Instead of depicting her as an erotic nude in a scene of lust and voyeurism, Rembrandt reveals Bathsheba’s inner conflict, and transforms the technique of painting.
Painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Painting Bathsheba with King David’s Letter
Media oil on canvas
Dimensions 142 x 142 cm (56 x 56 in)
Collection Musée du Louvre, Paris
A nude woman, Bathsheba, life-size and seated, fills the painting from her feet, which reach down towards the left lower corner, to her head, up towards the right upper corner; her right foot and leg, right arm and breast are aligned along that diagonal. The light falls from behind and to the left of the viewer, mainly on Bathsheba’s head and body. Behind her the view fades into the vague shadows of the dark.
At her feet, the head and upper body of an old woman, an attendant, cropped by the lower left corner and edge. She wears sombre brown clothing with a cap, and is bathing Bathsheba’s right foot, drying it with both hands. The light catches white cloth covering her right ear and neck, but her face remains in shadow.
Bathsheba has her right leg crossed loosely over her left knee, to present the right foot to her attendant. She wears only jewellery: a metallic band glints above her right elbow, a necklet drops a small pendant below her throat, ear-rings (the left visible), and hairbands. A wisp of diaphanous fabric is caught across her right groin, flowing down to cover her crotch. Her left arm is extended to forms a slight arc with the hand resting on a crumpled shift (long undergarment) to the left of her left hip, a sleeve of the shift dangling towards the floor.
Her right arm is bent at the elbow to rest the hand on her right thigh just above the knee, where it clutches an unfolded sheet of paper, on the underside of which there is writing. Her gaze is pensive if not lost in thought altogether, cast down towards the head of her attendant. Her eyebrows are raised, her mouth held neutral but slightly tensed. Her hair is held up by at least three bands, one lock falling free to the top of her right breast, with a finely decorated braid falling to the top of her left breast.
Behind and beside Bathsheba is the furniture of a dressing room. In the middle distance, extending horizontally from the left edge to Bathsheba’s right arm, are the ample folds of a richly brocaded robe, in brown and ochre, resting on a couch. She sits on crumpled white cloth (on which her white shift rests) which extends below and to her left (the right edge of the painting), fading into the dark behind. A large square pillar can be made out of the gloom behind and to the right of Bathsheba.
The smooth skin of Bathsheba’s body, caught in the soft light, contrasts with the folds and crumples of the fabrics, the shift and robe, which are fashioned with visible, often quite coarse, brush-strokes. The atmosphere is intimate, quiet, pensive, but uneasy.
The model is believed to have been Hendrickje Stoffels, previously his maid, with whom Rembrandt had been living after the death of his wife in 1642. The slight asymmetry in her breasts, and small swellings towards the left armpit, were probably the result of mastitis from a previous pregnancy. She died in 1663, having been banned in 1654 from receiving communion from her church because of her sinful relationship with Rembrandt (she was heavily pregnant at the time). She was also the probable model for Woman Bathing in a Stream, painted in the same year.
Rembrandt was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden, the Netherlands, and was apprenticed to a local history painter for three years before moving to Amsterdam to complete his apprenticeship. He opened his own studio in Leiden in about 1624, and in 1629 started to receive important commissions through his friendship with the statesman Constantijn Huygens. He moved his studio to Amsterdam in 1631, and achieved considerable success and financial return from painting portraits.
He married the wealthy Saskia van Uylenburgh in 1634, featuring her as a model in many of his works, but she died in 1642 having borne four children, only one of whom survived into adulthood. Although earning high fees for his paintings, he perpetually lived beyond his means, collecting Old Master paintings, suits of armour, and more. In addition to painting, he made many etchings, produced using a combination of engraving with some drypoint. His financial situation worsened, and from 1656 most of his possessions were sold under a court order to avoid formal bankruptcy. The local Painters’ Guild banned his trade as a partner, forcing him to work as an employee of his common-law wife and son. He died in relative poverty on 4 October 1669, just a year after his son’s death.
His most famous and largest work, The Night Watch, was completed at the height of his fame in 1642. He also painted some pure landscapes, a series of moving self-portraits which reflected his changing fortunes, and had several accomplished apprentices, including Gerrit Dou.
The Biblical story of Bathsheba is one of the more sordid of its histories. King David lusted after Bathsheba, a gentlewoman of fine birth who was married to one of David’s generals. Having made her pregnant adulterously, David first tried to make it appear that the unborn child had been conceived in wedlock, then when that failed he put Bathsheba’s husband into danger in battle, so that he was killed, and David became able to marry her as a widow.
