Reflections of the Master ; the Historian Simon Schama's Eagerly Awaited Biography, Rembrandt's Eyes, Explores the Dutch Master's Revolutionary Art. Here, He Guides Us through the Most Beautiful and Personal of the Late Works, A Woman Bathing in A Stream

Article excerpt

Look at this painting. It is one of four or five works in which Rembrandt's mistress Hendrikje Stoffels posed for him in various states of undress between 1654 and 1656. It shares certain things in common with his painting Bathsheba, which now hangs in the Louvre. It has water, and has the same richly ornate robe; it has pensive undress, as Bathsheba does; and it was done at about the same time. But A Woman Bathing is an intimate personal jotting, almost an afterthought. What is most striking about it is the painting's informality, not just in what it shows but in the way it's painted.

It caused all kinds of trouble among the chin-strokers of the day. They assumed that it must be the study for a history painting - a Venus or a Diana. But Rembrandt, while he dealt in historical and biblical subjects, was always more interested in seeing the man in the god or the woman in the goddess. I think this painting was almost certainly for private consumption only. Its middle name is intimacy.

Hendrikje Stoffels was Rembrandt's young housekeeper. Rembrandt was clearly a sexually needy person, but he was also rather lazy. Rather than go cruising bars for the right mistress, he generally found her in the next room, cleaning up, bending over. After his wife Saskia died, he took as a mistress Geertje Dircx, a bugler's daughter and the nanny of his only surviving child, Titus. They slept together, but Rembrandt crossed a terrible line when he gave Geertje some of Saskia's jewels. It was quite reasonable for her to take this to be a betrothal contract. But in time his interest in Geertje dwindled and he began to look more closely at his housekeeper than was absolutely necessary.

Geertje took him to court and there was an ugly settlement case. Rembrandt tried to rig the evidence and even conspired to have Geertje incarcerated (as mentally unstable) in a house of correction, among vagabonds and prostitutes and the smell of pease porridge. It was the most morally inexcusable thing he ever did.

During these proceedings, Hendrikje was summoned as a witness to say that Rembrandt had come to an agreement with Geertje that they could part, provided he paid her a separate maintenance - which she later contested. Already, in the early 1650s, Hendrikje was ensconced as the Other Woman. She was an army girl, the daughter of a sergeant from Bredevoort. She's a simple soul, but clearly rather beautiful in her dumpy, country-girl way. And she had been through an awful time. At the time Bathsheba was painted, she was pregnant and had been summoned to appear before the Church Council to be upbraided for her sins. Rembrandt painted her as the object of greedy desire - we see her as King David saw her, spying from the roof of his palace.

And, as so often with Rembrandt, we're shown two sides of the story at once. Bathsheba is seen holding the letter from the King that is summoning her to be, effectively, royally raped. We see her as he first saw her, and also as she's preparing for her own undoing, as an adulterer. In the picture she is having her feet washed by a servant, but the purifying ritual is going to lead to tragedy, for King David arranges for her husband to be sent to the most dangerous part of the war so that he, the King, can have her for himself. The water is ambiguous: she is being cleansed into corruption.

By contrast, in A Woman Bathing, Hendrikje is standing in the water of innocence. The background suggests an imaginary grotto, some sort of bathing-pond. The Dutch were keen swimmers, and there was a convention of painting those close to you as if they were Diana, or Andromeda or Aphrodite, in a watery setting.

The piece itself has been executed with what the Dutch call "liquid freedom". The painting is thick on the edge of the right sleeve, but extremely thin on the skin and the bust. You have the feeling he must have worked on it very quickly; it would have been seen more as an oil sketch than as a finished painting. …