Authors: Kim Devereux
I noticed a woman who looked far less pretty than the others. She was at least forty, of squat, voluminous build. While the others made a great show of giggling, waving, smiling and joking with one another, she stood there, looking bored. Every now and then she opened her jaws to indulge in an extended and noisy yawn, which revealed one of her canine teeth to be missing. Even Geertje would have appeared something of a beauty next to her.
I had the power to bestow a favour â a giddying prospect for someone like me. I chose her. Lacking in attractiveness, she was more likely to be in need of money and therefore less likely to turn me down. And with her well-trodden looks she might well suit his purpose.
I began by offering her less than the ten
, like Geertje did when she haggled over a joint of lamb. When she answered, I was surprised how well spoken she was, and she had a foreign accent, possibly German. After a brief negotiation we were on our way back to Rembrandt's studio. What a strange pair we must have made, her in a bright green dress and me in my brownish house wear. Like me, she was a fast walker. I thought again about her occupation. It was not only a crime in the eyes of the law, it was a cardinal sin that would be punished by God either in this life or the next and yet she continued in this way. It was unfathomable.
I showed her into the studio, where she was greeted by Rembrandt and the pupils, Dirck, Nicolaes, Johann Ulrich and Samuel. Then I remained, for I was curious. Unfortunately, they were all looking at me â as if the commencement of their work depended on my leaving.
As I descended the stairs, I imagined the street-walker taking off her clothes, revealing what I imagined to be folds of flesh. Would the men be watching while she did this? Then she would pose either lying down, sitting or standing up on the little platform by the stove. Try as I might, I could not picture her stark naked with Rembrandt and the boys all looking at her. And yet it was happening right now, a necessary part of a painter's education.
An hour or so later Dirck shouted down the stairs for refreshments. I took up a jug of beer and mugs and paused before the door, afraid to go in. I put the tray on the floor and knocked.
Rembrandt shouted, âEnter!'
I waited, still incapable of crossing the threshold and hoped someone would come and fetch the beer. No one came. I shouted through the closed door, âWill someone fetch the beer, if you please?'
I heard laughter from inside. It enraged me. I picked up the tray and pushed the door open, bracing myself for their stares, but Rembrandt knocked with his knuckles on a nearby table and the boys returned their attention to the street walker. She was sitting on a low chair by the stove, with her legs drawn together and one hand in her lap, whether out of shyness or because the pose demanded it I could not tell, but seeing her bored expression I concluded that the preservation of her modesty was the least of her worries. She was all thighs, arms and two colossal orbs of flesh that hung like cowbells over her belly. I'd never seen a woman like her naked before â I'd never seen anyone naked. Her face was framed by a woollen mass of greyish brown hair which softened her features.
The boys were engrossed in drawing, their heads hardly moving, perhaps to maintain a consistent angle while drawing the woman. What was
doing? As I looked at him, I was mortified to discover that he was looking at me. I started to gather up the empty mugs next to the students. He got up and addressed the group. âYou may think that the world is divided into what you can see with your eyes and what is hidden from your eyes: the visible and the invisible. We are here to study the visible. Not what you can see in your head when you imagine something, no, you must study what you see right here.'
He pointed at the model. âCan you see the indentations on her lower thighs from wearing garters? Don't miss them out, or any other detail; don't call it ugly or beautiful. Study her with the same care as you would search for a painful but tiny splinter of glass in your finger. Let each line of her body draw your attention, just as the nagging pain of the splinter compels you to look for it with the utmost attentiveness. You are a lot of lazy gawkers. Rouse yourselves, for if you miss one mark, one line, one shadow, one curve â you will miss out on knowing this particular woman, right here in front of you, and what have you got then? Nothing. And worse, whoever looks at your drawing will also miss out on knowing her, but not only her â he will miss out on knowing life itself and he will feel cheated. Worst of all, he won't part with a
for your work.'
They all laughed, but he continued with great sincerity. âThis poor, battered body is your gateway to the invisible. You can make it manifest in your drawing, but you must use your eyes as if your
very life depended on you knowing her body a hundred times better than you know your own.'
They had all stopped drawing and were staring mesmerized at the woman's body. Then Rembrandt added, âOnce you know every single line on her body by heart and can draw her blind, then the invisible part of her will be revealed to you. Her true beauty. Then you will be able to draw her perfectly, using only a handful of strokes with your pencil. But until then you need to lovingly draw each and every wrinkle.'
I left the room quietly as they settled back down to work. What had he meant by
her true beauty
? If even the ugliest of the street-walkers possessed it, did Geertje possess it? Did I possess it? The
, a lovely word, so full of promise.
