Although the female nude had always featured prominently in Rembrandt's art, both in paint and print, he became increasingly interested in it in his final years as a printmaker. From 1658 to 1661 he created six etchings of nude or partially dressed women, of which Woman with the Arrow is the most celebrated. All of these etchings appear to be based on direct observation of the model in the studio, a practice which emerged in Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century, where small groups of like-minded artists began to meet for informal drawing sessions in the privacy of artists' studios. This contrasted with the development in other European centres of academies, where mostly male nudes were drawn from life under strict rules of decorum and propriety. Rembrandt is known to have encouraged the practice of life drawing, instructing his students to pose for each other, and executing several etchings himself in this class setting. The depiction of the fully naked female figure had, however, until this time been largely a product of the imagination, constructed from partial studies drawn from life combined and extrapolated to complete the full figure in the pose the artist required. Rembrandt's two early etchings Woman seated on a Mound and Seated Female Nude (Diana at the Brook), both circa 1631, are fine examples of this method. The shift, however, towards working directly from the fully naked female model in the intimacy of the studio led to a degree of naturalism and informality entirely new in the history of art. In Woman with the Arrow, the woman's figure is depicted seated from behind, as she turns her head to look at the face of a young man, partially obscured, gazing at her from the shadows. In her raised arm she holds an arrow, the origin of the print's title. This was probably based on the cord held by the model to relieve at otherwise tiring pose, which Rembrandt changed into an arrow. This addition, together with the somewhat elaborate headdress and the half-hidden face of the youth (perhaps suggested by the face of one of Rembrandt's students sketching the model across the room from the master), transform what is ostensibly a life study into an image with historical or mythological resonance. This has led to various identifications of the scene as Venus disarming Cupid, Candaulos and Cyges and Anthony and Cleopatra. Michael Zell argues that this difficulty of interpretation was part of Rembrandt's intent, with the late nudes 'occupying an indeterminate space, resisting classification as either subjects from life or portrayals of traditional pictorial or historical subjects. Poised suggestively between image categories, the works exploit boundaries between image types, between past and present, artifice and reality, life and art.' (Rembrandt's Naked Truth, p. 89).
Whatever its meaning, the etching is above all an exquisite depiction of the dappled effects of light and shade on the model's exposed body and the luminescence of her skin set against the velvety black background, which has always made this print one of Rembrandt's most admired. The artist's son Titus is said to have boasted that 'all the world has been quite amazed by it'. (Walter Strauss, Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents , New York, 1979, p. 541, quoted in: Rembrandt's Naked Truth, p. 87)
The present impression compares well with the Cracherode and Salting impressions of the second state in the British Museum. The Salting impression is similarly strong and prints with an equal amount of burr but is very cleanly wiped in the background.