Rembrandt’s Reclining Female Nude

What the print reveals about a body at rest

Rachel Eisendrath

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Rembrandt, Reclining Female Nude, 1658. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

In A Closer Look, a writer annotates a piece of art or an archival object.

Some pictures are hard to talk about because they are not about talking. They are, instead, about the limits of talking, about what exists after all the talkers are done talking. Such pictures show not what the body looks like as seen from outside when, at moments of peak drama, it asserts its significance and draws attention to itself. Rather, the kind of picture that demands our silence shows us what it feels like to be within a body that is done for the day and is tired. To engage with Rembrandt’s Reclining Female Nude (1658), we need to become more like it: less gabby, less intellectually aggressive, quieter, stiller, more aware of our susceptibility. Here lies human creatureliness, such as we might experience when ill (Rembrandt’s former wife Saskia had been very ill) or exhausted, sick or sick of it.

The small scale of this picture, shown here at its actual size (just over 3 x 6 inches, the approximate size of a cell phone or a person’s hand), requires the viewer to lean in closely to the tiny sleeping form. It is as though the viewer is peering into some half-enclosed, semiprivate place, like a mousehole or a burrow. Rembrandt has emphasized the picture box by making the parts along the edges of the frame seem closest to the front and then constructing the space so that it hollows out into the deeper center. He often enclosed resting figures in this way: Saskia usually lies in a canopied bed, which makes a kind of box around her, and he once drew a beautiful dog who, with her heavy, noble brow resting on her paws, sleeps in an open crate.

To fully experience Rembrandt’s print of the reclining woman, you must let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

Notice how the model has curled away from the viewer. In her withdrawal into herself, she brings to mind Rembrandt’s 1650 etching of a lone shell, a form which also turns inward toward itself. (In a culture that loved sumptuous still lives, Rembrandt etched only this one still life.) Like the inward-turned shell, the model does not address the spectator, but has “turned to the wall,” which is the phrase that the Russian dissident novelist Andrei Sinyavsky, writing to his wife in the late 1960s from a Gulag labor prison, used to describe a young man in a different picture of Rembrandt’s, his c. 1668 Return of the Prodigal Son, a painting which is in the Hermitage. It is also the phrase that a friend once used with me to describe my father when, in the final stages of his illness, he was no longer looking at me when I visited him.

To fully experience Rembrandt’s print of the reclining woman, you must let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Its tonal range and subtlety are unprecedented. When you look closely, the model’s glowing, tenebrous hip, for example, becomes a night sky filled with stars. The dense, rich web of lines are now thick, now thin, now sharp edged, now almost velvety (an effect of the burr, which is the trail of tiny metal bits that form in the plate on either side of a drypoint line). Contrary to what might be expected, the shadow areas in this print contain more detail than the illuminated parts, such as the almost cartoonishly rendered bedding. When printing, Rembrandt further enhanced this darkness by selectively wiping the ink from the plate, leaving behind painterly smears that appear beneath the lines, and by experimenting with papers. The paper shown here, which is Japanese, has a slightly golden cast, endowing the underlayer of this picture with a wonderful warmth. The black-and-white picture has, in this sense, color. Probably owing to its darkness, especially in its sixth state (the print reproduced here is from the plate’s second state), a 1797 catalogue of Rembrandt prints listed the picture as “Negress Lying Down,” possibly evoking the brutal Dutch slave trade, a major reason for Holland’s wealth. That title has largely been abandoned, in part because the earlier title is likely to have been simply “A Naked Sleeping Woman.” In any case, Rembrandt was consistently interested in the untold, material histories written into women’s bodies: the effects of agrarian labor and childbearing and illness. For example, in the somewhat fleshy legs of several nudes, including Woman Bathing Her Feet at a Brook, printed the same year as this picture, Rembrandt even shows the slight indentations left by garters.

Keep looking at the print of the reclining woman, and something slightly strange may start to appear in the darkness on the far side of her. Is there not a kind of doubling? Look at the rumpled curtain above her seemingly well-traveled left foot: this curtain, with its cabbage-like shape, echoes the outline of her toes and ankle. Similarly, the faint arc in the shadow just above her left thigh looks like another thigh. The model’s left arm, which is tightly pressed against her own torso, seems for a moment continuous with the body of this phantom lover, as though they are embracing. But then, no, this other person recedes again into the shadows or becomes simply the trace left by the woman herself in a prior position, and we are looking at the rumpled, dark fabric of the curtain and bedding. Whatever the erotic dimension of this picture, this woman does not offer herself to the viewer or to anyone else. Her relationship is with herself.

This is what it is like to relinquish yourself to being merely what you once again are: a body that needs to rest.

Rachel Eisendrath is the author of two books, Poetry in a World of Things and Gallery of Clouds. She teaches at Barnard College, where she directs the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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