I went down to the kitchen and started peeling apples. The redness of the peel, the wormholes, the frayed edges where my knife had cut â all of it exquisite. Instead of placing all the pieces in the pot to be conserved for the winter, I started devouring them immediately.
After about an hour or so I heard the pupils leave. I couldn't eat any more apples, so some were at last finding their way into the bowl. Samuel came in and sat down at the table, helping himself to a few chunks. He had replaced his tabard with a white shirt with a simple collar and a black jacket which was almost threadbare at the elbows.
âAre you feeling a little more at home yet? I know it's only been a few days.'
âYes,' I said, âthank you.' Awkwardness was creeping up on me. What if he liked me? He was probably just passing the time of day.
âHow long have you been with the master?' I asked.
âFor a few years,' he replied.
âWill you stay on until your training is complete?'
âI'm more of an assistant now.'
âOh, of course,' I said, mortified by the mere possibility of offence. I sought safety in further questions. âWhat were you doing on the day that I arrived?'
He looked confused.
âYou know the table, the broken bread, like theatre,' I said.
âOh, the Supper at Emmaus.'
âYes,' I said. âWhen I walked in, you were all like statues.'
I thought he'd smile but he looked at the wall the way people did when they did not want to talk about something. Then he picked up a long strand of apple peel, leaned back in his chair and started arranging it with his hands as if he wanted to turn it into a whole apple again.
âAt times he likes us to take on parts like actors so we come to the Bible in our own way rather than copy the ideas of others.'
I nodded, relieved he was talking.
âUsually,' he added, âacting is the last thing I want to be doing. I'm hopeless, but something good for my work usually comes from it.'
âI thought you were very convincing,' I lied, without quite knowing why.
âMaybe I am getting better,' he said, pushing his chair back from the table so he could stretch out his legs. âYou know when he wanted me as Jesus I could not believe it. I mean Johann Ulrich really has the art to do it â and the hair.'
âYes,' I said, âbut I can't imagine him as Jesus. Far too vain.'
Samuel looked pleased at this, and we both fell silent as I tried to think how to ask what had passed between them as I'd entered the room. âI heard Rembrandt say that you had to choose a significant moment to depict. I was wondering what happened just
I walked in?'
âOh,' said Samuel, âwell, he told us the story of the Supper at Emmaus. You know, when the risen Christ runs into his disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they don't recognize him. It's only in the tavern that they finally see him for who he is. Rembrandt said that I had to get them to recognize me as the risen Christ. Ha, can you imagine?'
âWhy?' I said.
âHow do I know what Christ was like, let alone how to be like Christ? Besides, he's been tortured to death, woken up in a tomb, and then somehow come back to life smelling of roses.'
I could not help laughing. âAnd what about the
âYou and Rembrandt.'
âOh,' said Samuel, contemplating his apple peel as if he was
beginning to realize that it would never rise again, despite his best efforts. âDon't you want to know how I got them to recognize me as Christ?'
Was he avoiding my question on purpose? I nodded. I could hardly ask him again.
âI said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are. How slow to believe what the prophets have declared!”'
I nodded, trying to keep a straight face.
âAnd then, I did this .Â .Â .' He made the motion of breaking bread and then looked at me as if waiting for applause.
âUhm, very good,' I said, hoping I was a better actor than he.
He laughed. âIt was a captivating performance. Really.'
âLike this,' I said. I took the apple peel and draped it around his neck like a necklace, blushing at my audacity. Instead of doing the gallant thing and looking away, he stared at me until I had to bury my face in my hands.
âYou go so red,' he said.
I groaned, still with my face in my hands.
He laughed. âDon't worry, I even blushed when I was Jesus. Imagine this: Jesus with a face like he's helped himself to too much wine.'
I giggled through my fingers, but wasn't this blasphemy?
Then he said, âYou understand a whole lot more than you let on, don't you?'
âAs do you,' I said, looking at him, not caring if I was red in the face.
âAll right,' he said, âyou want to know about the moment when you walked in, the
, as you call it.'
He took the apple peel from around his neck, laid it on the table and scratched his temple. âSomething strange happened when I broke the bread. I felt this ease, as if I did not have to make an effort anymore. There was peace in my heart, perfect peace. And that's when I looked at Johann Ulrich and Dirck. They looked so different than at other times. So touchingly beautiful. When I looked into their eyes, and this is the honest truth, I felt that we were brothers. And when I looked at Rembrandt it was the same and I thought,
this is what he's been trying to teach me all this time
. And then I saw something brimming behind his eyes, something I had not seen there for a long time.' Samuel looked down. âI have not seen it since before his wife died.'
