Corporeal Expressions of Internal Narratives
Mughal Women and Rembrandt’s Flora
by Julia Mun
Flora is the Roman goddess of spring and prostitutes, conveying dual narratives of divine fertility and erotic sexuality. She has been an appealing subject for Western viewers and prominent artists as an image of ideal female beauty. Rembrandt van Rijn depicted Flora several times: in 1634, 1635, and 1654, possibly using his wife Saskia and, later, his partner Hendrickje as models. The 1634 and 1635 paintings both feature a smiling goddess in rich Arcadian costume, eager to engage with the audience. In contrast, the 1654 painting depicts the goddess in profile, extending her hand to the side. This paper examines Rembrandt’s potential sources for this last Flora (1654), where gesture and pose enact a female body language of distance. One source may derive from copies Rembrandt made in the mid to late 1650s of Mughal miniatures, including three drawings of women. Rembrandt removed all external ornamentation and depicted the Mughal court women in profile, extending their hands to the side. Furthermore, Rembrandt may have studied Titian’s Flora (1517), which depicts the goddess in sensual costume and, most importantly, with an averted gaze. The body language from the Mughal women images and the sixteenth-century Venetian painting portrays female agency by separating the subject and the viewer. By focusing on the expressive qualities of the faces and hands, Rembrandt redefined a traditional subject, providing a complex, internal dimension to the female subject and granting the image the power to deny viewer interaction.
KEY WORDS: Art History, Rembrandt van Rijn, Mughal Art, Flora, Multicultural Exchanges, Agency
With the establishment of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Trading Company) in 1602, Amsterdam became a prolific international trade center. Because of the city’s global reach, artists like Rembrandt van Rijn had access to a wide range of objects, costumes, and imagery, including Mughal miniatures. Rembrandt copied more than twenty Mughal miniatures in the mid to late 1650s, examining and often replicating the elaborate clothing and the strict profile composition of the figures. Within this collection of copies are drawings he made based on portraits of Mughal women; these, unusually focusing on the expressive qualities of their faces and hands. Rembrandt’s copies of Mughal women images were not only experiments in portraiture expression, but also recontextualizations of Mughal figures for consumption by a Western audience. This project will examine how the incorporation of Mughal body language in Rembrandt’s Flora (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ca. 1654, fig. 1) provides a new dimension to the depiction of the ancient goddess, granting the subject the agency to deny viewer interaction.
There are three known copies of women among Rembrandt’s Mughal drawings. Although Mughal paintings from imperial ateliers are typically composed with geometric, floral borders and flattened landscapes, Rembrandt removed all external ornamentation and depicted the women from the head to the midsection, similar to Rembrandt’s society portraits for wealthy patrons. These copies were also drawn on expensive Asian paper, alluding to the high value of the images. Mughal portraiture from imperial ateliers emphasized the importance of capturing the likeness of the individual. Formal portraits were composed with individual attributes that identified important figures and depicted the full figure in profile, which signified social rank. However, this emphasis on individuality was not extended to the depiction of women. Royal Mughal women were confined to the harem and were primarily in charge of organizing festivals and entertainment for the imperial court, so their lack of physical visibility prevented the creation of individual portraits. Instead, Mughal women were depicted as idealized “types” in either full or three-quarters profile, establishing an archetype of a figure with voluptuous anatomy and uniform faces. They were either isolated into single portraits, presenting an idealized interpretation of beauty, or depicted in sensual or interior scenes. These women were not presented as individuals; rather, they served as representations of a private, internalized experience.
Figure 2. Rembrandt van Rijn, An Indian Lady, after a Mughal Miniature, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, ca. 1656-1661. View here.
