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Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Signed and dated in the lower left, this is one of two versions by Rembrandt of this tragedy (the other, dated 1664, is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.).
According to the account given by the Roman historian Livy, the story begins during the Roman siege of Ardea in the 6th century B.C., when the principal men of the army met in the tent of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the tyrant Lucius Tarquinius the Proud, and began talking about the virtues of their wives. They all then set out for Rome, intending to surprise their wives and, thus, test what they had been saying. Only Collatinus found his wife, Lucretia, spinning quietly at home with her maids. The other ladies were found dancing and reveling. The men then gave Collatinus the victory and returned to camp. A few days later, Sextus Tarquinius, inflamed with desire by Lucretia's virtue, left and returned to Rome, where he was welcomed by Lucretia by reason of his friendship with her husband. When she was alone, Sextus went to her bedchamber and threatened to kill her if she did not yield to him. She resisted, but he threatened to kill both her and a male slave and place their naked bodies together so it would appear that she had been caught in adultery. Fearing this form of disgrace, she yielded to him and afterwards informed her husband and father of the misdeed. To restore her husband's honor, as well as her own, she had her husband and father pledge an oath of revenge, and then she committed suicide. Outraged by this injustice, Lucretia's relatives and friends, headed by Lucius Junius Brutus, led a revolt against the Tarquins, which resulted in their overthrow and exile and the inauguration of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.).

The story of Lucretia may be mythological rather than historical, because there is no evidence that Lucretia actually existed. Nonetheless, the story represents a power struggle that occurred in ancient Rome which resulted in the toppling of the monarchy and the establishment of the first republic. Additionally, the story taught the value of virtue and honor and the significance of the family. In ancient Rome, Lucretia became a symbol of patriotism, chastity, love, and faithfulness. These qualities all had tremendous appeal to the people of 17th-century Holland.

It is possible, in fact, that the story of Lucretia may have also been used to associate the foundation of the modern Dutch republic with the foundations of the ancient Roman republic1 In addition, it is likely that the story had personal significance for Rembrandt as well. Because Rembrandt painted several important family pictures (Juno, The Jewish Bride, and Family Portrait) during the mid-60s, as well as two versions of Lucretia, and because Hendrickje, his common-law wife, though deceased already, served as the model for the first version of Lucretia and one of the family portraits, these pictures have been related to the public ostracism he and Hendrickje Stoffels suffered. Taken together with the other family portraits he was painting at this time, Lucretia's story may have underlined for Rembrandt the tragedy of a family overtaken by traumatic circumstances. The Lucretia paintings may then be both a spiritual self-portrait of Rembrandt during this period as well as a eulogy to Hendrickje2

In this version of the painting, Rembrandt has pared away all but the psychological aspects of the event, stressing the introspective nature of the moment. All the tragedy and drama are concentrated upon the expression on Lucretia's face.

Strong highlights and deep shadows (chiaroscuro derived from the Caravaggisti)3 are used to enhance the mood. The important details—face, hands, wound, and dagger—are highlighted, and all else is left in shadow.

Colors are rich but subdued, predominantly golden and monochromatic in tone. Dots of white and yellow are used to enliven areas like her eyes; her white chemise serves to draw attention up to her face and set off the knife wound.
  • Texture is varied by a sketchy overall brushstroke which is and shows the use of scoring (in the brownish area around her shawl) impasto (on her right sleeve, for example), the palette knife (on her left sleeve, for instance), and scumbling (seen in the red under her eyes). Note the especially sensitive paint application in the face.
  • Composition is frontal, with a classical triangular balance. Lucretia fills the frame and is shown close to the picture plane, yet the aura of privacy is maintained by the averted gaze and slight inclination of the head.
  • Although the details of the space are not specific enough to indicate a bedroom, Lucretia is probably sitting on the edge of a curtained bed. The pull in her hand probably indicates that she was pulling the curtains around her as she was dying. It was also a convention of theater productions in the 17th century to draw curtains to indicate the death of the character.

Baroque Characteristics

  • Choice of most dramatic moment (in this case, the psychological climax rather than a physical climax.
  • Use of chiaroscuro to highlight emotion and drama.
  • Use of diagonal lines to heighten the drama.
  • Interest, however secondary, in delineation of various textures of cloth, gold chain, and pearl earring.
  • The placement of her hand on the cord brings her into our space and involves us.
  • The display of emotion (grief).
  • Born in Leiden, son of a relatively prosperous miller.
  • Originally a theology student, he soon turned to painting. His earliest known work dates 1625 and reveals the artist's penchant for Old Testament subjects.
  • 1632, left Leiden for Amsterdam and became Holland's most sought-after portraitist. His style during this period was boldly painted, warmly colored, and emotionally dramatic. Married Saskia and began leading the life of a well-to-do citizen, amateur art collector, and artist-teacher.
  • 1642, the year of Saskia's death, also began a period of financial difficulties; Rembrandt fell from popularity, yet these years represent his most productive ones in terms of drawing and printmaking (notably etchings). His style during this period became more somber, dramatically lit with strong lights and darks, and executed with more brown tones.
  • End of the 1640s, Hendrickje Stoffels came to live with Rembrandt as his housekeeper.
  • 1654, Hendrickje Stoffels was publicly disgraced by the Dutch Reformed Church for her common-law marriage to Rembrandt and agreed to have their child baptized.
  • 1656, Rembrandt declared bankruptcy but continued to produce individual, group, and self-portraits, as well as religious, allegorical, and mythological works.
  • 1663, death of Hendrickje Stoffels.
  • 1669, Rembrandt died in poverty.
Use on the following tours:
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
  • European Art (14th-18th centuries)
  • Heroes and Heroines
  • Women in Art
  • People and Places
  • Visual Elements
  • Compare Lucretia to other more typical Dutch 17th-century portraits.
  • Compare the lighting of this painting to that of the Honthorst for an example of Caravaggesque influence on Rembrandt through the school of Utrecht.
  • Compare Lucretia to the Castiglione painting to compare the Dutch Baroque style to the Italian Baroque style.
  • Compare this psychological portrayal with other portraits, such as:
    • the van der Helst
    • Portrait of a Cardinal in His Study
    • Lehmann's Portrait of a Woman
  • On a Visual Choices tour, compare Rembrandt's technique for depicting light to Van Dyck's or Daddi's, or compare his creation of real and illusionary texture to that of Van Gogh.
  1. Rembrandt's Lucretia. Brochure produced by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991, p. 9.
  2. Ibid, pgs. 10-11.
  3. The Caravaggisti were Dutch 17th-century painters whose work was influenced by Roman art, especially that of Caravaggio. These artists were especially drawn to Caravaggio's strong contrasts between light and dark, created by an invisible light source. The color scheme and the vitality and nearness of his figures also influenced these artists.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Rembrandt van Rijn, <i>Lucretia,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009