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RM24006 – Rembrandt’s marriage to Saskia



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1 Holland and Friesland

Rembrandt married Saskia Uylenburgh in 1634. The marriage must have been the talk of the town. The great painter Rembrandt and Saskia, daughter of a former mayor of Leeuwarden and a high-ranking senior administrator in the province of Friesland – their union must have received a lot of attention. But there were no newspapers in those days. So, what do we know about the marriage?

Saskia was baptized in the Grote Kerk (Great Church or Jacobijnechurch) in Leeuwarden on 2 August 1612. To understand society in the 17th century, however, we need some background information. Saskia was not born in Holland, but in a district state (now known as the province) named Friesland. At that time, Friesland used the Frisian calendar. The Gregorian calendar had been introduced in Holland in 1584, according to which the date of Saskia’s baptism would have been ten days later, on 12 August 1612. In art historian literature, these differences in the calendars have resulted in Saskia’s age being referred to differently on certain occasions.

Saskia’s name in the Frisian language is Saske. The Frisian language differs from the language used in Holland. The Frisian language (and its variants) has been spoken since the early Middle Ages, especially in the district state of Friesland. It is a language related to English and Dutch that also has its own sound shifts and some own letters (with circumflexes). In this decade of the present 21st century, it is estimated that around five percent of residents in the Netherlands (with an expected population of 18 million in 2024) speak Frisian. To help envisage this geographically, the journey from Amsterdam to Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, is only around 130 kilometres by car.

This year, 2024, the 10th anniversary year of the Act on the use of the Frisian Language celebration will take place. The Frisian language may be used in the courts of the three Northern provinces: Friesland (Fryslân), Groningen and Drenthe.

2            Who is Saskia?

Born in 1612, Saskia was six years younger than Rembrandt. She was a late arrival in the Uylenburgh family and was the youngest daughter of the eight children of Rombertus Rommertsz Uylenburgh (ca. 1554–1624) and Sjoukje Wieckesdr. Osinga (in Frisian: Aessinga). At the time of Saskia’s birth, her father Rombertus is 58 and her mother Sjoukje is 47.

Together with her older brothers and sisters, Saskia belongs to a prominent, prosperous, and well-educated family. Saskia’s father Rombertus was awarded a doctoral degree in jurisprudence in 1578, became mayor of Leeuwarden in 1585, was appointed deputy of the State of Friesland in 1585 and, in 1597, was councillor to the Court of Friesland. With regard to her seven siblings, Saskia’s brothers Rombertus (ca. 1594–1631) and Ulricus (1600–1653) were also lawyers. Throughout Saskia’s life with Rembrandt, most contact will be with her sisters: Jelcke (20 years older), Antje (14 years older), Hiskia (or Hiske, around 10 years older), and Titia (seven years older).

At the age of 12, Saskia became an orphan after her mother died in 1619 and her father five years later. Saskia was raised by her sister Hiskia and her husband Gerard van Loo, who would be Saskia’s guardian until 1633. Van Loo was a lawyer and secretary in the municipality (‘grietenij’) Het Bildt, in the north of Friesland. Hiskia would be godmother to Rembrandt and Saskia’s first three children, who all died young.

Saskia’s youngest sister Titia married François Coopal, who had a senior post as a supervisor signing up crew for the Dutch war fleet in Vlissingen (Zeeland). Titia died aged around 35 years old on 5 June 1641. Titus, the son of Rembrandt and Saskia and born two months later, is named after her.

3            Where did the young couple meet?

Where did Rembrandt meet Saskia, the 25-year-old daughter and orphan of the former mayor of Leeuwarden? Saskia Uylenburgh was a cousin of Hendrick Uylenburgh, who owned the studio where Rembrandt had been working since around 1631. The age difference between the art dealer Uylenburgh (1584–1661) and Saskia is 35 years.

