Portrait of a Young Woman, 1633
Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–1669
Oil on wood
25 11/16 × 19 3/16 in. (65.3 × 48.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson, the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund, Caroline Wiess Law, Fayez Sarofim, the Blanton and Wareing families in honor of Laura Lee Blanton, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund, the Fondren Foundation, Houston Endowment Inc., Mr. and Mrs. George P. Mitchell, Ethel G. Carruth, Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Duncan, Jr., Marjorie G. Horning, Mr. and Mrs. E. J. Hudson, Jr., Mrs. William S. Kilroy, Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Tate, and Nina and Michael Zilkha; with additional funding from the Linda and Ronny Finger Foundation, Ann Trammell, and Mr. and Mrs. Temple Webber in memory of Caroline Wiess Law
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Portrait of a Young Woman
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 was born in Leiden, The Netherlands in 1606. He attended Latin school as a young boy and then Leiden University at age 14. Rembrandt then began apprenticeships in studios in Leiden and Amsterdam. In 1631, he permanently moved to Amsterdam, first residing with the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who not only brought him many portrait commissions but also introduced him to his niece, Saskia van Uylenburgh, who Rembrandt married in 1634. In Amsterdam and abroad, Rembrandt established himself as one of the leading painters, draftsman, and etcher of portraits, landscapes, and historical paintings.
In 1642, at the height of his career, Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia died, leaving him as sole parent to their young son, Titus. The tumultuous years that followed included bankruptcy and personal troubles, forcing him to sell his home and possessions. Yet up until his death he continued to receive important commissions and produced work that contributed to his vast influence on generations of artists. His prodigious life’s work includes several hundred paintings, of which nearly 60 are self-portraits, etchings and drawings.
Art historians have debated the identity of the young woman in this painting. 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 however, that she is Oepjen Coppit, a young bride from a prominent Amsterdam family. This revelation is based upon the close comparison to another known painting of Oepjen Coppit during the same time period and particularly upon close examination of her facial features, costume, and jewelry. There is no way of knowing if this comparison is in fact true and the real identification of the subject is still up for debate. The young woman in the 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 luminous complexion. The innocence of this young new bride is highlighted by her warm pink cheeks, soft red lips, and a vulnerable gaze.
It was Rembrandt’s new, more intimate style of portrait painting that gave rise to his success in Amsterdam as the most fashionable portraitist of the day. His 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. His proficiency in paint application and layering technique is evident in his work. Rembrandt’s use of a dark background against the lit figure provides a subtle interplay of warm and cool tints that bring the sitter to life.
After decades of war with Spain, the Dutch Republic was finally thriving and redefining its national identity as a prosperous and entrepreneurial country. The Dutch fleet dominated trade and a growing mercantile class attracted skilled workers to the shipbuilding and agriculture industries. Previously exclusive to royalty or the wealthy, art collecting began to include another social class. A successful merchant or banker could now afford to commission a painting of himself or his family. Rembrandt landed one of his first commissions from the new rising class of the Surgeon’s Guild for whom he painted the group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolals Tulp (1632). It was this work that solidified young Rembrandt’s reputation as a master painter.
- 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.
• Look at the MFAH painting Woman at Her Dressing Table (c. 1645) painted by one of Rembrandt’s students and contemporaries, Ferdinand Bol (1616–1680). What are the similarities to Portrait of a Young Woman? Can you tell that Bol was Rembrandt’s student? How?
• Rembrandt made nearly 60 self-portraits over his lifetime. Think about the meaning of a self-portrait. In this portrait, the young woman chose to be depicted wearing certain garments and jewelry, and her facial expression seems formal and serious. If you created a self-portrait or had someone else paint your portrait, how would you want to look?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
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.