Sylvie Matton

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Rembrandt's Whore

Matton, Sylvie

Last Updated: Nov-16-2009
Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


During  the Dutch Golden Age, religion and medical science were combined in people's minds to the extent that illness, especially plague, was seen as a punishment from God. In the minds of  many Dutch seventeenth-century Calvinists, God was vengeful and often angry with the sinner. As Matton shows in this fictional monologue of an illiterate peasant woman, Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-1663), when plague swept through the city of Amsterdam, the afflicted person had three ways of fighting the disease: prayer, folk remedies, and the ministrations of the plague doctors. But for Hendrickje, prayer held first place.Hendrickje Stoffels modeled for several Rembrandt works. She was one of the three most important women in the life of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669).

He was first married to Saskia van Uylenburgh, who bore him 4 children. Only Titus,their son, survived. As Saskia lay dying of tuberculosis, Rembrandt hired Geertje Dircx  (c.1610-1656) as Titus's wetnurse. She became Rembrandt's lover. Hendrickje entered his household and began a relationship with the painter in the late 1640s. As Geertje was being forced out of the home, Rembrandt started paying her an annuity; later, she sued Rembrandt for breach of marriage contract. He had her removed to a prison/insane asylum. Hendrickje bore him a daughter, Cornelia (1654),the only one of his five children to survive their father.

The book begins when Hendrickje is 23 years old and Rembrandt 42. Matton's book cover shows Rembrandt's painting, Hendrickje Bathing (1655). This and several other paintings of his lover illustrates Rembrandt's passion for Henrickje who  devoted her life to the artist, to Titus, and Cornelia. We read the experiences articulated by the deeply religious Hendrickje as she moves around Rembrandt's home and studio, and the streets of Amsterdam. She thinks that  cats and dogs, not rats, carry the plague.  She notices wounded war veterans with open sores in the streets, lepers, and public whippings and executions. She is obsessed with the worms that live in the body and cause plague and death. Cherries also cause the plague.

In 1654, the City Fathers summon her, pregnant, accusing her of whoredom--hence the title of the book. She endures an admonition and is banished from the Lord's Supper. She becomes Rembrandt's common law wife. We witness the home birth of Cornelia and observe Hendrickje breastfeeding her. She watches Rembrandt and his pupils at work in the evil smelling studio where his assistants boil rabbit skins to make glue for the paints. Hendrickje composes medications she has learnt about  from a midwife in her home town of Bradevoort, but she cannot cure the plague. A comet streaks across the sky to announce an outbreak in Amsterdam. Rembrandt goes bankrupt, and Hendrickje feels Rembrandt's tears on her face as she suffers a horrific death from plague, clinically rendered by the author.

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