In Dutch the word ‘cousin’ (‘neef’ for a male or ‘nicht’ for a female) has two meanings and can mean both ‘cousin’ or ‘nephew/niece’. Saskia is Hendrick’s cousin, as their respective fathers were brothers, i.e. Rombertus and Gerrit Rommertsz Uylenburgh.

Several suggestions for how Rembrandt and Saskia met have been put forward in the literature and these are referred to in my book ‘Rembrandt’s Money’.

However they met, it seems likely it was ‘love at first sight’ and that the exchange of loving looks most probably occurred in 1632. The Leeuwarden Heritage Centre is fascinated by the love affair, saying of Rembrandt:

‘He had already travelled back to Friesland with his beloved in June 1633 to ask her lawful guardian for her hand. Earlier that year, Saskia had travelled to Amsterdam on her own to visit her cousin, art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh. It was here where she had met Rembrandt. During this visit to his intended in-laws, he immortalized Saskia on the 8th of June 1633 (‘den 8 Junijus 1633’) in an off the cuff sketch. As a sign of her fertility, he portrayed her with a flower in her right hand.’

A caption under the drawing says: ‘this is my wife, portrayed when she was 21 years old the third day that we were married, the 8th of June 1633’ (‘… dit is naer mijn huijsvrou geconterfeijt do sij 21 jaer oudt was den derden dach als wij getroudt waeren, den 8 Junijus 1633’).

The same drawing has served as the basis for a memorial plaque that was erected in Leeuwarden on the front facade of Saskia’s birthplace at the house called ‘Ossekop’ (literally Ox Head) in 2007.

[Portrait of Saskia, 1633, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin]

With the text of the caption, the confusion starts. My wife? We married on the 8th of June 1633? But it appears from available documents in the Amsterdam register that a marriage ceremony was initiated in 1634 in Amsterdam. Notice of the intended marriage was given by Rembrandt on 10 June 1634. He would marry Saskia Uylenburgh from Leeuwarden, signed by Rembrandt.

So, in which year did Rembrandt get married – 1633 or in 1634? This seemingly straightforward inscription ‘… is one of those problems that turn Rembrandt studies into a battleground royale’, Gary Schwartz has noted.

Long ago, the opinion was that Rembrandt had added the inscription only at a later date and was being somewhat forgetful, since his marriage to Saskia Uylenburgh had not taken place until 1634. But there is no solid evidence concerning the date when this post-inscription was placed. My analysis concerning the date of their marriage is given below.

4            Reasons to marry in the 17th century

But let’s first take a step back. The first question to ask is why did the couple wish to become man and wife? No sources exist that can provide any indication, except for the drawing.

During the Dutch Golden Age, the choice of partners leading to a marriage was regulated by the two families involved. There would be a decisive or at least a meaningful role for the families’ mutual fortune and wealth. A partner was often sought with the same background, religion, and interests, and the choice of the marriage candidate (both male and female) to make this commitment was also taken into account. The characteristic ideal image of many women – working, getting married and having children – was quite common in the 17th century, although it was born out of necessity rather than the result of a specific wish.

What role did the families play in these choices? Rembrandt lived and worked in Amsterdam having left Leiden around some two years before. His father had died in 1630, his mother will pass away in 1640. There are just a few indications that Rembrandt still had a cordial relationship with his mother and his two remaining brothers, who were both in totally different lines of business (working as a miller and a baker).

Would Saskia have more than just general knowledge about the Leiden family of Rembrandt and, as claimed in an earlier podcast, their relatively good financial position? Or does she see Rembrandt as an ambitious, hard-working, well-earning painter from cosmopolitan Amsterdam, displaying his desire in the near future to become an independent, much sought-after artist?

