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Rembrandt's women

"Don't you want to see Rembrandt's women?" I asked excitedly.

"Ugh! What about his women?"

"I thought you liked impressionism," I replied.

So we met at the Ritz and walked to the Royal Academy of Arts where the special exhibition was running until 16th December.

At the entrance, I read the chronology on the wall.

"15 July 1606
Rembrandt van Rijn born in Leiden, The Netherlands."

No wonder my Dutch friend wanted to see this, but he won't be in London before the exhibition closes. But wait, I thought Rembrandt was French.

Once we got inside, I noticed that the walls were painted brown to coincide with the mood of his paintings and sketches. They were somber, not at all what I expected.

Then it dawned on me that I had confused Rembrandt with Renoir. What an idiot! I never felt so stupid in my life! That's why my American ex-architect, pro-impressionist friend responded the way he did.

Ever since I saw the big posters in the London Underground announcing this exhibition a few months ago, I had imagined Renoir's plump, healthy, and orange-haired women in my mind. So it was a big disappointment to see sick and pregnant women lying in bed.

Rembrandt first painted his mother, then his sickly wife, and the two servants who became his mistresses (not at the same time of course). There were just a few commissioned portraits of daughters of wealthy families, all equally ugly. But Dutch women in those days weren't the kind of slender, model-like figures we see nowadays. A diet of beer and fatty food made them flabby and overweight, though it was not a stigma to be fat back then.

Rembrandt was prolific at sketching intense details of their cellulite and other unsightly folds. [But why was Renoir, on the other hand, able to portray his chubby women beautifully? Perhaps it was the fuzzy strokes of impressionism that did the trick!]

Rembrandt is probably most famous for the huge painting Night Watch. I bought a fridge magnet of it from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. But his women ? Had I not mistakened him for Renoir, I probably wouldn't have even known about his women!

2 December 2001 Sunday

Royal Academy of Arts