Bathsheba resembles a model on a raised dais lit through a studio window. She performs "on stage"2 surrounded by water as a symbol of Rembrandt's androgynous mind. He signed it close to the surface as though the image itself rises out of the depths of his mind. With one hand touching her breast Bathsheba as a painting "paints" herself though the maids actually "paint" her. Yet even there we know that Rembrandt did. In addition, in placing a king and palace inside his "eye" Rembrandt implies that his inner eye is both pure and royal, an esoteric symbol of spiritual perfection.3
The scene is yet another inside view of an artist's skull.4 It is a mental image of his own mind conceiving the composition, fusing symbols of craft (the maid's hands, brushes, sponge, bowl) with conception (the imagined copulation between King David-as-artist and Bathsheba-as-model.) Given that every painter paints himself Bathsheba must be "Rembrandt" too and, as a nude woman, the most fertile part, no doubt, of Rembrandt's mind.
Captions for image(s) above:
Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath (1643), digitally brightened for clarity
Click image to enlarge.
Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, a general of King David's army. The king, upon seeing Bathsheba bathing, had her summoned, and led her into adultery. In this, one of his major works, the artist focuses his representation of the episode on Bathesheba at her bath. She is portrayed deeply disturbed by the royal message. David is absent here, but can be seen in the painting by Jan Massys (INV. 1446) Room 11.
A biblical episode
A nude young woman is sitting on pure white drapery, a letter in her hand. She appears to be lost in thought, as an elderly maidservant with an Oriental-style headdress washes her feet. The young woman is the beautiful Bathsheba. King David had seen her bathing from the terrace of his palace, and fallen passionately in love with her. He summoned her with a letter, before sending her husband, the general Uriah, to certain death in battle. God later punished this illicit liaison: the adulterous couple's firstborn son would perish. Unlike many other painters (such as Jan Massys), Rembrandt chose to focus on Bathsheba's reaction to the royal summons; he did not portray David's desire, nor any other anecdotal detail. The result is psychologically powerful and profoundly moving.
Sadness and sensuality
Rembrandt painted Bathsheba from a live model. The opulence of this life size nude is exceptional in the master's work: the nakedness of a beloved body, each fold of its triumphant flesh lovingly detailed, its eroticism highlighted by the fine transparent drapery and delicately worked jewelry. This open sensuality (the cause of imminent sin) contrasts with the young woman's air of profound sadness. The position of the head with its idealized profile was carefully planned: we know from the X ray of the painting that Rembrandt had first painted the face raised skyward — a less judicious choice than this gentle incline. Much of the charm of the painting resides in the tension of the character of Bathsheba, who gazes resignedly into space, sadly accepting her fate.
The warm harmony of the painting, in tones of gold and copper, was inspired by great Venetian painters such as Titian and Veronese. Rembrandt's skill in depicting light was at its height in this becalmed, mature work. The mellow chiaroscuro, intended to highlight the body of Bathsheba, also creates a dramatic effect. The gold brocade cloth in the background and the dazzling white of the linen provide a luminous setting for the touching, alluring female nudity. The chromatic richness and psychological subtlety of this Bathsheba make the painting one of Rembrandt's greatest masterpieces.
Le Siècle de Rembrandt : tableaux hollandais des collections publiques françaises, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1970, p. 181-182.
Foucart Jacques, Les Peintures de Rembrandt au Louvre, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1982, p. 54-62.
Partsch Susanna, Rembrandt, sa vie, son oeuvre, Weert, 1991, p. 161.