âWhat was it?' I asked.
âThat which elevates his art above all other art. It was alive in him again. And then it was gone.'
I could not grasp the significance of this thing he'd glimpsed in Rembrandt. âMaybe it will come again?' I suggested.
âNo,' he said, almost angrily, but then he looked as if he was about to cry, just as he had then. âHe's not the man he was. You wouldn't know. I didn't even know myself until that day.'
âKnow what?' I said.
âThat he had lost something. He can still outdo any other artist without even trying, capture in a few pen strokes the beauty of a
leaf or a wrinkle of flesh but .Â .Â .' Samuel ran his hands through his hair as if he wanted to pull it out, âthere have been no more miracles like
The Night Watch
After a pause he added, âA masterpiece does not merely spring from the artist's hands and brains â it is infused with God's breath.'
It was hard to imagine that a group portrait of watchmen could be infused with God's breath; besides, how was God to breathe through someone as impious as Rembrandt?
Samuel sat silent for a few moments, looking as if doomsday was upon us. Then he met my gaze and smiled. âThen you walked in, with your blue skirt and a jacket the colour of dried cowpats.' I frowned at the insult, and he added softly, âAnd eyes the colour of honey.'
Woman on a Gibbet
It was my first day off, a chance to get away. I burst out of the house like the hens when they'd been cooped up for too long. The buildings along the canal stood tall in the morning sun. The air was alive with the trundling of cartwheels on cobbles and shouts from bargemen as they hoisted their wares into open-mouthed gables. But there was another sound, which went unnoticed, like the silence between words; it was the water that incessantly licked at foundations, bridges and the bodies of drowned rats.
It struck me that the whole of Amsterdam was like Rembrandt's workshop, with all the workers dedicated to making it run smoothly. And I too was a mere cog in the giant mechanism, but not today â today I would watch. The thought was delicious.
I entered the narrow passage between the market stalls, enjoying the sight of red chillies, plump foreign fruit and ugly fish. I noticed a stall that sold vanilla pods from Madagascar. It was an expensive luxury and I had never seen more than two pods at once before. Here they were in bundles of several dozen. Pretending to be a serious buyer, I picked up a bundle as if to examine it for freshness. What
would a whole bundle of vanilla smell like? I put my nose to it and inhaled deeply. Nothing â except for some almost foul after-smell. A cook once explained to me that vanilla is best used in small quantities and without a fanfare to announce its presence. It likes to enter through some sensory back door, unfolding its beguiling aroma when one least expects it. I put down the bundle. Perhaps I'd been hoping for too much. I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and there he was! Rembrandt. Brown leather boots, worn breeches, black cloak and a parcel pinned under his arm. His hat flopping up and down as he marched through the swarming shoppers.
I was pulled along after him like an angler who's hooked a fish too big to land, almost running to keep up. I should not be following him â what if he saw me? The wealthy did not appreciate being spied on by impertinent servants. He might dismiss me on the spot. But I could not stop. What if he was going somewhere interesting? Perhaps I could watch from a distance, to see what he saw.
He walked fast, not looking left or right, possessed by such urgency that I convinced myself I was safe from being detected. But where was he going? This did not seem like a wealthy part of town; surely none of his clients resided here.
Despite our difference in size, my steps fell in with his, following a mere twenty feet or so behind. I wondered why neither he nor I were bothered by beggars. In his case it was understandable, for he had the upright bearing of a man who would not tolerate being accosted. But that was not all. People did not even seem to notice his
presence. Nor did he acknowledge the world. When we passed some snarling and fighting dogs he did not so much as glance at them.
Soon the world was lost to me too, his lone figure my only focus, as though we were together in a separate universe. I checked myself: what febrile babble.
We'd reached a vast body of water; it must the IJ. I'd heard it described as a river wide as a lake with a strong current running at depth. There was a ferry readying to cast off. He boarded it. I followed, paid my fare and sat down not far behind him. He did not notice me. His eyes were fixed on something on the other shore. I followed his gaze and saw it: the Volewijk, an infamous hill that rose up a few hundred feet from the northern shore. It would have looked like an ordinary pasture had it not been for two dozen posts bearing gibbets with bodies strapped to them. They were executed criminals. Despite having often passed by this kind of spectacle before, on the outskirts of my home town, I felt dread. What was his business there?
