At the National Gallery

Peter Campbell

The hot, humid weather these last weeks has made me more conscious of the ways people stand and move about. Exposed flesh increases in area as the temperature rises. Traditional hot-country solutions, something loose and flowing – pyjamas, jellabas, saris and so forth – are not much in evidence. In crowded streets, a tetchy weariness surfaces. Some people are more affected than others. For instance, casual observation suggests that we are in the middle of a baby boom, but it may just be that imagining what it is like to be near term or strapped in a buggy in sticky weather makes me pay more attention to pregnant women and babies.

The National Gallery’s picture of the month for July, Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream, was peculiarly refreshing. You could feel her pleasure in the coolness round her feet as she stepped forward into the water, her shift hoisted up over her thighs. She, too, may be pregnant: the painting is dated 1654 and Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s common law wife who was, quite probably, the model, gave birth to a daughter, Cornelia, in October that year.

It is just possible that the painting is a study for a biblical or mythological picture, but Rembrandt wasn’t in the habit of making studies and the rich fabrics piled on the bank of the stream, a detail which suggests a connection with such a work, could be there for no other reason than that the picture seemed to need a flash of crimson and gold, and, more important, its reflection in the water.

It’s best to believe – to desire even – that it doesn’t illustrate any story. In the Louvre Bathsheba, a picture for which commentators are more confident that Hendrickje was the model, fitting the presence the painting offers to the narrative is something of a distraction. Bathsheba sits naked with David’s letter in her hand while her feet are washed by an old servant, but the picture is not diminished if you know nothing of David’s wickedness. Over-determining the meaning of her expression tends to cancel out the sense the picture gives that you are trembling on the edge of a revelation.

No artist expressed meaning through bodies better than Rembrandt. In these paintings, we are led to share two vulnerabilities. The first is physical. As Hendrickje (let’s assume it’s her) steps forward, you guess at pebbles or mud and sympathise with her need to be careful as she feels the stream bed with a foot and tries to keep the hem of her shift dry. On the pebbly beach at Brighton you can see women making identical gestures as they tempt the waves. Bathsheba’s vulnerability is quite different and arises from Rembrandt’s inability to depersonalise figures – a wonderful, stubborn refusal to bow to the archetype. One is an intruder on privacy as one never is with a Titian or a Rubens nude. It is possible that Bathsheba’s pose is based on a piece of classical statuary that Rembrandt could have known from an engraving; this may explain why, although it is a greater picture than the Woman Bathing, one does not read the pose with the same confidence or imagine it as easily with one’s own body.

Bathsheba is tenderly and strongly painted but she does not display herself. Nor does she assert, as a Titian Venus does, confidence in the power of her own beauty. Instead, the viewer is aware that she has things on her mind. She does not seem to be aware of her body, nor is she in any sense offering it to view. The picture takes strength from this; Rembrandt, who often makes one believe that goodness has physical manifestations, in this case suggests that it goes with modesty. If she knew we were there she would cover herself, as a Titian nude wouldn’t.

Rembrandt is the only artist I can think of who represented bodily functions seriously and made etchings of people pissing and making love, not lubriciously or humorously but because he wanted to take on the whole spectrum of physical behaviour. He did not turn his eye away from sickness either. There are drawings of a woman, probably his wife, Saskia, ill in bed. His appetite for showing things as they are led him to make etchings of naked women with flabby breasts and sagging bellies. These have caused much offence: that the goddess Diana might reach easy, fat middle age is a concept uniquely his. In these transgressive images, made quite early in his career, he refuses to acknowledge borders set by taste.

Notions of what is tasteful, and of how a body should look, not only make people unhappy with their own bodies when they fail to match an ideal, but persuade them to pretend things are not as they are and follow fashions which, while they compliment some bodies, must be stretched unappealingly over others. A few weeks of hot weather show that we are still backward when it comes to recognising the virtues of physical variety and learning how to dress it well.

The wonder of Rembrandt’s observations is their precision. This is not a matter of accuracy of outline or detail. A famous late drawing of a child learning to walk, surrounded by women, is as abbreviated as a modern caricature. But the lines are freighted with an astonishing weight of meaning. They lead to instant comprehension, and as you grasp what the minimal elements stand for, things you did not know you knew bubble up to confirm what the drawing tells. The figure of the child in an earlier, even more famous, drawing of a woman holding a little boy having a tantrum is more detailed, but equally beyond praise in its vigour and accuracy. Immediacy of this kind is much harder to achieve in paint. The Woman Bathing is quite broadly painted. The handling of light is confident and the brush strokes as pleasing in themselves as a dancer’s steps. But only in his drawings does the gap between the mark and the imagination become so narrow that it is like sharing the moment of seeing. The painting is more like a translation of that moment. The physical presence of the picture, the pleasure one takes in it as an object, the solidity of the figure, the elaboration of facial expression, all these offer a different kind of experience. But the Woman Bathing, as much as any other picture of Rembrandt’s I can think of, comes close to combining the immediacy of observation of the drawings with the relaxed, painterly intimacy of the family portraits.