Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Either type in a word or use the drop down options
ITP 180: The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt

Date: 28-09-2003
Owning Institution: The Rijksmuseum
Publication: Sunday Telegraph "In The Picture"
Subject: 17th Century

To mark the Sunday between Rosh Ha’shanah and Yom Kippur this week’s picture is Rembrandt’s famous depiction of a man and woman embracing, known as “The Jewish Bride”. “What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic picture it is,” Vincent Van Gogh once remarked. “Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.”

The identity of the couple itself remains a mystery and the popular title of the painting dates from the nineteenth century. So it is not certain that the woman in red with faraway eyes is either newly betrothed or Jewish (although there is a good case for both propositions). The tender gestures of the figures have prompted much speculation. It has been suggested that Rembrandt showed a father escorting his daughter to her wedding. Others believe that the couple are man and wife, and that the picture is a marriage portrait, which seems more convincingly to explain the touching intimacy of their relationship. But it is also possible that the work illustrates a story drawn from the Bible. The principal surviving clue to the picture’s true subject suggests that there was indeed a biblical dimension to its meaning.

The painting’s composition almost exactly mirrors that of a small drawing by Rembrandt of Isaac and Rebecca Spied on by Abimelech, based on a passage in Genesis (26: 6-12) about the unmasking of Rebecca and Isaac as a married couple. The scriptures tell that Isaac, son of Abraham, was staying in the land of the Philistines, “and the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebecca; for she was fair to look on.” One day Abimelech, king of the Philistines, saw Isaac and Rebecca embracing, forced the truth from the couple and, moved by their plight, offered them his protection: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year an hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him.” In the drawing which seems to be Rembrandt’s first sketch for “The Jewish Bride” the lovers are shown embracing on a terrace with garden plants behind them, while Abimelech looks on from behind. In the finished painting these details have been left obscure, although there is a hint of roughly sketched foliage in the right foreground. Abimelech has been left out altogether, to focus attention exclusively on the monumental and beautifully painted figures of man and wife.

Rapt in thought and emotion, they have the undeniable actuality of life, forcefully conjured up by Rembrandt in the wonderfully acute and sensitive passages of paint that describe their faces and lightly touching hands. They are palpably real individuals with distinctive and plainly unidealised physiognomies, indicating that they were indeed people whom the artist knew. “Historiated portraits”, in which the sitters enacted scenes from the Bible or from mythology, were by no means rare in Dutch art of the seventeenth century. Rembrandt’s own self-portraits in fancy dress, posing for example as the classical painter Zeuxis, are playful essays in the genre. The picture reproduced here is perhaps a staged portrait of a similar kind: a piece of solemn visual theatre, commemorating the solemnisation of a couple’s vows.

All of which leads me to believe that, although “The Jewish Bride” is a belated and hypothetical title, it may also be an accurate one. Seventeenth-century Amsterdam was a city with a large colony of Jews, many of them Portuguese Sephardim who had fled to Holland to escape the persecutions of the Inquisition. Rembrandt spent part of his life living among them, on Vlooeinburg Island, at the east end of the city. His presumed philosemitism was probably exaggerated, during the middle years of the last century, by an influential group of twentieth-century German Jewish art historians, refugees from the Nazi regime like Erwin Panofsky and Jakob Rosenberg, who somewhat romantically elevated Rembrandt and all his works into a model of racial and religious tolerance to set against the barbarism of Hitler. But the fact remains that Rembrandt did have Jewish friends, even going so far as to furnish illustrations to the Sephardi Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s cabbalistic treatise and plea for rapprochement between Jew and Gentile, the Piedra Gloriosa; and he knew a number of Amsterdam burghers who were themselves actively involved in improving relations between the city’s Jews and Protestants.

So it is by no means fanciful to believe that “The Jewish Bride” might be another document of Rembrandt’s contacts with the Jewish community of Amsterdam. A wealthy Jewish couple, successful emigres perhaps from Spanish-controlled Portugal, might well have thought it apt to have themselves depicted as another Isaac and Rebecca – travellers to a foreign land, where they had sought and found protection, and been granted prosperity. Might this be why the painter shows them clasping one another in an almost defensive way? Huddled in their embrace, surrounded by dark shadows, they have the haunted air of asylum seekers, reflecting on the dangers they have left behind them. Man and wife touch each other with affecting gentleness, reverence even, embodying love but also the knowledge of how precious and fragile love can be. Rembrandt, for his part, blesses them with glowing rays of warm and golden light.

Creative Common is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.