And what about Rembrandt? Was he keen to receive commissions from his future Frisian family? Was he attracted by the apparent wealth of the family? Would he have been impressed by (or looking to be associated with) a young lady from a rather well-to-do milieu of regents and intellectuals? Was she a representative of an affluent family? The family of Saskia certainly enjoyed respect. However, I support the claim made in recent literature that Saskia’s assets are relatively limited because her father’s legacy had been shared with seven other brothers and sisters. It is unknown whether her family, particularly the lawyers in the family, insisted on marriage conditions being drawn up. They married in community of property and Rembrandt and Saskia were therefore entitled to half of the total of the assets.

Evidently, there may have been other reasons. Perhaps after a few years of painting portraits, delivered in a rather rigid timeframe, Rembrandt was now looking for a different approach to portraiture – more specifically, a woman who could serve as his muse? Was Saskia the woman he trusted to bear his (male) offspring? Or was he – rather, were they – just simply in love? If we present their story as a soap, our emotion will say: yes! Being rationally minded, there may have been some hidden expectations. We will never know.

5            The law and marriage in the 17th century

Traditionally, a legally valid marriage existed in the Low Countries when a man and a woman had exchanged their wedding vows. There was no requirement for a public announcement. However, at the end of the 16th century the secular authorities wanted to prevent such ‘secret’, ‘private’ marriages. It was believed that they reduced legal certainty (e.g. in case of proof of parenthood) and increased the possibility of bigamy. In practice, there would certainly be the chance of the woman being left (with or without children) on her own and as a result falling into poverty or prostitution.

The Political Ordinance of 1580 did not forbid marriage between a Catholic and a Reformed person, generally known as a ‘mixed’ marriage. At that time, the Ordinance replaced the ‘box bed’ (‘bedstee’) marriage with a church marriage or a town hall marriage. The legal-cultural value of having consensus to marriage or consummation (the pair having had sexual intercourse) encountered objections within circles of the church. The Ordinance introduced a duty to register a marriage to promote the enforcement of marriage impediments or prohibitions (for example within the family circle). It contained a declaration obligation and a mandatory public marriage announcement. Failure to comply resulted in nullity, except in cases of dispensation.

From 1572, all over the Low Countries, provincial or city statutes were issued with rules on the proclamation of marriage. In Holland, this set of rules was enacted immediately; the provinces of Groningen and Gelderland, however, only followed in the course of the 17th century.

In the 1620s, the system was thus that the notice of marriage took place after the marriage declaration and the registration of that declaration. Because marriage was no longer regarded as a matter for the church alone, registration could also be done through the local authorities. So-called marriage commissioners, usually mayors or aldermen, were responsible for registering the banns. The magistrate or pastor then examined whether the parents’ consent had been given. If this was found to be in order, the wedding announcements were allowed and the couple could soon marry.

The pledge of marriage, which was made in the presence of witnesses (‘sponsalia de praesenti’), was binding. The marriage, after all, had already been initiated with the banns.

Another deviation in Holland was that the proclamation could take place in the church or in the town hall. In the cities of Groningen and Delft, registration was done at the Orphan Chamber; in Leiden and Rotterdam at the town hall; in Amsterdam originally at the church’s consistory, later at the town hall. In Zeeland, Drenthe, and Groningen, only the ecclesiastical proclamation was recognized. The importance of the Holland regulations cannot be underestimated, as this set of rules would become the guiding rules for the VOC.

After the wedding ceremony, all consequences of the marriage came into effect immediately, including the (statutory) community of property between the husband and wife. As a result of the marriage, the woman who had previously been independent lost her legal capacity. However, she remained authorized to draft a will and was therefore authorized to ‘… instruct by testament what she pleases without needing the consent of the husband. . She could also enter into agreements independently with regard to the household, and thus legally represent her husband independently as well.

I add that in the Netherlands today, since 1 April 2001, it has been possible for two people of the same sex to marry (same-sex marriage). From 1998, it had already been possible for two men or two women to enter into a registered partnership, with very similar effects of community of property, at that time being the system as prescribed by law.