When we'd reached the other side, I waited until everyone had disembarked, using my shawl to hide my face. Most went to a small shoreside settlement. Rembrandt made straight for the Volewijk. Still I followed but allowed several hundred feet between us. I tried to keep my gaze low, but tracking him at a distance meant seeing the cages that held the bodies. In some nothing but the skeleton remained, the bones picked clean by the crows. Others still had flesh on them, poor wretches, their bodies slumped down, limbs protruding between the metal bars. A change in the direction of the
wind brought the smell deep into my nostrils. I breathed through the fabric of my sleeve, but it was no use â the stench was acrid and intent on penetrating deep into my lungs. Not only my lungs, I thought, it wants to infest my very soul.
I tried to banish the thought by getting closer to Rembrandt and fixing my gaze on his heels, not caring if he saw me. He was searching for something, or someone, for he wandered this way and that through the forest of gibbets, until, finally, he stopped. I lifted my head to see what he was looking at. It was the corpse of a young woman strung up on a post. The crows were not pecking at her yet and there were no signs of decay at all. She must have been executed that very morning. He sat down and took his sketchbook out of his satchel, along with pen, ink and brush. I found a spot about twenty feet behind him. He looked up at the woman for a long time, propping his elbows on his bent knees and his head on his knuckles.
Then he took the pen and started drawing. He barely looked down, keeping his eyes almost entirely on her. His hand drew as if by secret communication with the paper, knowing where to make its marks. Finally, he took his brush and ink, probably to apply some shading, and only then did he give sustained attention to the paper, working with fluid, rapid strokes. And then he paused and turned.
He looked at me as if he had known all along that I was there. I stumbled to my feet, unsure what to do. As he approached, I braced myself for his displeasure and tried to think of excuses. He came right up to me and said nothing at all. Not even a greeting. He merely regarded me without quite meeting my gaze. I bit my lip. I could feel
the touch of his eyes as they surveyed my temples, forehead and cheeks and then wandered to my mouth, only in the end coming to rest on my eyes.
But he was looking
them, taking in colour and shape. Then he blinked and refocused, looking deeper, into a place murky even to myself.
My stomach contracted at the intrusion and he withdrew his gaze. His mouth formed the word, âHendrickje.'
Before he had a chance to say more, I asked, âMaster, what brings you here?'
âI heard about her trial and the outcome .Â .Â .'
âWhat was her crime?'
âShe killed her landlady, by accident it seems to me.'
âElsje,' he pointed to the body, âthat's her name, could not pay the rent. The landlady started hitting her with a broom. Elsje must have got angry and reached for an axe and in the kerfuffle sent the landlady tumbling down the steps into the cellar. Unfortunately, the landlady died.'
âOh,' I said.
I looked again at the lone figure of the woman, the fringe of her skirts fluttering in the wind. âHow old?' I said.
âEighteen. She hailed from Jutland, came here to make a living.'
âHow did they .Â .Â . ?'
âThey strangled her by means of the garrotte and hit her over the head with the axe.'
In what order, I wanted to know. But what did it matter now? I was overcome with a complete incomprehension at the world and its dealings. What laws had conspired to create this cruel, desolate place? Bodies strung up all around me, birds pecking at their remains.
âCome here, Hendrickje,' he said softly, âtake a seat for a moment. Here on this rock.'
He sat down next to me. We were facing the IJ. I gazed at it for a while, that vast volume of water pushing onwards to the North Sea, inexhaustible.
The river was untouched by what happened on its banks. It did not care. I felt a loneliness that reminded me of the day I first arrived in Amsterdam. But it was more than that. The entire world was barren. His face was close before mine. It was filled with a kind of concern. He took the sketchbook out of his satchel and placed it on my lap. It was heavy on my knees. He opened it at the page of the drawing he'd just made.
I did not want to see. I already knew that his art could take the essence of a subject and turn it into a vision so potent that reality itself paled in comparison; still I looked. The drawing showed the woman and the gibbet. Her body was gathered to the vertical post by four or five ropes. One under her arms, the others further down her body, holding her and her skirts tight to the post, to prevent any indecent exposure. There was the axe, dangling in the wind to the side of her head. The murder weapon, like her, put on display to discourage others. I kept looking at the lines of his pen â her arms hung limp, so helpless. Her feet so unsupported by the ground, so
far beneath her. Her face at such repose, young and unmarked by life. And my heart cried out, for even in the sleep of death she looked tired. She did not look like a murderess but like someone to be pitied.
His brush had pitied her; her head drawn bare, exposed to the elements, even though I could see, when I looked up, that her head was covered with a cap. Still, there was more truth in his depiction.
