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June 26, 2011

History of Art Vandalism: The 1985 Destruction of Rembrandt's "Danaë" at The Hermitage Museum

Rembrandt's Danaë, Oil on Canvas, 185x202.5 cm
The State Hermitage Museum
by Kirsten Hower, ARCA Blog Contributor

While Greek mythology may not claim her as the most beautiful woman in the world, she is certainly one of Rembrandt’s most beautiful women: Danaë. Voluptuous and naked, she reclines across the eight-by-ten canvas, looking into the distance beyond the frame of the painting. This painting may not be Rembrandt’s most famous work or even his most famous painting of a female, but the Danaë has certainly drawn attention from scholars and vandals alike.

While scholars may be fascinated by the beauty and technique of Rembrandt’s peculiar but stunning Danaë, there are others that are not quite as fond of this painting. On June 15, 1985, while hanging on the walls of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Danaë was attacked by Bronius Maigys, then 48 years old, who threw sulfuric acid on the painting and attacked it with a knife.  Maigys was later judged insane, and some say targeted the Hermitage as a symbol of Russian state power.  Maigys spent six years at the Cherniachovsk psychiatric hospital in the Kaliningrad Region. While museum staff attempted to take quick action, (the Hermitage’s restoration staff were not on duty at the time) the painting had been badly damaged and to this day is not the same. Conservators struggled with the ethics of repainting the damaged parts of the painting but decided against full restoration (meaning repainting the parts that had been damaged) because it would mean that the painting was no longer a true Rembrandt:
In the resulting painting, ‘some parts are 100 percent Rembrandt, some are 50 percent Rembrandt, and some had to be redone,’ Mr. Gerasimov [a staff member of the Hermitage] said. ‘The left thigh is slightly restored. The right arm was 90 percent damaged but is now back to normal. The pearls were intact, but the jewels needed work. What the visitor sees is not ‘the original,’ and we would never put it forward as such. But the spirit of Rembrandt is intact.’

Classical mythology tells us the story of Danaë, daughter of King Acrisius of Argos who was told of a prophecy that his grandchild would kill him. To keep this from happening, Acrisius had his daughter locked in a tower in which no one could get to her. However, he had not considered the infamous lust of Zeus, who was thoroughly in lust with Acrisius’ beautiful daughter. The god of thunder changed himself into a golden rain and fell on Danaë, impregnating her with a son who would become as famous as his mother: Perseus.

The part of the story depicted in Rembrandt’s painting is not entirely clear. Danaë’s upraised hand, as if she is warding someone off or welcoming them forward, suggests that there is someone beyond our field of vision. Even the older maid, partially hidden behind the curtains of Danaë’s luxurious bed, is looking in the same direction of Danaë. Did Rembrandt defer from the traditional story and imply the appearance of Zeus in another form to Danaë in her confinement? Is that the scene that the two women are looking towards?

The appearance of a maidservant is not traditionally a part of the story either. However, realistically, her appearance is not all that surprising: even in confinement a princess would be likely to have a maidservant to take care of her. While there is this practicality to her appearance, she also serves a second purpose which is to emphasize the beauty of Danaë. The wrinkled, leathery skin of the maid is a perfect foil for the soft, pale beauty of Danaë who is almost entirely exposed to the viewer. Only her lower legs are hidden from view, creating a sensual figure moments before seduction.

The appearance of the cupid above Danaë’s head is also interesting, though not unusual. Both Titian and Correggio depicted their Danaës accompanied by angels as the golden rain fell upon them. However, this golden cupid, with a tortured expression upon his face, is completely gold and could be interpreted as representing the golden rain which impregnated Danaë. His expression is a bit troublesome though unless it is meant to allude to the fact that Danaë was impregnated without her consent. If not for this reason, then what reason is there for his tortured expression?

While she may not be the same Danaë that Rembrandt painted, the essence is still there—despite being attacked by a ‘madman’ with undisclosed motives. Was it the nudity that inspired some religious-driven attempt to destroy a woman representative of tales of pagan lust? We may never know.

John Russell, "Healing a Disfigured Rembrandt's Wounds," The New York Times, August 31, 1997.