An Indian Lady, after a Mughal Miniature (fig. 2) by Rembrandt depicts a Mughal woman in three-quarters profile. The woman is veiled in a thin, gauzy material and her breasts are bare. Her loosely outlined hand is raised parallel to her body and her fingertips bend together in the mukula position, which is a hand gesture symbolic of the bud of a flower in Indian tradition. A suggestion of depth is provided in the series of lines behind her proper left shoulder, contrasting with the wide, flat spaces of color in Mughal paintings. A roughly delineated oval frame contains the portrait, which is evocative of jewel portraits. Jewel portraits were given as gifts or worn as loyalty pledges in Shah Jahan’s court. Although it is unclear whether Rembrandt may have seen such objects, the small scale of the jewel portraits is parallel to Rembrandt’s miniaturized drawings of Mughal women. The Jewel Portrait of a Young Girl (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, ca. 1660, fig. 3) presents visual similarities to Rembrandt’s drawings. This portrait depicts a young woman in three-quarters profile, adorned with layers of jewelry and wearing a tall, flat-topped hat. Three spots of red and green emphasize her luxurious adornments, alluding to her high status. Thin, precise lines are used to create her features, and a soft ink wash is used to create gentle waves in her hair. A ring of gold surrounds the portrait, followed by a thick black border and a final thin gold ring.
Unlike Rembrandt’s drawing, there is no hand depicted in the jewel portrait, nor does the figure face her proper right. However, the framing devices of each portrait merit discussion. Mughal paintings are typically accompanied by highly ornamental borders, which are descended from Persian traditions. Although the Jewel Portrait of a Young Girl has a simplified border, the framing device not only focuses the viewer’s attention onto the subject but also elevates the depiction of the girl beyond mere portraiture, to art. Rembrandt often experimented with frames across several mediums. An Indian Lady elucidates his interest not only in experimenting with Mughal gestures and expressions but also in framing an image to transform the subject matter beyond simple representations, to exist as its own self.
Figure 4. Rembrandt van Rijn, checklist no. 5: Two Heads of Women after an Indian Painting, Private collection, Paris, ca. 1656-1661. View here.
Rembrandt’s fascinations with body language is further explored in his drawing Two Heads of Women after an Indian Painting (Private collection, Paris, ca. 1656-1661, fig. 3). This drawing features two women, whose faces are in profile, while their bodies are in three-quarters profile. They both wear gauzy veils that partially cover their hair, similar to An Indian Lady; in contrast, they are both fully clothed, and the woman on the right lifts up her left hand to the front of her chest. These images of women are also given a realistic sense of depth by the dark ink wash in the background. These two women, however, do not interact with each other. They exist on the same page as separate entities, not unlike Rembrandt’s preparatory sketches or study drawings. For example, in his etching Studies of the Head of Saskia and Others (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1636), Rembrandt dispersed several faces across the space of the paper to explore emotive qualities or expressions. Because Rembrandt’s Two Heads of Women were drawn on expensive Asian paper, Rembrandt clearly valued even the study of Mughal compositions, or he intended to sell the drawing for a valuable price. Furthermore, the woman on the left of the drawing is more loosely defined than the woman on the right, perhaps presenting Rembrandt’s transition of ideas and experimentation in conveying new body languages. The simple nature of the composition, focusing on the offering hands and the profile gazes, allowed Rembrandt to transfer the private, internal experience of the Mughal woman “type” to his drawings. Rembrandt incorporates this idea of the woman in his reinterpretation of a well-known Western subject, and one of singular importance to him: the Roman goddess Flora.
Flora was the goddess of flowers and the wife of Zephyrus, the West Wind. She represented fertility and the fruitful coming of spring and became known as the Flora mater. This distinguished her from another Flora, the Flora meretrix, described as an ex-prostitute elevated to goddess status after using her finances to establish several games for the Romans. These games were dramatic, theatrical celebrations of the goddess. Earlier representations of Flora include Bartolomeo Veneto’s Idealized Portrait of a Courtesan as Flora and Melzi’s Flora. Both depict the goddess with an exposed breast, either gazing directly at the viewer or at the flowers in her elegant hands. Rembrandt was most likely conscious of her dual nature as emblem of divine fertility and erotic sexuality and explored these themes through multiple interpretations of the goddess throughout his career. The three most prominent portrayals were created in 1634 (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, fig. 5), 1635 (National Gallery, London, fig. 6), and 1654 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ca. 1654, fig. 1).