There she was as helpless as a babe even now, even in death. I felt tears on my cheeks and looked up at the man who had made the drawing. His eyes were dark and serious. I thought him unmoved but then I saw something else: the same thing that had leapt at me from the drawing. Whether it was compassion for me, for Elsje, or for all men, I did not know.
I looked out again at the landscape. Amsterdam lay stretched out before us on the other side of the river. I thought of all the suffering and toil unfolding at this very moment. Was there a compassion vast enough to hold it all? I was no longer certain it was absent, all because of a drawing.
He touched my arm and said, âIt's time we went home.'
âYes,' I answered, âplease.'
He took the book gently from my lap and offered me his hand to help me up. It felt soft except for where his skin was calloused from holding the brush. We walked on in silence. I felt unsure about the propriety of walking next to him. But I allowed myself to be borne along by whatever river I had entered.
When we got to the shores of the IJ, he approached one of the smaller ferry boats. He helped me in and I sat on the middle seat. He
seated himself behind me. As we set out across the river I noticed strange patterns of ripples. In some places they were like a web of tiny hairs being dragged across the water; in others they were proper little waves. I wondered at the cause. Was it the wind or some deeper current, dragging at the surface from below? His body shielded me from the wind. Every now and then I caught the smell of oil paint, which still clung to him though he was wearing his outside garb. Mixed in with this I smelled something unique of him. I closed my eyes, the boat rocked gently, the wind tousled my hair and the strange aroma gathered me in its embrace.
I wanted to name the feeling that held me like a charm. Ah, it must be what's called happiness. I tried out the word with silent lips: âI am happy .Â .Â . ha-ppy.'
I sucked on it, a comfit of unfamiliar but captivating flavour. The boat rocked and rocked and I settled into the motion. I felt safe. How swiftly happiness had done its work.
It was afternoon by the time we got back to the house. Thankfully no one had seen us arrive together. Rembrandt made for the stairs without a word and I returned to my quarters in the kitchen. Geertje was there and I could see that she had her hands full with washing up, preparing food and keeping Titus occupied shelling peas. A task so brazenly productive would not keep him in good cheer for long. So I helped.
It was well past the stroke of ten when I finally crept into my bed. My limbs felt inert and heavy but sleep would not come, despite or perhaps because of my strange happiness. I thought over and over about what had happened; the drawing and how it moved me even now, my recklessness, his unconcern with my having followed him â as if convention meant nothing to him â and his care for Elsje's fate. That fate, I told myself, should teach me to appreciate what I had and not be so careless.
I was plagued by thirst. I got up and walked over the cold flagstones to pour diluted beer from a jug. The fizzing bubbles glistened in the moonlight. I was more awake than ever. The moon was fat in the window, forcing its glare on me. If there had been curtains to pull I might have returned to my nest, but with the moon so bright the idea held no appeal. I had left some knitting in the linen room upstairs. I'd fetch it. Perhaps a few rows would send me to sleep.
The cylinder that held the worn stairs seemed narrow and twisted. The treads and walls absorbed any light that came up from the hall below. I should have brought a candle; I felt as though I was climbing into the gullet of some beast.
Faint moonlight glowed in the small circular window that looked down into Rembrandt's room. I supposed these peep-holes allowed servants to check, without causing a disturbance, if any of the rooms needed attending.
At this time of night there would be nothing to see but no harm in taking a quick look into his room. I stood on tiptoe. My vantage point was high up, just below the ceiling of the tall double-height
bedroom. So high that there would be little risk of being noticed even by day.
Moonlight entered through a pair of floor-to-ceiling windows on the left, flooding the room. I could make out the velvet cushions, ornate mantelpiece and the pile of clothing he had discarded on the floor. I could study everything at my leisure. Everything except him, for he was in his bed. As it was a box bed, positioned against the wall with the peep-hole, I could not see in.
A sound. My heart relocated to my throat. The noise was coming from below me. The door to his room was opening. Geertje walked in with a candle, an apparition in her long nightshift. She closed the door, headed straight for the bed and disappeared into it. I don't know how long I stood and stared at nothing. If I'd arrived a minute earlier or later, I would not have seen her, would not have known. After a while my fingers were stiff from gripping the window ledge. There was nothing to do but return to my room. I felt alone again. I descended the stairs as quietly as I could and passed his bedroom door before finally reaching my own bed. My heart was still throbbing all the way to my temples. Was he looking at her now, like he'd looked at the bird? It didn't matter how moving his drawings were. He was a man with no respect for the Lord, who gobbled down his food without saying prayers. They were godless, both of them.