It can be difficult for a viewer to form a relationship with a single subject painting because the theme is often lost without prior knowledge of the subject furthermore hindering the observer from truly appreciating the artist’s talent for their ability to capture and relay the emotion of their subject in a single moment. Rembrandt van Rijn’s Lucretia, which can be seen at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, depicts the story of an important historical event additionally suggesting themes on the value of virtue, honor, and the significance of family.
Lucretia’s tragedy began when she was raped by Sextus Tarquinius the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the tyrannical Etruscan king of Rome. According to the traditional tale, Lucretia was a beautiful virtuous woman, Sextus Tarquinius inflamed with desire threatened to kill her and her male slave and place their bodies in an act of adultery unless she yield to him. Fearing this form of dishonor she relented later informing her husband and father of the transgression. To restore her husband's honor, as well as her own, she had her husband and father pledge an oath of revenge, then committed suicide. As Lucretia’s husband pulled the bloody dagger from his wife’s lifeless body he swore to avenge her and all who had been wronged by the king. Lucretia’s suicide led to a revolt that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic.
Rembrandt conveys Lucretia’s virtuous suicide through formal elements as well as the rendering of his paint without having to disclose her history. This is done by stripping away all but the psychological aspects of the event, stressing the introspective nature of the moment. The background is dark using deep shadows, a technique called chiaroscuro, to imply a somber mood while her face is highlighted to express the tragedy and agony of this decision. Her left hand is raised to the level of her heart as she pulls on her bedside curtain cord symbolic of drawing the shade on her life.
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