Figure 5. Rembrandt van Rijn, Flora, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, 1634. View here.
Figure 6. Rembrandt van Rijn, Flora, National Gallery, London, 1635. View here.
The 1634 (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, fig. 5) and 1635 (National Gallery, London, fig. 6) versions are similar in composition and costume. Both depict the goddess above the knees and present her in elaborate dresses with staffs decorated with flowers in her right hand, evocative of pastoral shepherdess costumes. However, the goddess in the 1634 painting is in three-quarters profile, staring directly at the viewer. Her left hand gathers her skirts in front of her stomach, emphasizing the deep folds of her rich sleeves. She is flushed and smiles, almost shyly. Meanwhile, the 1635 Flora depicts the goddess with a small smile on her face, gazing to her left in the frontal view She offers a cluster of flowers with her proper left hand. Although unconfirmed, it is possible that these Floras are based on the image of Saskia, Rembrandt’s first wife. Saskia van Uylenburgh came from a wealthy family and often modeled for Rembrandt. Rembrandt and Saskia were married in 1634, and Saskia became pregnant with their first child in 1635. The years of the first two paintings align with significant events between the couple. It is plausible that the image of Flora signified the hopeful promise of fertility for the future of the couple. Rembrandt may have wished to convey this hopeful representation not only for himself, but also for a general audience. Classical imagery appealed to contemporary Dutch viewers, and in these early examples, Rembrandt has the goddess interact with the viewer through the forward gazes and offering hands.
In contrast, the later Flora (Metropolitan Museum, New York, ca. 1654, fig. 1) depicts the goddess in profile, her body facing the viewer not unlike the Mughal drawings. She stretches out her right hand, gently grasping flowers in her open palm, which echoes the mukula mudra. The frilly sleeves of her chemise fold around her body, providing a dynamic quality to her simple clothes and actions. She holds up a yellow skirt full of flowers with her left hand and wears a broad hat decorated with the same flowers as those gathered in her skirt. The rounded buds and the undulating leaf edges suggest these flowers are roses, a symbol of love and victory for the Romans. The woman is also adorned with gleaming pearls, her curls fall onto her shoulders, and her cheeks are slightly flushed. Based on facial features, the goddess once again may have been modeled after Saskia. The 1654 Flora also presents strong visual similarities to Rembrandt’s painting Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, in which Saskia is also depicted in profile, wearing a decorated broad hat.(Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel, completed 1642, fig. 7). In comparison to the 1654 Flora, Saskia is dressed in rich, red velvet and elegant furs. Her large chapeau dominates the canvas, and seems to set the precedent for the broad hat in the 1654 Flora.
However, the date of the 1654 Flora aligns more closely with the events of Rembrandt’s later partner, Hendrickje Stoffels. Hendrickje served as a maid in Rembrandt’s household after Saskia’s death in 1642 and was also a model for many of his later paintings. Hendrickje gave birth to their daughter Cornelia in October 1654, so it plausible that the 1654 Flora, as a representation of Hendrickje, offers the same connotation of fertility or hope to Rembrandt as the two depictions of Saskia from the 1630s interpretations. Despite the birth of a child, Rembrandt and Hendrickje did not marry because Saskia’s inheritance, which relied upon to fund his career and art collecting, would be forfeited. In June 1654, Hendrickje was condemned by the Reformed Church Council of “whoredom” for living with Rembrandt unmarried. She was banned from the Lord’s Supper, which was a serious and even traumatizing punishment for contemporary Dutch worshippers. Rembrandt may have distilled his own perceptions of the tumultuous events of the year in the 1654 Flora to subtly project how he still viewed Hendrickje as a representation of fertility. However, the incorporation of the restrained, private Mughal body language, particularly the averted gaze, portrays how Rembrandt establishes a subtle barrier between what the goddess offers and what the viewer receives. Neither her offering hand nor her gaze face the viewer, giving Flora – or Hendrickje – the agency to look away and deny interaction with the contemporary viewer, who would have perceived her as a sinner because of her “whoredom.”
