STORY OF LUCRETIA
According to the account given by the Roman historian Livy, the story begins during the Roman siege of Ardea in the 6th century B.C., when the principal men of the army met in the tent of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the tyrant Lucius Tarquinius the Proud, and began talking about the virtues of their wives. They all then set out for Rome, intending to surprise their wives and, thus, test what they had been saying. Only Collatinus found his wife, Lucretia, spinning quietly at home with her maids. The other ladies were found dancing and reveling. The men then gave Collatinus the victory and returned to camp. A few days later, Sextus Tarquinius, inflamed with desire by Lucretia's virtue, left and returned to Rome, where he was welcomed by Lucretia by reason of his friendship with her husband. When she was alone, Sextus went to her bedchamber and threatened to kill her if she did not yield to him. She resisted, but he threatened to kill both her and a male slave and place their naked bodies together so it would appear that she had been caught in adultery. Fearing this form of disgrace, she yielded to him and afterwards informed her husband and father of the misdeed. To restore her husband's honor, as well as her own, she had her husband and father pledge an oath of revenge, and then she committed suicide. Outraged by this injustice, Lucretia's relatives and friends, headed by Lucius Junius Brutus, led a revolt against the Tarquins, which resulted in their overthrow and exile and the inauguration of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.).
The story of Lucretia may be mythological rather than historical, because there is no evidence that Lucretia actually existed. Nonetheless, the story represents a power struggle that occurred in ancient Rome which resulted in the toppling of the monarchy and the establishment of the first republic. Additionally, the story taught the value of virtue and honor and the significance of the family. In ancient Rome, Lucretia became a symbol of patriotism, chastity, love, and faithfulness. These qualities all had tremendous appeal to the people of 17th-century Holland.
It is possible, in fact, that the story of Lucretia may have also been used to associate the foundation of the modern Dutch republic with the foundations of the ancient Roman republic1 In addition, it is likely that the story had personal significance for Rembrandt as well. Because Rembrandt painted several important family pictures (Juno, The Jewish Bride, and Family Portrait) during the mid-60s, as well as two versions of Lucretia, and because Hendrickje, his common-law wife, though deceased already, served as the model for the first version of Lucretia and one of the family portraits, these pictures have been related to the public ostracism he and Hendrickje Stoffels suffered. Taken together with the other family portraits he was painting at this time, Lucretia's story may have underlined for Rembrandt the tragedy of a family overtaken by traumatic circumstances. The Lucretia paintings may then be both a spiritual self-portrait of Rembrandt during this period as well as a eulogy to Hendrickje2
In this version of the painting, Rembrandt has pared away all but the psychological aspects of the event, stressing the introspective nature of the moment. All the tragedy and drama are concentrated upon the expression on Lucretia's face.
Strong highlights and deep shadows (chiaroscuro derived from the Caravaggisti)3 are used to enhance the mood. The important details—face, hands, wound, and dagger—are highlighted, and all else is left in shadow.