Rembrandt - Bathsheba with King David's Letter

by Anna Maria Niemann


Rembrandt must have been particularly taken with the story of Bathsheba - he devoted himself to the subject twice. His earlier interpretation of the Bathsheba story from 1643 is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. The later one from 1654, which is the subject of this article, has found its place in the Louvre in Paris.


The subject of the painting can be identified as the story of the Old Testament Bathsheba. The beautiful woman from Jerusalem is observed bathing by King David, who was on the roof of his palace one evening. David, knowing full well that Bathsheba is married to his soldier Uriah, overrules their marriage and sends a messenger to Bathsheba to bring her to him in the palace. The secret liaison of the two bears fruit at the same time, however, for the beautiful Bathsheba becomes pregnant. To cover up the adultery, David has Uriah brought back from the front so that he can return to his wife and the paternity of the unborn and recently conceived child can be foisted upon him. But the faithful soldier Uriah refuses to seek recreation and pleasure in his home in wartime while his comrades are fighting at the front and does not enter his wife's house. Because the discovery of the adultery can no longer be stopped, David sends Uriah back to the front, ordering behind his back not to give Uriah any cover in battle, so that he must die.

After David's plan has worked out and Uriah has fallen in the war, he takes Bathsheba, who soon bears him a successor, as his wife. In view of the sensationalism in the history of art, it is not surprising that this story about secret affairs and a husband who is swept aside also enjoyed great popularity among artists. Among all the interpretations of this theme, especially in the early modern period, Rembrandt's Bathsheba of 1654 stands out from the surrounding pictorial tradition. The work captivates with its strongly reduced pictorial composition and its very own ability to visualise inner conflicts of thought.


In Rembrandt's interpretation of Bathsheba, the essential pictorial action is determined by two figures. On the right side of the square picture, the naked Bathsheba dominates, seeming to glow from within, her incarnate body having an almost golden sheen. She is seated on a piece of furniture covered with voluminous drapery, which may be her discarded clothes. In the lower left of the picture Bathsheba's servant, an older woman with dark clothing and headdress, can be seen. With the help of a presumably damp cloth, she is washing Bathsheba. The luminous incarnation of Bathsheba's completely unclothed body, which is adorned only by a discreet bangle, pearl-studded hair ribbons and a necklace with a pendant, contrasts with the interior, which falls into deep shadows.


Heavy brocades and voluminous fabric formations, both beside and behind Bathsheba, create a sense of intimacy and secrecy. They mark that the scene takes place in a private space. Only the ominously obscure black area in the background of the picture, which possibly suggests a loggia outside, opens up the question of what might be hidden there. A clue is provided by the letter Bathsheba is holding in her hand, the red wax seal of which has already been torn open. Only a tiny folded corner indicates the fatal content of the letter, without revealing what message has just reached the bather.


It is known from the Old Testament that King David sends a message to Bathsheba to come to him in the palace. Rembrandt evidently visualises this message in the form of a letter. By replacing the messenger with the symbolic letter, there is a delay in the painting. Bathsheba, who according to the story is directly confronted with the messenger and thus has an immediate answer to give, is given a short grace period by Rembrandt. Isolated with the letter, she gains time to make a momentous decision. The isolation is further emphasised by the setting of the scene in an intimate room of the home. Bathsheba's glazed gaze seems to reveal that she is carrying out an inner conflict. She is clearly struggling with the question of whether she should oppose her ruler's wishes or whether she should commit adultery.

She is probably even weighing up the consequences she would have to face should she decide against visiting the royal house, for both options endanger her own safety as well as that of her husband. Rembrandt's reduced pictorial composition and the impressive focus on Bathsheba's lost-in-thought musing seem to be a very special interpretation of the pictorial theme, especially with a view to the pictorial tradition. A direct comparison of the work with, for example, Peter Paul Rubens' Bathsheba (c. 1635) reveals a very different design of the desirable woman.


Next to Rembrandt's Bathsheba, which is completely free of subplots and decorative props, Rubens' Bathsheba seems almost overloaded. Rubens stages the bather as a seductress who, however, does not yet know what message is about to be conveyed to her. While a servant does Bathsheba's hair, a messenger appears to deliver David's message. The king can be seen in the background on his balcony, indicating once again that this is a voyeuristic scene. While Rembrandt clearly focuses on the ominous consequences of Bathsheba's decision, this aspect is almost lost in Rubens' work. Only a yapping dog in the foreground seems to warn of the impending conflict. But drapery, a fountain whose water glistens in the evening sun and pearl jewellery wrapped around Bathsheba's wrist serve as decorative elements. They characterise Bathsheba above all as a seductress. While Ruben's Bathsheba is not yet aware of the approaching message and thus enjoys her evening beauty ritual in light-heartedness, Rembrandt's Bathsheba has long been aware of her plight.


In fact, the pictorial element of washing in both paintings characterises very specific personality designs of Bathsheba. Ruben's Bathsheba is coiffed, her topknots adorned with ribbons, one might think especially for an upcoming appointment. This contrasts with Rembrandt's Bathsheba, whose ablution is more like an ordinary cleansing. The Bible also speaks of the cleansing of Bathsheba from her "impurity". What is meant is the ritual cleansing at the end of the female menstruation. In the Bible, therefore, the washing does not serve to mark a vain beauty ritual, but rather to illustrate the fact that Bathsheba was in the fertile phase of her cycle when David observed her. This explains how the pregnancy could have occurred. Because Rembrandt's Bathsheba, especially in comparison to that of Ruben, is not staged as a vain seductress, she consistently evades the accusation of voluptuous devotion in favour of the wishes of her powerful suitor. The theme remains, and both pictorial elements and composition speak for this, the inner conflict of a woman having to bear responsibility for her impending fate.


Rembrandt van Rijn - Bathsheba

1654, Oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm, Paris, Musée de Louvre


Peter Paul Rubens - Bathsheba at the Fountain

c. 1635, oil on oak, 175 x 126 cm, Dresen, Old Masters Picture Gallery