Figure 8. Titian, Flora, The Uffizi, Florence, ca. 1517, reproduction granted for non-profit activities.
Titan’s Flora (The Uffizi, Florence, ca. 1517, fig. 8) may have served as an additional prototype for Rembrandt’s 1654 Flora. Titian’s Flora was present in Alfonso Lopez’s collection in Amsterdam, so Rembrandt had likely viewed the painting prior to the creation of his painting. The patroness of both spring and prostitutes is presented in three-quarters profile and is draped in a white camisia that exposes the swell of her left breast. Her head, her gaze, and her open right hand, full of roses and violets, are inclined towards her proper right. Her left hand gathers the folds of her clothes to her body, while Rembrandt’s Flora uses her skirt to gather flowers. A few tendrils of her red hair fall across her proper left shoulder, emphasizing the smooth expanse of her skin.
Because of the exposed breast, Titian’s Flora probably represents Flora meretrix, the former courtesan. Titian’s Flora epitomizes contemporary beauty standards. Although Rembrandt’s 1654 Flora does not depict a partially nude woman, there are visual similarities with Titian’s Flora in the open, raised hand, and most importantly, the averted gaze; at the same time, the painting also evokes sixteenth-century Italian translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, whichequates the ephemeral nature of the flower, or female beauty, to impermanence. The desirous eye of the viewer may be invited by the erotic façade of Titian’s Flora, yet the averted gaze of the goddess wards off the viewer from fully indulging in the visual pleasure of the painting by denying an intimate connection through the eyes. Direct eye contact with the viewer was usually reserved for male portraits as it conveyed power and status. Therefore, the aversion of the gaze in Titian’s Flora further reinforces the internal narrative of ephemerality. If Titian’s Flora was indeed a partial prototype for Rembrandt’s 1654 Flora, the composition not only reflects Rembrandt’s tendency to copy other well-known artists to establish his own skill and reputation, but also his fascination in portraying a separation between external and internal narratives.
It is impossible to determine what exactly propelled Rembrandt to reinterpret the subject of Flora in 1654, but he reframed the goddess by translating Mughal body languages of averted profiles and raised hands to imbue the image with a private, internal dimension. The reinterpretation perhaps served not only as a physical manifestation of Rembrandt’s own shifting perceptions of Saskia or Hendrickje, as the dates of the three renditions are closely tied to the two women, but also as a statement of distain for the potential criticism of his contemporaries. He denies the voyeuristic satisfaction of gazing at this portrait of Saskia or Hendrickje as Flora by reshaping his earlier, more appealing subject format. Rembrandt granted a distanced agency to these women and therefore, a sense of subtle power, to them and the goddess they represent, to exist beyond the traditional narratives of fertility and eroticism. He offers all three the opportunity to exist as her own self, or at least, as she appeared to the artist alone.
Berger Jr., Harry. “Married, with Peacock: Saskia in Rembrandt’s Looking-Glass Theater.” In Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance, 405-425. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Bomford, David, Ashok Roy, and Axel Ruger. Art in the Making: Rembrandt. General Ed. Celia Jones. Exh. Cat. National Gallery. London: National Gallery Company, 2006.
Brown, Christopher, Jan Kelch, and Pieter van Thiel. Rembrandt: The Master & His Workshop. General Ed. Sally Salvesen. Exh. Cat. Germaldegalerie Altes Museum, Rijksmuseum, and The National Gallery. New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with National Gallery Publications, 1991.
Chaudry, Kalpna. “Depictions of Women in Art and Literature During the Mughal Period.” PhD diss., Aligarh Muslim University, 2014.
