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Rembrandt: Bathsheba
David's lesson

Joe's Art Journal 1998 Year 1 No. 6 Aug 27

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621, in a crowd

Learning from the heritage

Beckmann / Joe

Who makes it on the net?


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!).

As I am writing in a foreign language, I am not sure to express myself correctly, but I hope you will be able to guess what I mean any time.

Also, I invite you to join in my effort. Send me your articles and comments to be published in this journal.

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).

David's lesson

Last week we learnt that Bathsheba plays only a minor role in the biblical story, which is consequently referred to as David and Bathsheba, and this is the way the story is depicted normally. Rembrandt dismisses David in his painting, which solves an obvious visual problem: How can David see such an intimate scene from the roof of his palace?

He did not paint David's part, but he drew scenes from the rest of the story which I have to tell you next.

David and the messenger
Rembrandt, David
The Lord did not like what David did and sent Nathan to David (2. Samuel, 12, 1-24), who told him a tale of a rich man having lots of sheep and cows and a poor man, having only a little lamb which he raised together with his children, feeding it from his table. A visitor came to the rich man not being able to sacrifice one of his beasts, so he took the lamb of the poor man to slaughter that to serve a meal for his guest.

David flew into great passion hearing this and told Nathan: As truly as the Lord lives, this man has deserved death. He has to pay fourfold for the lamb. Now Nathan said to David: "Thou are this man. Thus speaks the Lord, God of Israel: I have ..."

David and Nathan
Rembrandt, David and Nathan
.... well, I just got an idea: We're on the net, let's look for the original words. Start WebFerret, here we are:

12:7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;

12:8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

David and Nathan
Rembrandt, David and Nathan
12:9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.

12:10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.

12:11 Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.

David and Nathan, clipping
Rembrandt, David and Nathan, clipping
12:12 For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.

12:13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.

12:14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

12:15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.

12:16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.

12:17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.

12:18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?

12:19 But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.

12:20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.

Rembrandt, David
12:21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.

12:22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?

12:23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

12:24 And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.

Now take a deep breath! Gee, mighty words for mighty tales! Hundreds of years people studied these tales, Rembrandt painted his old mother studying a large bible depicting the prophet Hannah and prophets writing their part (click on image to see a blowup while online).

Now do you relate Rembrandt's life with the story of David? This story is not so easy to understand. David fails, that's for sure, and he is punished, true, but then he fathers Solomon with Bathsheba and the LORD loved him. Think twice! The mighty, proverbial Solomon came into being only through David's obvious sin.

The bible puts it very effectively, but I guess for a man like David it is not necessary to have a man like Nathan with a dramatic story to show him he failed. He will have known like anybody else around him that he willingly killed Urija. The whole story can only be understood if David is taken as a means, too, a means for the LORD's plans.

Prophet Hannah
Rembrandt, Prophet Hannah
If you read my other journals, you will notice that we stumble upon a topic here I discussed otherwise, too. There is an interesting twist to this in the new testament. I don't know the exact terms, but it runs something like this: The evil is necessary in this world, says Jesus, so he who does evil does so because it has to be done. But behold, he is damned, too.

Now recall that enigmatic feeling Bathsheba expresses in the painting of Rembrandt. Relate this to the story told in the bible. See the long way Rembrandt came? Would you believe just about anybody could invent such a painting? Let's round up this close look with a modern paraphrase by the most famous painter of this century next week.

For now, take a close look at the drawings! Rembrandt is a very great master at it.

Last week:
The story behind the picture

Next week:
Bathsheba by Picasso

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