The collection

10th September 1999 at 01:00
WEEK 27. Rembrandt's 'Woman in Bed'. National Gallery of Scotland.

Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display.

The National Gallery of Scotland opened in 1859 and for much of its first 40 years relied on the generosity of private benefactors to buy works. In the 1880s, William McEwan (chairman of McEwan's Brewery) donated a large sum of money to buy "some important picture", preferably a Rembrandt. Inevitably, the Gallery was flooded with offers of dubious Rembrandts. Eventually, a genuine article was acquired. Woman in Bed was it.

Twisting out of her alcove bed, a woman holds aside a heavy, brocade curtain and gazes in-tently at something or someone out of view. A shadow falls across her eyes and her face shows a mix of emotions - anxiety, excitement and tenderness. Her nightshirt is pulled down over one shoulder and swaddled around her body, and her hair is piled up and held in place by a fine, gold head-dress.

For most of the painting's history, it was assumed that it was an intimate portrait of Rembrandt's mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels. A journalist writing in 1892 explained: "At a glance one can see that this is not the mere head of a model... It is clearly a woman in whom Rembrandt had a personal interest."

But whoever Rembrandt's model may have been, this could not be called a portrait in any conventional sense: details like the woman's head-dress and the expression on her face suggest that there might be more going on than at first meets the eye.

One possible clue to the subject lies in a related work by the artist under whom Rembrandt trained, Peter Lastman. Lastman's painting A Scene from the Life of Tobias focuses on the dramatic events of Tobias's wedding night. Tobias' wife, Sarah, had married on several previous occasions, but each time a demon had devoured her husband before the marriage could be consummated. Tobias, however, is protected by the Archangel Gabriel who sees off the demon. Lastman shows the angel swooping down with Sarah in bed, looking on.

If this were the subject of Rembrandt's painting, it might explain the head-dress (a wedding accessory) and give some clue to the emotions chasing across her face. But where Lastman chose a moment of high drama, Rembrandt leaves our imagination to concoct the dynamics of the scene.

The Woman in Bed seems to lean out into our space. As viewers we are drawn into the sensuous play of whites and creams and the rosy reflected light in the palm of her outstretched hand. She is rapt and unaware of our gaze, and it is hardly surprising that so many people have assumed that Rembrandt looked at her with lover's eyes.

Siobhan Dougherty is educationofficer for the National Galleries of Scotland. The National Gallery of Scotland, the Mound, EdinburghEH2 2EL. Tel: 0131 556 8921

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