Filipczak, Zirka Z. “Rembrandt and the Body Language of Mughal Miniatures.” Netherlands Yearbook for Art 58 (2007-2008): 162-187.
Liedtke, Walter A. “Flora.” In Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. 1, 661-669. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2007.
Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India. Ed. Stephanie Schrader.Exh. Cat. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018.
Simon, Patricia. “Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture.” History Workshop, no. 25 (1988): 4-30.
Steele, Brian D. “In the Flower of Their Youth: “Portraits” of Venetian Beauties ca. 1500.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 28, no. 2 (1997): 481-502.
Verma, Som Prakash. “Portraiture.” In Oxford India Short Introductions: Mughal Painting, 50-90. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Westerman, Mariet. Rembrandt. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000.
Wetering, Ernst van de. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings VI. New York: Springer Publishing, 2015.
Williams, Julia Lloyd. Rembrandt’s Women. Exh. Cat. National Gallery of Scotland. Edinburgh: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2001.
 For a discussion of the commercial and cultural interactions between Amsterdam and Asian trading centers, see Martine Gosselink, “The Dutch East India Company in Asia,” in Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age, edited by Karina H. Corrigan, Jan van Campen, and Femke Diercks, exh. cat., (Peabody Essex Museum, Rijksmuseum, 2015), 21-31.
 Although Rembrandt listed “curious drawings” in his inventory list made during his bankruptcy, the sources of his Mughal copies cannot be confirmed. For an examination of the inventory, see Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York: Abaris Books, Inc., 1979), 369. Regardless of the exact sources, Rembrandt clearly had access to paintings from the Mughal imperial ateliers. For further information see Stephanie Schrader, “Rembrandt and the Mughal Line: Artistic Inspiration in the Global City of Amsterdam,” in Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, ed. Stephanie Schrader,exh. cat., (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018), 5-28.
 Rembrandt was commissioned to paint society portraits for many merchants early in his career. For a discussion of Rembrandt’s society portraits and how the gaze depicted in portraits can activate “personhood,” see Didier Maleuvre, “Rembrandt, or the Portrait as Encounter,” in Imaging Identity: Media, Memory, and Portraiture in the Digital Age, ed. Melinda Hinkson (Canberra, Australia: ANU Press, 2016), 15-36.
 Som Prakash Verma, “Portraiture,” in Oxford India Short Introductions: Mughal Painting (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014), 50-90.
 Kalpna Chaudhry, “Depictions of Women in Art and Literature During the Mughal Period” (PhD diss., Aligarh Muslim University, 2014), 59-72.
 Chaudhry, “Depictions of Women in Art and Literature During the Mughal Period,” 71.
 Zirka Z. Filipczak, “Rembrandt and the Body Language of Mughal Miniatures,” Netherlands Yearbook for Art, Vol. 58 (2007-2008): 175.
 Jewel portraits could be attached to turbans or jewelry like pendants and bracelets. For further discussion of the role of jewel portraiture in the Mughal court, please see: Som Prakash Verma, “Portraiture,” 74-75.
 Som Prakash Verma, “Margin-Painting in Medieval Indian Art,” in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40 (1979): 460.
 The Portrait of Saskia as a Bride (Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, ca. 1633) has a few parallels with An Indian Lady. Rembrandt manipulated the frames of the drawings; in Saskia’s portrait, he created an arched top, while the women in An Indian Lady is encircled with a loose lined frame. Furthermore,Rembrandt used expensive materials: silverpoint in the Saskia portrait, and expensive Asian paper for An Indian Lady. Both works also feature loose, sketchy lines, focusing on the hands and facial expressions.His drawings of the Mughal women almost seem to parallel this image of Saskia as not only explorations of not only body language, but also as evidence of Rembrandt’s skill across different, expensive materials. For a brief discussion on the Portrait of Saskia as a Bridge, see Nicola Courthright, “Origins and Meanings of Rembrandt’s Late Drawing Style,” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 3 (1996): 495-496.
