REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

The Jewish Bride

c. 1665
Oil on canvas, 122 x 167 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt's colouristic power increases tremendously during his last period, although not all of his mature works display it; some of the single portraits remain largely monochromatic. The so-called Jewish Bride of c. 1665, which may be a commissioned portrait of a couple in the guise of a biblical pair (such as Isaac and Rebecca), belongs to his most brilliant colouristic creations. Even in reproductions it is possible to see something of the fluctuating quality of his late paint, the vibrations of the tones, and the harmonious fusion of the whole; but they can hardly suggest the warmth of the fiery scarlets, the golden yellows, the delicate blues and olives, the powerful whites, and deep blacks of his late palette. The broad, calm, relief-like arrangement of the life-size half-figures recalls a certain type of Venetian Renaissance painting. This reveals a touch of classical taste, but the use of colour in the portrait is quite unclassical.

Like The Night Watch, this is another misnamed masterpiece by Rembrandt which it would be insensitive to re-title. To be sure, the painting does not represent a Jewish bridal couple in the sense which the nineteenth century, which invented the title, would have had in mind. The picture would then have been regarded as a romantic costume-piece, its very strangeness and aura of secretiveness suggesting that it showed some exotic rite, which was outside the experience of a predominantly Christian society.

There can be no doubt, however, that an intimate relationship between the two figures was intended by the artist. The man places his hand on the woman's breast, while she moves instinctively to protect her modesty, in the classic pose of the Venus pudica which Rembrandt would have known from engravings or casts of classical statues. Yet the couple show every sign of tenderness towards each other, so this is not a common seduction scene (a frequent enough subject in Dutch painting). The theme most widely favoured by modern scholars is Isaac embracing his wife Rebecca while they were being spied on by Abimelech (Genesis, Chapter XXVI), which Rembrandt had previously represented in a drawing. To summarize the Bible narrative, Isaac, staying in the land of the Philistines, passes off Rebecca as his sister, because, if the Philistines had wanted to seduce her and had known she was Isaac's wife, they would have felt obliged to kill him first. One day, Abimelech, the Philistine King, observes the couple from a window making love in secret and guesses the truth, namely that they are man and wife. He reproves Isaac for the deception, pointing out that any man might have lain with Rebecca in all innocence, not realizing she was a married woman, and would thus have brought dishonour on himself and his people.