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Rembrandt: Bathsheba
The story behind the picture

Joe's Art Journal

1998, Year 1
No. 5, Aug 20

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This series is not intended to be a university course. I am not an art scholar, I am just a painter and art lover only. As lover I will approach one of the works of art the heritage of all mankind has left us, one by one, week after week, as long as I can. I will keep my investigation personal and simple, meant to open your eyes to see for yourself. Words can be used as a means to that end, but it is rather the space between the words that does the work. A great master of the art of appreciation of art, Kurt Rossacher of Vienna, demanded to see with nose first, eyes, tongue, heart, and only at last with the brain.

Your appreciation will give me the power and strength to endure. It is for you and all the great masters that I do this work, and I hope you will enjoy it. So don't hesitate to send me your feedback in order to help me with that goal! This kind of journal is new to the net, so please tell me if the size is ok (images are great, but big!).

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Yours truly,

Rembrandt: Bathsheba (scans by Mark Harden, Carol Gerten and the publisher)

(To get a blowup while offline: Connect to the internet, click , then disconnect).

The story behind the picture

So far, I talked about the painting only, about what can be seen from looking at the picture. But in some way, this painting is an illustration and an interpretation, too. The title indicates this, and it constitutes an important aspect of the painting, so the story must be told.

Rembrandt started big: He wanted to be a "historian" painter as opposed to someone painting still lifes, landscapes or portraits, each of these being ranked higher, historians ranking highest. He made his first big money with portraits, but he always did biblical scenes and was soon successful with these, too. Bathsheba refers to a story in the old testament. The story is told with short but powerful words, as usual. I will tell it in my own, lacking an English bible.

Rembrandt, Bathsheba
King David (2. Samuel, 11, 1-27) sent his troops to war. One day, from the roof of his palace, he saw a beautiful woman bathing. He was told she is Bathsheba, married to Urija, a Hethite. He called for her and took her to bed. She just had cleaned herself from menses. She went back and became pregnant (As we all know, this can't be, but the bible is that precise and tells so). She gives him notice, David knows he is in trouble. He sends a messenger to his general Joab leading his war and lets him send the husband Urija to him who obviously fights for David.

Michelle Hammond writes Tuesday, 03-14-00:

Actually this is quite possible, and very likely. A hebrew woman on menses was considered unclean for 7 days after the end of menses, (the bath she had just taken was irelevant, she was simply bathing.) Most woman have menses for 7 days. The average cycle is 28 days, counted from the 1st day of menses, with day 14 being the day of ovulation and the peak time to become pregnant. So... 7 days of menses, 7 more days before being purified of her uncleaness... that makes 14 days. It was very likely that Bathsheba would become pregnant when she lay with David, as she would have been at approximately day 14 in her cycle.

Thank you, Michelle!

He makes some small talk with Urija, then sends him home to wash his feet. He even sends a gift after him. Urija seems to know what's going on and refuses to take part in this plot, to serve as the father of David's child. He sleeps with the servants of David, does not enter his house. David is told so. Now David calls Urija again and frankly asks him, why he did not go to his house. He pathetically answers that Juda and the case Israel dwell in huts, his master Joab and his fellow soldiers on the field, so he won't go home to eat and drink and lay with his wife. And he swears by his own and Davids soul, he will not do it.

David orders him to stay another day, invites him to dinner and makes him drunk. Urija stays with the servants nevertheless, not going home. Next day David writes a letter to Joab to be delivered by Urija. He details that Urija is to be put up front, the others to be retrieved, so that Urija will be hit and die. Joab arranges things, Urija dies, and David is told of the fight. Joab instructs the messenger to prepare for David's scolding, he is instructed to not defend himself but only to answer: Also, your servant, the Hethite Urija, is dead. He does so right away, not waiting for scolding. David sends him back to encourage Joab, not to take this defeat and loss too serious, finding very nice words.