 For further general discussion of Rembrandt’s drawings and preparatory sketches, and his influence upon his peers, see Michiel C. Plomp, “Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 64, no. 1 (2006): 3-48.
 Julia Lloyd Williams, “Flora,” in Rembrandt’s Women, exh. cat. (Edinburgh: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2001), cat. no. 119, 208-209.
 Williams, “Flora,” cat. no. 119, 208.
 T.P. Wiseman, “The Games of Flora,” Studies in the History of Art Symposium Papers XXXIV: The Art of Ancient Spectacle 56 (1999): 194-203.
 Williams, “Flora,” cat. no. 119, 208.
 Pastoral themes and costumes became common subjects of fascination for Dutch artists after the successful plays by Pieter Cornelisz Hooft’s Granida and Daifilo in 1605. For further discussion of the popularization of Arcadian themes in Amsterdam, see David Bomford, Ashok Roy, and Axel Ruger, “Saskia van Uylenburgh as Flora, 1635,” in Art in the Making: Rembrandt, ed. Celia Jones, exh. cat. (London: Yale University Press, 2006), cat. no. 6, 89-100. For further discussion of the specific costume in Rembrandt’s 1634 Flora, see Julia Lloyd Williams, “Flora,” in Rembrandt’s Women, exh. cat. (Edinburgh: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2001), cat. no. 116, 104.
 Williams, “Flora,” cat. no. 36, 116.
 E. De Jongh, “The Model Woman and Women of Flesh and Blood,” in Rembrandt’s Women, exh. cat. (Edinburgh: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2001), 35.
 George Ferguson, “Flowers, Trees, and Plants,” in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 37.
 Walter A. Liedtke, “Flora,” in Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. 1 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2007), 661-669.
 Furthermore, an X-radiograph reveals that the image of Saskia was originally depicted with a raised hand, which was soon painted over. Rembrandt seems to express interest in using body language to depict his perceptions of Saskia, contributing to how body language is an integral aspect of the 1654 Flora. For further discussion of the connection between the 1654 Flora and the Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, see Ernst van de Wetering, “Post-humous portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh as Flora,” cat. no. 268, in A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings VI (New York: Springer Publishing, 2015), 655-656.
 Mariet Westermann, “The Business Dissolved: Financial Failure, Artistic Independence,” in Rembrandt, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000), 237.
 Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch, and Pieter van Thiel, “Flora,” in Rembrandt: the Master & His Workshop, ed. Sally Salvesen, exh. cat (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), cat. no. 41, 253.
 David Bomford, Ashok Roy, and Axel Ruger, “Saskia van Uylenburgh as Flora, 1635,” in Art in the Making: Rembrandt, ed. Celia Jones, exh. cat. (London: National Gallery Company, 2006), cat. no. 41, 90.
 Emma H. Mellencamp, “A Note on the Costume of Titian’s Flora,” Art Bulletin 51 (1969): 174-177.
 Brian D. Steele, “In the Flower of Their Youth: “Portraits” of Venetian Beauties ca. 1500,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 28, no. 2 (1997): 495.
 Steele, “In the Flower of Their Youth: “Portraits” of Venetian Beauties ca. 1500,” 501.
 Direct gazes were usually reserved for male portraits as they conveyed power and allowed for interaction between the viewer and the subject. Meanwhile, especially in fifteenth century Florentine portraits, women were depicted in strict profile, becoming objects of public scrutiny. Titian would have been conscious of this tradition, yet deliberately depicted Flora with an averted gaze and a direct body pose. This translates into Rembrandt’s 1654 Flora, who is depicted in profile, but her hand and body faces the viewer. This complexity of body language suggests a separation of subject agency and viewer interaction. For further information on quattrocentro portraits, see Patricia Simon, “Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture,” History Workshop, no. 25 (1988): 4-30.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Shelley Zuraw and Jordan Dopp for their assistance in the development of this paper.