Most of the paintings telling the story of Bathsheba and King David had shown its opening scene, featuring the nude figure of Bathsheba in the foreground, and a distant king watching her from his balcony. Visual clues as to the rest of the story were unusual, and most paintings were hard to read as anything more than an excuse to expose female flesh in an ostensibly religious context. It was Rembrandt who changed that.
Rembrandt’s first painting of Bathsheba at her Toilet in 1643 is not one of his better works, though. It followed the popular trend, only his model was past her best, and the distant voyeur king has disappeared into the gloom of old varnish, I presume to the left. But over the next dozen years, the artist came up with a very different treatment which addresses some of the issues raised by the Old Testament story.
Here, in his Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (1654), he has moved on from the opening scene to an imagined moment later in time. Bathsheba is again at her bath, this time in the privacy of her bedchamber, her feet being cared for by an old and presumably worldly-wise maid or nurse.
Clutched in Bathsheba’s right hand is a letter, the title tells us from the king himself. Her eyebrows are raised in surprise, and she stares dreamily down at her attendant. We must presume that this letter is the king’s invitation to her to join with him in adultery. Rembrandt skilfully heightens the suspense in the lighting, and enhances the intimate detail with Bathsheba’s jewellery and ornamented hair. The crumpled sheets behind her make it clear that David’s invitation isn’t to a public engagement, but to a very private one.
Bathsheba’s expression and poise tell much of the story: she has a look of the inevitable, with more than a tinge of regret. She must already have been wondering how this would work out with her husband, whose fate clearly rested with the king too.
Rembrandt’s model for this masterpiece was his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, who had previously been his maid. After his wife died in 1642, just before his earlier painting of Bathsheba, Stoffels and Rembrandt lived together as a couple. At about the same time as he painted this second and brilliant account of Bathsheba’s predicament, Rembrandt painted a related work showing his mistress bathing in a stream.
There is no evidence to suggest that Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654) was intended to be another depiction of Bathsheba, but it is surely not just coincidence that he painted this when he was absorbed in Bathsheba’s story. Moreover, just like Bathsheba, by the middle of that year, Hendrickje Stoffels was also pregnant.
Additionally, Rembrandt painted Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, leaving King David with the instruction which would take him to his death, in Haman Recognises his Fate (c 1665), which doesn’t feature Bathsheba.
Just a decade later, Cornelis Bisschop tried mixing the two scenes in his Bathsheba (c 1663). She sits with her feet soaking in a pond, with the king watching her from a balcony at the top right. Bathsheba is also reading a letter, presumably an invitation from the voyeur king in the distance. In front of her are apples hanging on a tree, in a reference to Eve in the garden of Eden, although the story of the fall of man is the converse of that of the fall of Bathsheba.
Nikolaas Verkolje’s David Spying on Bathsheba from 1716 returns to the conventional approach, with a nude Bathsheba looking in a mirror in the foreground, as King David watches on from his balcony, in the upper left corner.
So says Jean François de Troy in his painting of Bathsheba at her Bath from 1750.
Also François Boucher in his David and Bathsheba from the same time (c 1750).
Then in about 1800, William Blake included Bathsheba at the Bath in a series of paintings of biblical narratives. Although he transplants the figures into a more pastoral setting, he too keeps to the tradition of the nearby nearly nude Bathsheba, and the distant elevated king.
I don’t know if the Scottish artist David Wilkie had seen Blake’s work, but his Bathsheba from 1815 is also set in the countryside. Bathsheba is now beside a small stream where she has been bathing, and is just putting on a stocking. King David is shown as every bit a voyeur as the two elders were of Susanna.
Francesco Hayez elaborates the same theme in his Bathsheba at her Bath (1845): Bathsheba is being dressed by her attendants, and the voyeur king leers over a wall in the distance, almost lost amid the trees, looking quite sinister.
As you might expect, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Bathsheba (1889) is a very literal interpretation of the story. Watching Bathsheba washing in the small garden on her roof is the figure of David, leaning forward to get as close a look as he can. At this late stage in his career, Gérôme had painted several Orientalist views among rooftops, and this painting seems to have developed from those.
Paul Cézanne painted at least two different versions of Bathsheba, including this from about 1885-90. Interestingly they are not from his early period of narrative works, but quite late in his career, and perhaps fit better with his succession of paintings of bathers. Neither version shows King David, so without knowing their theme could be challenging to read. Here, the forms of Bathsheba and her maid are echoed in the heaped up cumulus clouds.
Lovis Corinth had become interested in, and painted, Susanna and the elders early in his career, but appears not to have been so enthused over this story. His Bathsheba from 1908 is a curious treatment: Bathsheba herself is not the most attractive of the nudes which Corinth painted, and lies back on her bed holding a red rose in her right hand, looking dreamily at the viewer. Beside her is a maid whose form is much looser, but there is no sign of David.
My final painting comes from Franz von Stuck, his Bathsheba of 1912. Von Stuck had a career-long fascination with the femme fatale which seems to have brought him to a different position over Bathsheba and her relationship with the king. King David the voyeur is shown in silhouette on his palace roof, holding a daemonic trident. But Bathsheba looks and smiles at us knowingly as she emerges from her luxuriant pool: she performed for the spectator behind her.
Although I think von Stuck has travelled too far from the Biblical narrative, his painting raises some interesting questions in comparison with the story of Susanna and the elders. In that case, there was no doubt that Susanna was bathing in the seclusion of her own garden, and that the elders invaded her privacy, watched her, and tried to blackmail her into having sex with them.
The story of Bathsheba doesn’t provide detail over the privacy of Bathsheba’s bath, which is necessary for any visualisation. In contrast to Susanna’s generally secluded bathing, Bathsheba is universally shown as bathing where her body is exposed to David’s view, with the implication that she could have done so knowing that the king would be able to see her.
The trouble with this approach is that it only confuses the fact that David asked her to commit adultery, or possibly even raped her. Although he is eventually punished for his sins, as they consisted of the breach of two commandments – adultery and the murder of Uriah – in Bathsheba’s story virtue is abandoned, and it is male power which triumphs.