Universiteit Leiden

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Saskia as Flora

Rembrandt painted this Flora, the Roman goddess of spring, in 1635. She is on display above the archway leading from the Academy Building to the lush flora of the University’s Hortus Botanicus. Rembrandt, who had his own cabinet of curiosities, almost certainly knew this botanical garden, the oldest in the Netherlands, which at the time was already open to the public.


This painting of the Roman goddess of spring and abundance is known as ‘Saskia as Flora.’ She contemplates us with a somewhat dreamy expression. In her hand is an Arcadian staff decorated with flowers and twigs. Her fanciful gown billows out and Rembrandt once again demonstrates how skilful he is at depicting delicate, folded fabrics and giving them lustre. The lavish floral wreath is decorated with various flowers that grew – and still grow – in the Hortus botanicus, such as the tulip and the white rose. The Hortus botanicus began in 1594 as a herb garden for medical students, but other plants were soon cultivated there.


The question is whether this painting is a portrait of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia as Flora or whether Saskia was simply acting as a model for this goddess. The opinions differ. Saskia Uylenburgh (1612-1642), who came from the province of Friesland, married Rembrandt in 1634. She was from a rich family, and her father Rombertus was mayor of Leeuwarden. It is interesting to note that Rombertus negotiated with William of Orange, the founder of Leiden University, for a university in Franeker, and this opened in 1585. Rombertus and Saskia’s mother Sjoukje were not long-lived; Saskia was orphaned at the age of 12.

Rembrandt, 1634, oil on canvas, 125 x 101 cm, Hermitage State Museum, St Petersburg (photo Vladimir Terebenin)


The instantly recognisable Saskia – with her round face and open expression – was Rembrandt’s greatest muse. He depicted her in a range of guises, including Flora and various biblical figures. It is thought that she and Rembrandt knew each other through her uncle, Amsterdam art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh, at whose studio Rembrandt worked for a while. The couple had four children, but Titus was the only one to survive childhood. Saskia died at the age of 29, from tuberculosis it is believed.

Rembrandt sold this Flora to his friend and patron Jan Six. It is interesting to note that after Saskia’s death Rembrandt painted his housekeeper and new love Hendrickje Stoffels… also as Flora.

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