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'The Betrothal', c.1640-50, by School of Rembrandt


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About the artwork

The great Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn symbolises a period of art history known as Holland's "Golden Age". His work ranges from religious and historical themes, landscapes and portraiture to a number of remarkable self-portraits produced at different stages of his life. "The Betrothal" is a painting from the school of Rembrandt and was produced in his studio, although the identity of the artist remains unknown. Training under an artist was a fairly new way to learn in early 17th century Amsterdam and Rembrandt profited from both students' tuition fees and from the sale of their work.

In "The Betrothal" the union of the couple is expressed in their holding hands, the action at the centre of the composition. The woman's finger is turned by her male companion to display the ring on her finger.

The costumes of the betrothed are not those of the period, but are in fact splendid theatrical costumes. Such paintings became very popular and were known as "tronie", a style developed by Rembrandt to combine the popularity of historical paintings with the lucrative market for portraiture.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was the outstanding artist of Holland's "Golden Age". He produced a wealth of paintings, etchings and engravings and introduced the idea of artistic reproduction to the Netherlands, following the example of Rubens and the Flemish tradition. By creating numerous prints of his work for the vigorous Dutch art market, he greatly broadened his clientele.

History painting was the ultimate ambition of the artists of Rembrandt's day, while portrait painting was considered an inferior practice. Rembrandt, together with the painter Lievens, achieved a compromise between the two by inventing the "tronie", a type of portrait in which the sitters were dressed in exotic garments. The sitters would be seen in a historicised context and elevated in status. The demand for tronies was high and this contributed to Rembrandt's early success in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt began his career painting smoothly, but later on developed what was called the 'rough manner', painting in a blotched way so that his work would be best viewed from a distance. "The Betrothal", although not of a particularly rough surface, follows some of the elements of this later stylistic development in Rembrandt's work. The girl's hands are painted in different tones, with pink used to convey the plasticity of the flesh and a thickening of paint.

The complete absence of any strong or thick drawing lines beneath his paintings, as well as the treatment of paint, has made the investigation of Rembrandt's working methods a particularly difficult task, especially in his later work.

The School of Rembrandt

Rembrandt's reputation attracted a number of students and assistants. The system of training under an artist was fairly new in Amsterdam in 1630 and offered a far less rigid apprenticeship than those regulated by the arts guilds.

For Rembrandt the offering of training was a business: he charged his students tuition fees, but also made a profit out of the sale of their work after the completion of their formal training. While Rembrandt expected his assistants to contribute to the studio's output, they very rarely assisted with the master's own work.

The artist A. Houbraken (1660-1719) confirms Rembrandt's popularity, although not without levelling some criticism:

"As something novel at the time Rembrandt's art had general approval, so that artists were forced if they wanted their art to be accepted to accustom themselves to Rembrandt's manner of painting: even though they themselves might have a far more commendable manner."

The same artist informs us that the works of Rembrandt's students resembled the master's works so closely that they caused confusion. This was not helped by the fact that Rembrandt signed his assistants' works as his own.

During the first half of the 17th century clients may have been aware of the difference between works by the master ("original") and those of his assistants ("after Rembrandt"). However, such was the popularity of the style and the high level of production it must have become much more difficult to distinguish between them as time progressed.

The painting

"The Betrothal" is dated around 1640-50. It is similar to "The Jewish Bride" by Rembrandt himself (c.1661, now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The identity of the couple in "The Jewish Bride" remains uncertain, although it has been suggested that they could be biblical figures, either Isaac and Rebecca or Jacob and Rachel.

In "The Betrothal" the couple wear elaborate theatrical dress rather than the fashion of the time. The square neckline of the man's costume and the slashed fabric of the doublet revealing an under-garment are both details of 16th rather than 17th century costumes.

The girl's dress is highly ornate. The wearing of short sleeves over long ones was a theatrical convention, and the richness of her finery is marked. The jewelled girdle at her waist is probably attached to an embroidered pouch on her right sleeve and the necklace over her shoulders meets in a central jewel fastened to the front bodice of her dress.

The couple's posture, the girl's enigmatic expression and her slightly raised left hand seeming to deter the spectator's intrusive presence all enhance the high emotion and dramatisation of the occasion. It may be that the painting was commissioned for the occasion of the couple's engagement. Clearly, their poses, dress and expressions were intended to enhance their status.

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: www.rijksmuseum.nl/ [opens new window]