With the differences in the formalities of the legality of the marriage regime, the question, when did Rembrandt and Saskia marry, has to be answered. More specifically, under which legal regime did they marry. More specifically, that of Holland (Rembrandt being a ‘poorter’ of Amsterdam at the time), or the marriage laws of Friesland?       

[Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612–1642), circa 1633–1634, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel]

6            Holland law or Friesland law

To answer this question, we have to look more closely at Rembrandt’s drawing of Saskia and the caption below it. Where did they marry?

The most common belief in the latter part of the 20th century is that the (‘Holland’) words ‘huysvrou’ and ‘getroudt’ may have had the meaning of ‘betrothed’ and ‘engaged’. The term ‘getroudt’ (in present-day Dutch ‘getrouwd’, normally meaning ‘married’) must be read as ‘marriage vows’ (‘trouwbeloften wisselen’) or ‘engaged to be married’ (‘verloofd’), an event that took place on 5 June 1633. It has also been submitted that in accordance with Frisian marriage laws, the reference was to the ‘sponsalia de praesenti’, i.e. a formal declaration whereby two persons declare that they take each other as man and wife; the marriage bond was then complete, but still needed confirmation before the church congregation or a judge to have full legal force.

This latter view has gradually gained greater support. Bikker notes that it was in Hiskia’s and Gerrit’s home in Sint Annaparochie, that Rembrandt and Saskia ‘… officially got engaged. Rings were most likely exchanged on the occasion and Rembrandt may have gone along with the Frisian custom of placing a wedding coin in an embroidered handkerchief that was tied with a love knot. Rich suitors placed their coins in minuscule silver boxes called ‘knottekistjes’ (knot chests or weddings caskets) … If the prospective bride accepted the coin, the wedding was on. Engagements were legally binding and engaged couples were permitted to enjoy all the fruits of marriage, including sharing a bed together’.

If the bride tightened the knot, Broos notes, it was the confirmation of her eternal loyalty. That moment was sealed with intercourse (‘bijslaap’), while the family partied on. Six years later, Broos adds that the caption on the portrait can be read ‘… as a marriage contract’. After all, Rembrandt and Saskia were ‘married before God’, as it was called at that time, on that day in June. According to the Reformed Church, a marriage pledge was irrevocable, because ‘… the woman of whom the marriage is formally announced, is regarded as a wife’.

Du Mortier confirms that in the eyes of Frisian law at the time, the couple were married after exchanging weddings vows, quite rightly noting that it is unknown how Rembrandt proposed to Saskia or whether he gifted her any collateral. So, they were married under Frisian law, but the groom was a Hollander by birth, and Du Mortier adds that this fact may have influenced the proceedings: ‘… both provinces had different jurisprudence and, as a result, different customs’, Du Mortier (2018), 101. The term ‘jurisprudence’ in the quotation may mean legal system, i.e. law. I leave aside the more logical opposite: different customs will result in different legal systems.

More than one year later, a marriage ceremony was initiated in Amsterdam. From assembled documents, it can be derived that notice of the intended marriage was given in Amsterdam. A notarial document records that on 10 June 1634, Rembrandt Harmansz. van Rijn from Leiden, aged twenty-six, living at the Breestraat (‘Rembrandt Harmansz. van Rijn van Leyden, out 26 jaeren, woonende op de Breestraet’) appeared before Commissioners Outgert Pietersz. Spiegel and Luycas Jacobsz. Rotgans. The document goes on to provide that Rembrandt’s mother will approve this marriage (‘wiens moeder sal consenteren in desen huwelijck’), and that the bride will be Saskia Uylenburgh from Leeuwarden, living in Het Bildt bij Sint Annaparochie (‘Saskia Vuijlenburgh van Leeuwarden, woonende op ’t Bil tot Sint Annenkerck’).

