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
Observation and Slow Looking:
Supporting Original Observations
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.
- Scientific investigations are used to learn about the natural world. Students should understand those investigations, and the methods; models can answer certain types of questions, and conclusions built from these investigations change as new observations are made. Models of objects and events are tools for understanding the natural world and can show how systems work. Models have limitations, and based on new discoveries, are constantly being modified too more closely reflect the natural world.
- Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions (such as inputs, processes, and outputs), and energy and matter flows within systems. Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems.
- To develop a rich knowledge of science and the natural world, students must become familiar with different modes of scientific inquiry, rules of evidence, ways of formulating questions, ways of proposing explanations, and the diverse ways scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work.
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?
Use body systems and discuss circulatory system; redness in face is vessels dilating and coming to the surface in order to keep body cool (flushing).
- As a class, observe and describe this young woman (such as facial features, posture, mood, etc.). Analyze the woman’s complexion. In groups, using collaborative discussion, compile a list of responses to this question: what clues does the artist give you to show how she is reacting to external stimuli? Groups share with the class. Propose possible scientific explanations for each response, using observations as supporting evidence. For example: “her cheeks could be flushed due to the environmental temperature, clothing, or mood. “
- Explore these interactions by researching the functions of body systems. Each student chooses one of the responses and concludes which body system(s) or function(s) could be responsible for that reaction in a human organism. Propose a detailed explanation of the scientific processes involved in the reaction observed.
- A brief example of a student’s explanation might be: “The young woman portrayed by Rembrandt could have flushed cheeks due to the way the blood flows through her cheeks. As the heart beats, it pumps blood through a system of blood vessels, called the circulatory system. The vessels are elastic tubes that carry blood to every part of the body. Redness of the skin may be caused by an increased amount of saturated hemoglobin, an increase in the diameter or actual number of skin capillaries, or a combination of these two. The diameter of the cheeks’ blood vessels is wider than anywhere else, the vessels are closer to the surface, and the tissue is thinner. This may explain why flushing occurs in that limited distribution.”
Subject Matter Connection
Scientific observation is a process of analyzing, applying, and learning. Combine observation with scientific research to make inferences and draw conclusions. Middle school students bring a lot of past experience from elementary school that they use to make judgments about their observations. Most of the time, students are not aware their judgments create inferences about observations. Observations, when made without judgment, are direct enough that others make the same observations in the same situation. Inferences are important in science but only in making explanations, not observations. This lesson encourages students to take their original observations and support them with scientific knowledge. In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.
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.