If you were asked to guess the most popular content area in art during the last five hundred years or so, what would you guess? Would it be landscapes, or maybe still-lifes, or religious scenes, non-representational, animals, history, figures? I don't have a definitive answer for this, I just got to wondering. I have a category that I'd place high on the list, if not at the top - women. I guess technically such would fall within the scope of figures, as would, no doubt, portraits as well. But figural painting is such a broad category it seems to me to be unfair to make all the other categories compete with it. Of course, today, figural paintings, even including portraits, would probably be well down the list in terms of popularity. Today, as never before, the landscape is undoubtedly the most popular. That's a pretty safe statement, but beyond that, all other categories would be open to argument. Of course, it's no surprise that women have historically rated so high as artists' favourites in that until the last fifty years or so, painters were proportionally as high as 80 to 90 percent men; and women have always been pretty popular with men. And going beyond this, I'd venture to say that no artist in any century has ever captured the essence of the female sex in his art better than did Rembrandt van Rijn.
While he seems to have loved and respected them deeply, his depictions of them are always wrought with absolute honesty, every bump, every lump - every nuance from cellulite to garter-marks. He'd never make it in today's art world. Yet whether painting them clothed or nude, awake or asleep, as mothers or courtesans, biblical or mythical, servants or queens, Rembrandt's women all have one thing in common - an uncompromisingly sympathetic expression on the part of their artist. It would be easy to argue and hard to refute that Rembrandt understood women and explored them more deeply in his art than any artist before or since.
Yet it would appear that, except for a few commissioned portraits, he painted his women using just three models - his wife, Saskia; Geertje Dircks, his son's nursemaid; and Hendrickje Stoffels, his servant girl. All three of them he knew sexually and depicted erotically at various times. In fact, his A Woman in Bed seems to have physical elements of all three. But this was only one facet of his knowledge and appreciation for women both visually and physically. When we look beyond his paintings, at his etchings and drawings we get an even deeper perspective into both the breadth and depth of his female studies. It is a look that is so complete that, taken as a whole, we might even class them as an historical documentation of the life of seventeenth century Dutch women in general. We see them caring for children, making love, having their hair done, performing bodily functions, cooking, dressing, reading, in high fashion, and completely nude. Some are exceptionally beautiful, some merely pleasant, others quite common, and a few downright ugly. We see the feminine sex from childhood to withered old age. And before we've seen very many of them, we easily sense an empathy that couldn't be more sensitive or profound if the images had, in fact, been painted by a woman.
Rembrandt's women ranged in scope from a two-and-a-half-inch etching of his mother to a four-foot high painting of Lucretia, a Roman wife about to stab herself after having been raped. But perhaps the prize for the most startling female image in Rembrandt's entire oeuvre has to be reserved for A Woman Hanging on a Gibbet. Drawn in 1664, just five years before his death, even by today's shock-art standards, this work is disturbing. To render it, Rembrandt travelled to the killing grounds at Volewijck a ways outside of Amsterdam. There he found Else Christiaens, who had been executed for the murder of her landlady. The court had ordered she be struck several times on the head with the same axe used in her crime, and her body fastened to a pole with the axe over her head, there left to decay and be eaten by birds. Okay, maybe Rembrandt would have done all right in today's art world.