This book is the result of a doctoral dissertation written for the Katholieke Universiteit, Nijmegen. In a compact volume comprised of six chapters, Anat Gilboa sets herself a daunting task: a survey of Rembrandt’s formal and iconographic approach to the representation of women. While admiring her ambition, this reader often wished that the author had focused on a tighter theme so that some of her insights could have been explored and defended at greater length.
Following a general introduction and an overview of the topic (Chapter One), each chapter traces a pictorial theme through Rembrandt’s career. Chapter Two examines representations of the Virgin Mary, Chapter Three formal portraits of women, Chapter Four the nude and eroticism, Chapter Five depictions of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and companion, Hendrickje Stoffels, and Chapter Six goddesses and heroines. Each chapter attempts to draw conclusions about the evolution of Rembrandt’s approach to the theme. Gilboa observes that Rembrandt’s pictorial engagement with the female body and the female psyche began somewhat hesitantly but gained in confidence and depth as he matured. Narrative details increasingly gave way to intense concentration on the individual figure. His treatment of controversial subjects was often morally neutral, reflecting the artist’s concerns for naturalism and pictorial tradition more than any didactic interest. Gilboa concludes that Rembrandt’s attitude toward women blends personal independence toward social convention with a deep-seated conservatism, while his depictions maintain a shifting balance between the psychological and the symbolic, the representational and the ideal.
Several chapters contain valuable observations that deserve further investigation. Despite his Protestant context, Rembrandt represented Mary, the mother of Christ, more often than any other female figure (the focus of Chapter Two). After 1641, he painted no female portraits until 1654, and his return to the genre met with little appreciation (pp. 88-89). His female heroines are curiously static, even passive, compared with those of contemporaries such as Rubens and Honthorst; perhaps equally significant is the near-absence from his work of aggressively heroic males (p. 158). Gilboa’s analysis of these points, while clear and well-organized, is often quite brief. (A nice exception is the more extended discussion of the two late Lucretias, interpreted as reflective of Rembrandt’s ‘gender politics,’ pp. 166-170).
The format of the book reflects editorial choices that enhance its physical appeal but detract from its scholarly effectiveness. While the publishers invested in a hard cover, glossy paper and sixteen high quality color plates, only minimal footnotes and black-and-white illustrations accompany the text. Not illustrated are many works by Rembrandt, even some that are discussed at length, as well as various intriguing comparisons. Perhaps to compensate for this, the author expends precious verbiage on describing details of composition and content. While the bibliography demonstrates awareness of relevant recent publications, such as Rembrandt’s Women (exh. cat., Julia Lloyd-Williams, et al., Edinburgh/London 2003), the contributions of other authors on specific issues and objects are not always referenced in the brief notes, making it difficult to see how much of Gilboa’s sensible analysis is truly her own.
As a dissertation, this volume is a promising beginning for Gilboa and a well-rounded, although necessarily summary, discussion of the topic at hand. As an accessible survey of an important theme, it is sure to be consulted by scholars interested in issues of gender and representation as well as specialists in the art of Rembrandt and his Dutch contemporaries.
Stephanie S. Dickey
Herron School of Art, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis