened through their direction being broken up at a height parallel with Susanna's face by the horizontal parapet and the S-shaped twisting line indicating the bundle of clothes.
If these lines and their qualities are comprehended, then one can become conscious of the directions in which the observer's gaze can move. If his gaze follows the features of the rough hatching in the tree zone above Susanna, then the only possibility is for it to move back and forth in that same wildness. If it follows the vertical lines, then it takes a path corresponding in the up-and-down motion possible here to the borders of the field of the picture, here - for the first time - in vertical format. If it interrupts this vertical movement at Susanna's bundle of clothes and thereafter follows this twisted line, it is then led along a short stretch into an alternating to-and-fro motion. However, if the observer's gaze passes over the right-hand angles of the square stone blocks or the criss-cross lines of the lattice, any flow of movement is brought to a halt and becomes caught up in a static structure.
It appears that the drawing sets the observer's gaze in motion through a succession of movements, speeding these up or slowing them down and leading them in particular directions. As a result of this, the movement of his gaze itself receives a form, takes on a structural character. However, a movement which has a particular character should be termed dynamic form. The observer's gaze is transferred into a dynamic form, which is executed by the observer himself and shaped by the structure of that which is seen. The character of this dynamic form corresponds entirely to the depicted dramatic event. The constriction and hopelessness of the situation, the threat, the besetting and constantly increasing pressure upon Susanna, the to and fro of her dilemma - it is no longer necessary to deduce all this as a lasting present of interminable duration solely from the depicted facial expressions and gestures and the surroundings, for it is already discernible in the performance of the dynamic form of the observer's gaze, as stimulated by the purely visual formations of the drawing. Until now, the inner actions of the figures could only be seen from their postures, gestures and facial expressions; now, however, it is the observer who, through his own activity in the shape of the dynamic form of his gaze, can experience the qualities of the dramatic process in the true sense of the word.
Let me demonstrate this once again with regard to the details seen in the drawing. It was not a facial expression which could be described with relation to Susanna's countenance but rather certain graphic qualities, the observational comprehension of which results in a dynamic form of defence on the one hand and one of abandonment on the other. This defence can already be seen as a structural gesture underlying Susanna's entire body-language in the first dialogue scene. Every point of an angle that is directed at a person creates the vivid impression of the path taken by a movement of refusal. Every bend downwards creates the impression of the course of a movement of heaviness and sadness These elements are neutral of themselves; however, the process of observation makes their possible effects clearly visible.
The representation of external actions can never be completely realized in the picture, since it is necessary, if this is to happen, that the conclusion be reached via a process outside the picture. The same is true of the internal process of decision and that of searching for a way of escape in the Berlin version In this painting, Susanna's activity could only be inferred from an interpretation of the posture of her body and from her face. Using his imagination the observer must go beyond that which he sees in the picture. He cannot see her inner activity; he can only tell it from her face and posture. In the later drawing he can rely entirely upon the picture without using his imagination, since its dramatic values arise directly from the pictorial experience
The concern with turning a temporally dramatic event into a present such as could itself be experienced led Rembrandt to the limits of the possibilities offered not so much by the picture, by artistic technique, as by the representation of reality in the picture. The important step, that which goes beyond every previous version, lies in the fact that the representation here no longer depicts that which is to be understood as action. As he looks, the observer can become conscious of the picture itself as a dramatic process. Rembrandt's search for precisely that form which raises such observation to the decisive factor brings the observer himself onto the path of never-ending observational experience.

Woman lying down

Hendrickje Bathing in a River
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London

Hendrickje Bathing in a River (detail)
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London

Seated Female Nude
Etching, 177 x 160 mm
British Museum, London

Seated Naked Woman

Mujer joven en el lecho

Bathsheba with King David's Letter

The picture was completed by another artist. The moment has been selected in which everything taking place externally reaches its culmination in the son's devotion and the father's forgiveness. The entire series of late history paintings with one or two figures should be seen in this context, among them Bathsheba with King David's Letter and Aristotle Contetnplating a Bust of Homer. Bathsheba is musing over King David's letter summoning her to him, which has put her in the position of having to decide whether or not to commit adultery. Aristotle, likewise musing, has placed his hand on the bust of the blind poet. The picture of Homer Dictating to a Scribe portrays the consideration of words coming to mind - the gesture of his hand refers to a corresponding drawing - while four individual pictures of the Evangelists present variations upon this motif. The qualities achieved by the older Rembrandt in these and other works will be expounded here with respect to one painting, Isaac and Rebecca (The Jewish Bride).

Rembrandt van Rijn
Bathsheba at Her Bath
Oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Rembrandt van Rijn
The Toilet of Bathsheba




Historias de Diana


An Old Woman: The Artist's Mother
Oil on panel, 61,3 x 47,3 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The Artist in his Studio
Oil on canvas, 25,5 x 32 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

El puente de piedra

Paisaje con Castillo

Winter Landscape