The Suicide of Lucretia by Rembrandt
Interpretation of Mythological History Painting

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The Suicide of Lucretia by Rembrandt
The Suicide of Lucretia
By Rembrandt.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Suicide of Lucretia (1666)


Interpretation/Meaning of The Suicide of Lucretia
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: History painting
Movement: Dutch Baroque
Location: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, USA.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To evaluate paintings by
Dutch Realist portraitists
like Rembrandt, see
our educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of The Suicide of Lucretia

Among the greatest paintings of Rembrandt's final years, this sorrowful picture illustrates the poignant death of Lucretia which led to a revolt that overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Rome. It illustrates Rembrandt's masterful use of chiaroscuro - enhancing the three-dimensional quality of Lucretia's face and body - as well as the dark manner introduced by Caravaggio and the Caravaggism movement. In addition, Rembrandt goes to great lengths to express Lucretia's inner mental feelings - of virtue, family honour and duty - through her eyes and facial expression. A mythological painting of enormous power and emotion, The Suicide of Lucretia fully supports Rembrandt's reputation as the finest of all Dutch Realist artists. It is a principal highlight of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of the best art museums in America. Other famous historical/allegorical works by Rembrandt include Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654) Louvre Museum, Paris; The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) Swedish Nationalmuseum, Stockholm; and Return of the Prodigal Son (1668) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

For more about Rembrandt's art, see 17th century Dutch painting (1600-80).



Historical Story

The tragedy of Lucretia - the virtuous wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus - started when she was defiled by the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the cruel Etruscan king of Rome. According to the tradition, the son threatened to kill Lucretia and her male servant and then arrange their bodies so as to suggest a physical relationship, unless she gave herself to him. Terrified of the scandal and public disgrace that this would bring to her husband and family, she acceded to his demands. Afterwards, she confessed to her husband and father, and after getting them to pledge an oath of revenge, she stabbed herself to death. According to Book I of Livy's History of Rome, her suicide led to the revolt that established the Roman Republic.


In order to capture what he considered to be the essence of the scene, Rembrandt focuses exclusively on its psychological aspects, and eliminates any distractions. Thus, unlike most paintings of this subject in which Lucretia is depicted without clothes - which lends an unavoidable erotic undertone to the situation - Rembrandt depicts her robed to the neck in fine clothes, like the noblewoman she was. The background is kept dark with deep shadows, both to convey a sombre mood and to highlight her face in order to express the agony of the situation. To steady herself, she grasps her bedside curtain cord - symbolically drawing the shade on her life.

In the picture, she has already driven the dagger deep into herself and has pulled it out: the blood is beginning to seep through her dress. A series of lines - indicated by the point of her dagger, her decorative chain, the rope and the fall of her robe - intersect at the site of her fatal wound. Although her body remains upright she lurches sideways from the hips as she clutches the bell-rope. Her eyes are dark pools of sadness and her face has the pallor of approaching death. Her pose, set of the head, and expression, are startlingly reminiscent of David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It is not impossible that Rembrandt came across an engraving or copy of the painting, which prompted him to conceive the sombre and pitiful interpretation illustrated here.

Note: compare the doomladen monochrome palette of Lucretia with the vivid scarlet and gold colour scheme of another late work by Rembrandt - The Jewish Bride.

The motif of the hand clasping the tasselled rope, however, is a reminder of the common studio practice whereby a model posing with his or her arm raised would support it by means of a rope or sling. Rembrandt's etching A Woman with an Arrow (c.1665, drypoint, British Museum, London) is an example of this, although in this print what was plainly a rope when the artist was drawing the figure from life has been converted, enigmatically, into an arrow with the tip pointing downwards. This etching is a reminder that Rembrandt did not give up his interest in female nudes - and young female nudes at that - even in his last years.

Rembrandt van Rijn

In addition to his awesome Baroque portraits, and his reputation as one of the best portrait artists of all time, Rembrandt is considered to be among the world's greatest masters of the art of printmaking, notably etching.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Mauritshuis, The Hague
The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Jan Six (1654) The Six Collection, Amsterdam
The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (The Staalmeesters) (1662)

• For more about historical portraiture, see our main index: Homepage.

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