In the margin of the document, it is noted that the consent of Rembrandt’s mother was submitted correctly, as apparent from the notarial act. The notarial deed of Rembrandt’s mother’s consent is drafted by notary Adrian Paedts in Leiden on 14 June 1634 and expresses that Rembrandt’s mother is extremely pleased with her son’s choice (‘haer sonderling aengenaem en bevallende’). We must be aware, however, that this sentence can be a frequently used standard sentence in such a notarial deed. In the deed, she gives her irrevocable consent and approval that Rembrandt registers and announces his marriage to the Commissioners of Marital Affairs in Amsterdam (‘… de heeren Commissarissen van d’echtsaken tot Amsterdam’).

The person mentioned as Saskia’s representative, Jan Cornelis, was Johannes Cornelisz. Sylvius. In the near future he would become a friend of the family of Rembrandt and Saskia. Sylvius (1564–1638) was a Reformed clergyman. He was married to Aeltje Uylenburgh (1570–1644), daughter of Pieter Rommertsz. Uylenburgh, a cloth merchant and later mayor of Leeuwarden. The latter was an uncle of Saskia Uylenburgh (her father’s brother). In ecclesiastic matters he was a stern reverent, siding with the contra-Remonstrants. Sylvius was Saskia’s authorized representative (not her guardian; that was Gerrit van Loo; in 1633 he was succeeded by Suffridus Rodehuijs) to sign the marriage notice. Together with his wife Aeltje, he witnessed the baptism of Rombertus, the first child of Rembrandt and Saskia, and in 1638 he baptized their second child, daughter Cornelia, in the Oude Kerk. After his death, Sylvius’ wife Aeltje was a witness at the baptism of Saskia and Rembrandt’s (fourth and last) child, Titus. Rembrandt etched Sylvius four times.

Within fourteen days, the pair travelled to Saskia’s residence in Friesland for the wedding. The church marriage took place on 22 June 1634 in Sint Annaparochie. The Leeuwarden Marriage Register recorded on 22 June 1634 the marriage of Rembrandt, residing in Amsterdam (‘… tot Amsterdam woonende’) and Saskia, now residing in Franeker (‘… nu tot Franeker woonachtig’), where she was the housekeeper living in the house of Maccovius, a theology professor at the University of Franeker.

Du Mortier submits that by marrying in Friesland, Rembrandt was not subjected to the formalities of a marriage in Amsterdam, such as – as Du Mortier rightly notes based on the Political Ordinance of 1580 – a promise of marriage, which must be witnessed, a public announcement, registration and the triple reading of the banns.

[A woman (probably Saskia) lying awake in bed; c. 1635-40 Pen and brown ink

© The Trustees of the British Museum]

7            Conflict of laws

At this juncture, Du Mortier enters the legal minefield of private international law (or international private law), sometimes also conflict of laws. Her submission, I think, may have been based on the assumption that a Frisian (‘tacit’) marriage (supposedly having taken place in 1633) is not recognized as a legal event in Holland and that conversely, a registration (in Amsterdam) of the intention to marry would have been recognized in Friesland. And does the marriage in 1634 in the church of Sint Annaparochie have extra-territorial effect (effects outside of the territory of Friesland), i.e. also have legal effect in Holland?

Another approach to these legal complexities does not take the marriage – either the one in 1633 or the one in 1634 – as its starting point, but the property consequences of the marriage. In my book, I have called for further legal-historic investigation. The results of such a study should show: (i) whether the law that declares the property of spouses communal after marriage, if no divorce marriage conditions have been drawn up, also applies to the Frisian marriage; (ii) whether that law is then fully applicable in the case of a mixed (Frisian-Holland) marriage; and, if so (iii) whether that law is then recognized in Holland or – on the contrary – whether in Holland the law of the domicile of the husband is decisive for the applicable matrimonial property law; and (iv) whether in that case that matrimonial property law also applies to goods located outside the territory (the property located in Friesland), irrespective of yet another question; (v) whether or not the change of domicile changes the applicable property law.