Other paintings portraying Bathsheba have generally centred on the lust and voyeurism of King David, secretly watching her naked whilst bathing in the open. Rembrandt’s choice of motif is different: in this scene, Bathsheba has received David’s letter which presumably lays bare his sinful intent. She is therefore pictured thinking over his desire for her, and for the ultimate fate of her husband.
It is not immediately clear whether the letter that Bathsheba has just read expresses David’s lust and intent to possess her body, or whether this scene took place after he had impregnated her (perhaps in an act of rape), had failed to make it appear that the child was her husband’s, and had thus decided to bring about her husband’s death. However there are no cues in Bathsheba’s body (such as a linea nigra) to indicate that she is pregnant at this time, and it is thus more likely that this scene took place before she fell pregnant. This also dates the painting to late 1653 or early 1654, because by the middle of 1654 Hendrickje was herself heavily pregnant.
Rembrandt and Hendrickje, as a couple, must have also had a very private reading to this painting, in which the model appears as herself, thinking over the ultimatum presented to her by the church. Having changed places from that of the attendant, drying Rembrandt’s feet in the shadows, to being placed in the glare of religious opprobrium, Hendrickje may have found herself in a different quandary from that of Bathsheba, and this painting may have been Rembrandt’s expression of their difficulties. One piece of evidence that supports this is his apparently faithful portrayal of her body, complete with its distorted left breast, rather than idealising her into the role of Bathsheba.
For about 200 years, since the realism of the Renaissance had taken over from earlier more symbolic work, the great Masters had constructed the illusion of reality by means of fine detail. They had avoided leaving any trace of brush-work, or other marks which made their working apparent.
Although Rembrandt was by no means unique — Rubens, for instance, left many virtuoso oil sketches — from about 1650 onwards he used quite a different technique. In this he made visible marks with paint, which examined at the same distance that he painted could appear almost random and unrelated to the fine detail of the motif. However when viewed at a distance these marks assembled into an illusion which was often even more vivid than previous fine detail had been.
The great skill in this, seen by examining this work, is that when he painted he could only see his marks; it was not until he stepped far back that he could see what they were accomplishing. This requires the painter to have a very detailed mental image in which those marks are assembled into the whole.
He continued to develop his mark-making right up to his death. It is often at its most florid when he paints fabrics, such as Bathsheba’s robe, and the clothing of the couple shown in The Jewish Bride of about 1665.
Modern painters have argued that the marks made by Rembrandt and successors, as they appear to be abstract in character, foresaw and gave precedent to abstract painting. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course: the driving force behind this making of marks is to create the overall, thoroughly realistic, illusion, but by means other than mimesis in detail.
Rembrandt was criticised at the time for making his paintings so coarse, just as the Impressionists were to be criticised over 200 years later. Although they did not employ Rembrandt’s characteristic chiaroscuro, there are interesting similarities between late Rembrandt works and those of the Impressionists.
This moving painting is remarkable for its thoughtful treatment of a complex subject, and the creation of an arresting illusion from its composite of marks.
There is a huge literature on Rembrandt and his works. Here is a small and relevant selection:
Bal M (1991/2006) Reading Rembrandt. Beyond the Word-Image Opposition, Cambridge UP and Amsterdam Academic Archive. ISBN 90 5356 858 1. (Although I think that some semiotics fails and just becomes pretentious crap, these analyses of some of Rembrandt’s works stand out, and are well worth reading. She also has quite similar views to those above, with respect to readings of this painting.)
Bikker J & Weber GJM et al. (2014) Rembrandt, the Late Works, Yale UP. ISBN 978 18 5709 557 9. (The definitive collection of studies into these late works, to accompany the exhibition. Large format, well illustrated, with excellent references.)
Schama S (1999) Rembrandt’s Eyes, Penguin. ISBN 0 14 028841 4. (A classic and comprehensive account of his life and work.)
van de Wetering E (1997) Rembrandt. The Painter at Work, revised edition, Amsterdam UP. ISBN 9 789089 640338. (A technical account of Rembrandt’s work which will appeal to painters, and anyone interested in the ‘how’.)
Adams AJ, ed (1998) Rembrandt’s Bathsheba Reading King David’s Letter, Masterpieces of Western Painting, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 45986 0. (Old but still an interesting collection of papers. Bizarrely the only colour illustrations of the painting are those on the covers, and they are reversed!)
The works shown feature in the exhibition Late Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 12 February to 17 May 2015 (and previously at the National Gallery, London). If you have not seen this yet, this is your last chance to see these amazing works together. We saw this exhibition when it was in London, in October 2014, and it really is a chance in a lifetime, the best exhibition of the decade.
Movie review: Rembrandt (2015), Exhibition on Screen, Kat Mansour and Phil Grabsky