As Bathsheba hears of the death of her husband, she held obsequies for him. As soon as time of mourning passed, David called for her, she became wife to him and gave birth to a son. The Lord did not like what David did, however.

The story goes on - but I will save it for next time. Got enough material for this issue. First thing to observe is that the bible tells of letters written, but not that David wrote a letter to Bathsheba to call her. This is an invention of Rembrandt. It does not tell that Bathsheba was naked, either.

Usually the story is depicted with David being part of the scene, as in that lithograph of Picasso made as a paraphrase to Lucas Cranach's painting. David is seen on top, pointing at Bathsheba, his eyes swollen from lust. Bathsheba is surrounded by her maids of honour, all dressed up in costumes of Cranach's time. No cleansing from menses, just washing feet, which is not supported by the bible.

That sure is a weak detail in the story: How could she have been seen by David from the roof of his palace in the first place? But this is not the argument. David will fail through her, Bathsheba is only a means and has to be brought into the story somehow. I counted the frequency of her name in my tale: One at the beginning and one at the end, no more.

Picasso, David and Bathsheba
Rembrandt condenses the story to one person, Bathsheba, the maid being accessory only, another invention of his. Please note, he centers in a person having a subordinate part in the story, being a means and used only, not taking any active role. Now this is a bold invention indeed.

Just as well he could have used Urija to illustrate the plot. And indeed, there is a drawing showing the messenger approaching David with Urijas armor as proof of his death, another invention of Rembrandt, reminiscent of the proof of Josephs death presented to his father Jacob. As a third person the prophet Nathan shows up, who is to confront David with his misdeed in the name of the Lord. But here, David is the main figure.

Rembrandt, David and the messenger
So we see, the painting is not an illustration of the biblical story at all which clearly centers on David. If we did not know, we never would guess it. But the reading of the picture told us much more or rather something different than the bible does. In fact, the story of the bible and the picture relate only with poor facts.

Taken differently, it makes much more sense: The biblical story is a starting point to clarify feelings related to a person's life. This way, the bible has helped many people master their lives, as did other stories and tales and novels and plays and movies as well to this day. We identify with the heroes and find our experience related to theirs, so we strive to take from their experience in turn.

Whatever we project to that painting, Rembrandt sure did paint his own story. Of course he used David's misdeed as an opportunity to paint his experience of a woman's body (compare my comment to Rubens / Renoir, Pablo 1.2). Seen from a near perspective, the reward and the lust it spawns is shown. It is an intimate, loving picture, never to be seen from a distance. But there is this feeling of grief also, pointing to the bitter consequences. Love and longing don't have to be punished by law, but in this case there was something ruthless in the wake, connected to pregnancy which in turn is by definition connected to love and sex, even if we can control it today (mostly). Remember his biography from part 1?

The next year, 1641, Titus was born, their only child to grow up. A year later Saskia died, Titus being 9 months old. Rembrandt engaged a widow to look after him, Greetje Dirx, who soon became his mistress. 7 years later, a young maid named Hendrickje Stoffels joined the household and became Rembrandts mistress, so Greetje left and sued Rembrandt for breach of promise. He showed up at court only after being called three times. He managed not to have to marry her, but he had to pay her 160 florins once in 1649 and 200 florins each year thereafter until her death. There is no artistic work known of this year. Rembrandt managed to get her assigned in a house of correction through bribery the year after. Although he threatened a lot, her friends liberated her in 1655, she seems to have died the next year. It was clear by 1653, that he could not afford his living any more. His debt from the house was still 7.000 florins, he owed the interest and part of the taxes. In July 1654, Hendrickje hat to show up at the church consistory. She confessed to live in sin with Rembrandt and was severely punished. In October, their daughter Cornelia was born.

This painting is dated 1654. Rembrandt was 48 years old. He sure used David's misdeed as an opportunity to paint his experience of guilt, too.

Last week:
What does the body tell?

Next week:
David's lesson

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