After Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, died in 1642 at age 29, the artist gave up lucrative painting commissions for nearly a decade. The anecdote furthers the sense of romance
evident in his canvases. Throughout their eight years of marriage, Rembrandt drew and painted Van Uylenburgh with such variation that a complex personality of the artist’s wife emerges. Portrait of Saskia with a Flower
(1641), for example, depicts Van Uylenburgh with her hand on her heart, gazing out of the painting and offering a flower to an unseen figure—ostensibly, to her artist husband. Rembrandt places the viewer in the middle of his own tender love story, between painter and muse.
Saskia proved to be a skilled actress herself, adopting new personas for the benefit of her husband’s work. In Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes (1634), she’s a proper lady dressed in elaborate robes, looking skeptically at the maiden in front of her, who offers a shell-shaped cup. Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Brothel (ca. 1635), in contrast, depicts Saskia as a sex worker, shooting the viewer a knowing look. She sits on the lap of the titular character, played by her husband, as he offers a wide, satisfied smile. Despite the composition’s hint of ribald, genuine affection between the couple seeps through: Rembrandt rests his hand supportively on his wife’s back.