8            Rembrandt the merchant

Three weeks after the marriage ceremony, the 22-year-old painter, in his capacity of ‘merchant from Amsterdam’ (‘coopman tot Amstelredam’), is present in Rotterdam to paint a portrait of Haesje van Cleyburg, her husband and his mother.

Rembrandt gives a power of attorney to his brother-in-law Gerrit van Loo in a notarial deed, in which Gerrit’s function is noted as ‘secretary of the Bildt in Friesland’ (‘secretaris op het Bill in Vrieslant’). The deed is drawn up in Rotterdam and Rembrandt is named as ‘ … Sr. Rembrant van Rijn, merchant from Amsterdam’. The power of attorney is given by Rembrandt to Gerrit ‘… in order to exhort, receive and cash on behalf of the deponent, who is acting as husband and guardian by his marriage to Saskia Ulenburch, his wife, from all his debtors, residing in any town, village or hamlet in the aforementioned Vrieslant, all such money, interest, and rents, which the deponent is claiming from them, for whatever reason these debts may have been incurred, and to draw up a receipt for each payment received’.

Why was the power of attorney drafted in Rotterdam? Why did Rembrandt have himself described as a merchant (‘coopman’)? Had Rembrandt been in a hurry because he had received a commission to paint a portrait in Rotterdam? Would it be possible that Rembrandt used this description of his profession to escape the rules of the Rotterdam Guild of Saint Luke, most probably only allowing Rotterdam ‘poorters’ (citizens) to work as a painter within the Rotterdam territory? What exactly was the purpose of the power of attorney? And why the rush? This all remains uncertain. Perhaps the power of attorney was needed swiftly since Gerrit had to deal with the sale of real estate in Friesland (a family farm in Rijperkerk), in which Saskia had to be represented in the sales as well as in the collection of outstanding debts to Saskia in Friesland.

[Saskia with red flower, 1641, Dresden, Staatlicht Kunstsammlungen]

9            The sad sides to a glamorous marriage

The marriage of Rembrandt and Saskia Uylenburgh in 1634 was the marriage of a power couple. It had, however, its downsides too. There was a high level of child mortality in the 17th century and, sadly, the children from Rembrandt and Saskia’s marriage were a clear example.

Their first child Rombertus was baptized in Amsterdam in the Oude Kerk. However, he died on 15 February 1636, aged only two months old. Sylvius and his wife Aeltje Uylenburgh, Saskia’s cousin, were present at the baptism as witnesses representing Saskia’s sister Titia and her husband François Coopal who were absent.

On 22 July 1638, Rembrandt and Saskia’s second child Cornelia was baptized in the Oude Kerk by Johannes Sylvius. She was named after her paternal grandmother from Leiden. Again, this little baby also died very soon. The funeral of their daughter Cornelia took place in the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam on 13 or 14 August 1638.

On 29 July 1640, the baptism was held of Rembrandt and Saskia’s third child Cornelia (‘Cornelija’) in the Oude Kerk. She, too, was named after her paternal grandmother. As before, the godparents were Titia, Saskia’s sister, and her husband François Coopal. Only two weeks later, on 12 Augustus 1640 according to the Register of Burials of the Zuiderkerk, the child’s burial took place.

One month later Rembrandt’s mother dies. Her burial was held in Leiden on 14 September 1640.

Following these sad events, let me end with a word of hope about the marriage of Rembrandt and Saskia. Their son Titus was born in September 1641. His baptism was held on 22 September 1641 in the Zuiderkerk and was performed by Reverend Basius. Titus was named after his mother’s sister Titia Uylenburgh, who had passed away on 5 June 1641, a few months before his baptism. Titia’s husband, now a widower, was François Coopal, commissioner of maritime muster at Flushing (Vlissingen), who acted as a godparent and was a witness at the baptism. We will meet Titus in a subsequent podcast.


References cited are available through the sources provided on  

Jeroen Giltaij, De vrouwen van Rembrandt. Saskia, Geertje, Hendrickje, Zwolle: WBOOKS, 2023.

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