Portrait of a Young Woman
Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–1669
Oil on wood
Panel: 25 11/16 × 19 3/16 in. (65.3 × 48.8 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
GRADE LEVEL6, 7, 8
Creating the Details
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the most significant artists of the Dutch Golden Age, created a repertoire of self-portraits and commissioned portraits, such as this Portrait of a Young Woman, that depict a vivid record of contemporary life in Amsterdam. His paintings reflect an acutely observant, sympathetic, and personal manner of representation that had not been previously practiced in portraiture. It was precisely this more intimate style of portraiture—with its compassion for the human subject, irrespective of the individual’s wealth and age or Rembrandt’s personal connection to the subject—that gave rise to Rembrandt’s success in Amsterdam as the most fashionable portraitist of the day.
The identity of this young woman is subject to debate by art historians. Some early scholars thought she might be Machteld van Doorn, who was married to the successful ship Captain, Maerten Pietersz. It has been more widely suggested that she is Oepjen Coppit, a young bride from a prominent Amsterdam family, based on the close examination of her facial features, costume, and jewelry in another known painting of Oepjen Coppit during the same time period. However, there is no way of knowing if this comparison is accurate, and the true identification of the subject is still unknown. Whoever she is, the young woman in this portrait is portrayed in fashionable attire with a large, double-layered lace collar, ribbon and rosette around her waist, pearls at her throat, lace cap, and elegant drop earrings. Her long oval face, red hair, wide set eyes, and arched eyebrows are enhanced by a radiant complexion. The attention to detail and richness of her attire—from the intricate lace of her collar, the sheen of the ribbon and rosette, and the pearly gleam of her necklace and earrings—further expresses the sitter’s social status.
The sparse composition of the sitter against a stark background lends an intimate feel to the portrait. Rembrandt’s ability to portray his subjects in a personal manner and capture the mood and character of each sitter is complimented by his skilled brushstroke and keen eye for precision. Applying paint in layers, he added the highlights last and painted from dark to light—a technique that imbued his subjects with an inner luminosity. His heavy use of impasto (thickly-applied paint) adds texture to the painting’s surface, giving a feeling of immediacy and spontaneity, which contradicts this careful execution. The restricted palette—dominated by shades of red, black, and white, in addition to the sharp contrasts of light and shade (chiaroscuro) —heightens the sense of intensity and drama. Rembrandt’s use of a dark background against the lit figure also provides a subtle interplay of warm and cool tones that brings his sitter to life.
With the source of the light hidden from the composition, the young woman’s luminous complexion appears to radiate from within, rather than from an external source. Her soft round face, silky hair, red lips, and faintly rosy cheeks, produce an air of innocence and vulnerability. These delicate physical characteristics are in sharp opposition to her tightly tucked waist and the harsh lines of her stiff collar. This opposition of appearance and the stark interplay between light and shadow produces a rich study of contrasts.
- Artist Rembrandt van Rijn was notably talented at rendering the precise details of a scene. What are some of the most detailed areas of the work? What do these focused areas communicate or emphasize about the woman?
- How would you describe Rembrandt’s rendering of the woman’s facial features? Are they harsh or soft? Stiff or lively? What do these aspects imply about the nature or personality of the sitter?
- What is the light in this painting like? Is it focused or dispersed? Does it seem realistically rendered or specially enhanced (for effect within the painting)? How does the lighting affect the mood or tone of this work?
- Is there a setting or background to this painting? How does the background (or lack thereof) affect the composition and your reading of it?
- Note the artist’s palette for this painting. How would you describe it? Is it varied (many colors) or restricted (few colors)? What is the effect of this?
- Rembrandt painted from dark to light, creating a luminous effect. What does this “luminosity” imply or accentuate about the sitter?
- Examine the artist’s brushstrokes. Do you think this work was created quickly, or over a long period of time? What feeling or mood does the nature of the brushstrokes create within the work?
- Rembrandt was renowned within his own time, as well as today, as a master portraitist. What aspects or qualities of this work strike you as particularly “masterful”?
- Examine the woman’s clothing. What do you imagine her social status to have been?
- Is there contrast or consistency between the qualities of the woman’s features and her costume? Does this enhance or confuse your interpretation of the sitter?
- How do you think the artist felt about the sitter? For example, do you think he felt curious, compassionate, or indifferent towards her? What led you to this conclusion? Use details from the painting to explain you answer.
- How does this work compare to other portraits throughout history? How does it compare to contemporary portraits (including photographs)? How has the relationship between portraiture and social status changed since Rembrandt’s time? How has it remained the same?
Connecting to the Classroom
- Rembrandt was famous for his detailed and lifelike portraits. What are some details you see?
- How would you describe the woman’s facial features? What do they imply about the personality of the sitter?
- Notice the details on her clothes. What type of fabric do you see? The woman’s clothing was fashionable for the time. What do you think it says about her social status? If the clothes are important, what do the clothes you are wearing today say about you?
- Does the lighting of the portrait seem realistic? Why do you think that? How does Rembrandt’s choice of lighting affect the mood of the painting?
- How does the background in the painting affect the mood of the painting? If there were a park or forest in the background, how would it affect your opinion of the woman? If the background were different, would your opinion of the artist’s skill be different? With that in mind, why do you think Rembrandt chose a black background?
- How do you think Rembrandt felt about the woman? What clues lead you to that conclusion?
- Rembrandt was known for his portraits and is still considered a master portrait painter. What qualities of his work seem “masterful” to you?
- What types of portraits do we have today? Why do you think very few people have their portraits made by a painter? Do you believe a painting portrait is more or less valuable than a video portrait? Explain your answer.
- Portrait comparison activity: give students images of famous portraits throughout time (the Rembrandt included). After each activity, ask students to defend their answers:
- Ask them to order them chronologically.
- Ask them to order them by social standing: rich to poor.
- Ask them to order them by level of skill: Master painter to least skilled painter.
- Ask them to order them by their personal preference: Favorite to least favorite.
- Rembrandt created over a thousand drawings, paintings, and sketches, and is a great example of how practicing portraits only improves an artist’s ability. It also speaks to his ability to observe people, their personalities, and details. As a sketching assignment, have students create one portrait sketch per day for a set number of days (either in class or for homework). Encourage them to try different media and styles. At the end of the activity, you can either have students develop their favorite portrait into a painting, or you can have them create a collage of all of their sketches.
- Value and lighting are very evident in this portrait. As a project, have students create a self-portrait that has a very high contrast of values. To emphasize value, the painting can be monochromatic.
Subject Matter Connection
Teaching someone to think like an artist is teaching them to observe the world around them. Rembrandt was a master at observing and capturing the minute details of a person’s clothing, social standing, and personality. The more students learn to see details, the more skilled they will be at drawing and critiquing. The skill of portraiture is one that is taught over and over in art classes. Learning about how small details can speak about the sitter in the portrait will encourage students to be more detailed in their own work. This also shows students that artists make choices (lighting, costume, background) to influence the way the person in the portrait is viewed.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.