When I take art history students through the Museum of Fine Art Houston’s European galleries I usually have a lot to say about the political and sociological implications of the clunky, minor Renaissance works that make up the majority of the museum’s early collection. But I find myself short of words when I stop in front of Rembrandt’s 1633 Portrait of a Young Woman. This small, oval painting, purchased by the museum in 2004, is, in my opinion, the best painting in its collection. Descriptions of the Dutch art market, the fact that the young woman’s costume indicates that she’s a member of the upper-class or ramblings about the male gaze are all beside the point. No, what Rembrandt has done is to recreate, in paint, a real woman in all her unanswerable ambiguity and unconventional beauty.
She seems to be emerging from a dark room. Her hair is bright red but if she ever steps all the way into the light it will be even brighter. Her eyes meet ours but she seems to look beyond, or through, us. She’s plainly, profoundly human. She’s not what we would easily call beautiful, but she’s painted with the kind of care often reserved for those who are. Because of that care taken in her depiction, we look more closely. What does her voice sound like? Could we fall in love with her?
If these descriptions fail to describe what I find compelling about Rembrandt’s redhead, it only reinforces the painting’s power. The best works of art put up strong resistance to easy interpretation. They encourage the physical encounter. Let’s come at it from another angle. Let’s compare her to another, more famous, painted woman: Goya’s Naked Maja. 140 years after Rembrandt’s portrait we come upon a very different painter’s vision of a young woman.
If Goya’s Maja were ever to break her coy smile and speak, I think I know what her voice would sound like. She knows how to laugh at a bad joke; I can imagine her rolling her eyes She knows how to flatter the ego of a man. She wears the contemporary mask of hairstyle, makeup and casual indifference that we understand so well. Any man rich or lucky enough to get her in bed would never suspect if she fakes her orgasms. I think I know her so well because she’s completely Modern. I’ve seen her at Starbucks. I’ve dated her.
I feel as if I know Maja, but all I know is what Goya has allowed me to see. And he’s allowed very little. Maybe it’s all she allowed him to see. Maybe it’s all he wanted to see. Her name also points toward the concealment of her identity. Maja is a given name but it’s also the feminine of majo, a lower-class Spaniard in the 18th and 19th centuries. She’s a mistress, a prostitute. In the end, we gather a great deal about what she is but almost nothing about who she is. How ironic that she seems so familiar. Maybe we allow ourselves to confuse commodified people with real human beings and real human beings with commodified people.
Goya’s woman is inseparable from the lace couch on which she reclines. She’s an object for delectation. Rembrandt’s sitter seems constrained by the starched lace of her Dutch collar. Competent Baroque costume painting is sometimes the only thing you get out of hack portraiture of the period but I have to force myself to break eye contact with Rembrandt’s woman to enjoy the controlled doodling that forms her collar. When I investigate her pearl necklace, I’m drawn to the deep crease in her neck. I imagine it deepening with age. Her earrings catch our attention but as we look closer they lead us to a tiny fragment of an otherwise invisible lace headdress. The headdress fades seamlessly into her bright hair. All roads lead back to her face and those black eyes that strike me as vacant one moment and sharply focused the next.
The longer I stare at Goya’s Maja, the more I want her to put her clothes on and leave. How often have men and women had that thought! The more I study Rembrandt’s sitter, the more I want to see her naked. She’ll never take her collar off, but Rembrandt is one of the most realistic and honest painters of the naked female body so we can imagine how he might have painted her. The first sexual encounter I had with a work of art was a reproduction of another of Rembrandt’s women: Bathsheba. What is it about this unidealized woman that struck me as so exciting it caused me to nearly cry when I finally saw it at the Louvre more than ten years later?
The model for Bathsheba at her Bath is Rembrandt’s lover Hendrickje Stoffels. She would have been around 30 at the time. As you grow into a committed sexual relationship you gradually become aware of your companion’s entire physicality. You learn the cadence of their speech, the words they use, the movements of their eyes and the flickers at the corners of their mouth, the way they smell, how they hold their shoulders, how they walk, their sense of humor. You watch their body change with age. It’s what being in love is, I think. It denies the idea of physical imperfection. John Berger sees the love in Rembrandt’s Bathsheba focused on his depiction of her round stomach and deep navel. He writes, “There isn’t another belly in European art painted with a fraction of this devotion. It has become the centre of its own story.”
It occurs to me that this imaginary meeting in my mind between Goya, Maja, Rembrandt, Bathsheba in the Louvre and the Young Woman in a Texas museum is a kind of resistance against the sexual oppression forced on us daily by our contemporary culture. Men and women alike suffer under the propaganda of the cult of idealized beauty. Money is made off of our belief that we’re too ugly or just not quite pretty enough, too fat or too skinny, that we fuck too much or don’t fuck enough. Goya shows us one of our many cultural enemies in the form of the sexual idealization of eternal youth. Rembrandt shows us how to resist by insisting that beauty and sexual fulfillment may be found in the plain face of a young girl or the real body of a grown woman.