Rembrandt’s Lucretia (1666)

Rembrandt’s painting of a Roman girl, Lucretia, who committed suicide conveys ever so concisely that “every painter paints himself” because in the very act of killing herself, she "paints" herself. As so often on the underlying level, the knife here is “a brush” and the blood “paint”; her chemise thus becomes “a white canvas”. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Lucretia (1666) Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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Furthermore, as Francesca Del Rio first noted recently, her chin, mouth and nose even resemble an earlier self-portrait by Rembrandt, as does her expression. The forms of her hair, though, difficult to see, also curl in a similar way. Thus though Svetlana Alpers did not recognize the underlying metaphors explained here, her overall reading of this image is correct. She wrote of Lucretia:

“Painting is part of the performance that we view. But this case reveals a deeper involvement. For it was the painter’s hand [Rembrandt’s] that stained Lucretia’s breast with blood so that he, and we, could see her dying. Her fictional suicide was the painter’s act.”1  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Rembrandt, Lucretia; Detail of Rembrandt, Portrait or Rembrandt in Sixteenth-Century Costume (1638) 

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There is more. Lucretia catches hold of a bell-pull as though to hold herself up but the pose also resembles how models in studios hold ropes suspended from the ceiling to keep still during long, awkward poses.2 Artists would have recognized this. Thus, as an artist with a dagger-brush in a studio pose, Lucretia is both artist and model: she “paints” herself. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Lucretia

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Unnoted but of further significance on the same theme is Lucretia's gold necklace. It stands in for the gold chains that emperors awarded great masters, like the one in Titian's Self-Portrait (near left). Rembrandt, poor man, never received one. Nevertheless, he and other artists, including Edouard Manet later3, still used symbols for them to signify that the figure is "a great master".

Rembrandt’s gender identification with a young girl also suggests the androgynous mind of a poet but, just in case anybody missed the point, her chemise shows little sign of breasts. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Lucretia; Titian, Engraving after Self-Portrait

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Lastly, in a remarkable visual illusion never before noted, Lucretia’s torso emerges from a gold dress cut like the neck of Rembrandt’s cloak in a self-portrait from eight years earlier. It is as though the dress, far too wide for her slender figure, is Rembrandt’s own cloak from which, through the neck-opening, her head and torso appear. On the far left you can compare the form of her waist to Rembrandt's shoulders, inverted for easier comparison. The costume in the etched self-portrait (near left), the one that resembles Lucretia's face, uses the same type of V-neck opening.

This type of visual magic, widely practiced by great and lesser masters, is hardly ever recognized in conventional art scholarship. You need to look out for it.

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Lucretia (1666); Detail of Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1658); Detail of Rembrandt, Self-Portrait in Sixteenth-Century Costume (1638)

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1. Alpers, Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (The University of Chicago Press) 1988, pp. 80-81

2. Julius S. Held, "Rembrandt and the Classical World" in Rembrandt after Three Hundred Years (Chicago: Art Institute) 1974, p.54

3. See, for instance, Manet's Suicide. Other examples will follow.

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 09 Sep 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.