Rembrandt’s Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (Louvre, Paris)
Bathsheba with David’s Letter (1654) by Rembrandt; Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)
Who was Bathsheba? What letter is that?
“It happened toward evening when [King] David had risen from his couch and was strolling on the palace roof, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David made inquiries about this woman and was told: ‘Why, that is Bathsheba…the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ Then David sent messengers and had her brought. She came to him and he slept with her…The woman conceived and sent word to David, ‘I am with child.’” (2 Samuel, verse 11, 2)
A nice letter—a summons from the King, who was up to no good. He later arranged things so that Bathsheba’s husband would be killed.
Here is the painting of a Bible prophet in another predicament.
Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Guido Reni; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (public domain photo)
Potiphar the Egyptian is one of Pharoah’s chief officials. His wife keeps asking Joseph to sleep with her. He refuses this time as always but she pulls off his cloak and uses it as a corpus delicti.
“Now Joseph was well built and handsome, and it happened some time later that his master’s wife looked desirously at him and said, ‘Sleep with me.’ But he refused…Although she spoke to Joseph day after day he would not agree to sleep with her and surrender to her…
“But one day…the woman caught hold of him by his tunic and said, ‘Sleep with me.’ But he left the tunic in her hand and ran out of the house…She called her servants and said to them, ‘Look at this!…He came to me to sleep with me, but I screamed, and when he heard me scream and shout he left his tunic beside me and ran out of the house.’” (Genesis 39, 7)
Here are two other illustrations of this famous story:
Gentilleschi and Cignani both give more details of just what Potiphar’s wife was offering.
Joseph was arrested and thrown into prison.
Here are my weaknesses, Rembrandt can do no wrong. This depiction of Bathsheba has an earthiness about her which any man who has known a wife in early pregnancy can quickly associate. The almost mandatory dark background increases the drama and literally spotlights the message. His technique is faultless.
Cignani’s version of Potiphar’s wife is an attractive work, it must have been a distraction to men at their devotional prayers though! Great post Swallows.
But, Robert–is she already pregnant? I thought King David was telling her to report to the palace here after he spied her across the rooftop. She knows he is up to no good and is worried. But of course you may be right. Maybe here she is receiving the routine letter from the King–say, day five in the adultery–and she is worried about Uriah at the front. Or about what starts to look like a baby on the way. Or any other moment of the story.
Of course it is a brave man to speculate on a girl’s condition Swallow. I thought you would pick this up. My ‘gut’ feeling is that she is pregnant. In the seven years of marriage his Saskia and he had at least 4 children so she would have been close to pregnancy (before or after birth a girl still has the tell tale shape!). Assuming that she was in part the model for Bathsheba at least in his head or in his sketch book, then it is hardly surprising that he should depict Bathsheba as pregnant intentionally or not. If you were married in those days you tended to be with child most of the time.
But you are going to say that this is not Saskia but his model and his mistress, Hendrickje Stouffels the date being 1654. Saskia died in 1642, 12 years before, but if this painting is 1654 Hendrickje too was pregnant with R’s daughter. On 30 October 1654, Cornelia van Rijn was baptized in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. So you must forgive him just a little if he has made a mistake here. He may have decided as a wife Bathsheba was pregnant by her husband anyway. The tummy he depicts surely looks like it! What ever, it’s a great painting and thanks for posting about a great hero!
PS do you know who did the ‘sculpture’ of Hendrickje in Bredevoort?
It’s hard to say whether she’s pregnant or not. There are other signs of pregnancy that I don’t see here, and I don’t want to get into too much detail about. She must be size 12-14, so for that size, and her age (she doesn’t look 20 or 25), she must have had some body fat which would be visible when sitting in the nude.
The letter in her hand is odd. Wouldn’t that be used as proof if ended up in the wrong hands, let’s say the husband? Or the husband didn’t care? Or cared but couldn’t say no to the King? Did they even write letters in those times?
Erika: Aren’t you a great detective! The letter was just a painter’s device (though later you’ll see that the king did send a written letter to his general Joab). There are at least two Vermeer women reading letters by the window, and one of them is very big with child.
One always wonders whether Rembrandt didn’t start this painting with the model, whoever she was, before he had the idea to stick a letter in her hand and call her Bathsheba. I’m going to trust Erika’s eagle (female eagle) eye, Robert, and declare the woman not pregnant.
King David wasn’t worried about Bathsheba’s husband. I left out the rest of the story. The adultery as such was bad enough but look what he pulled next. He tried to get Uriah to quick sleep with his wife so he would believe the baby was his. When that failed because Uriah was a stubbornly upright man, he had him killed.
“Then David sent Joab [his general] a message, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite [Bathsheba’s husband, a good soldier]’….When Uriah came into his presence David said to [him]: ‘Go down to your house and enjoy yourself.’ Uriah left the palace, and was followed by a present from the king’s table. Uriah however slept by the palace door with his master’s bodyguard and did not go down to his house. This was reported to David; ‘Uriah,’ they said, ‘did not go down to his house.’ So David asked Uriah, ‘Have you not just arrived from a journey? Why do you not go to your home?’ But Uriah answered, ‘Are not the ark and the men of Israel and Judah lodged in tents; and my master Joab and the bodyguard of my lord, are they not in the open fields? Am I to go to my house, then, and eat and drink and sleep with my wife? As Yahweh lives, and as you yourself live, I will do no such thing!’….Next morning David wrote a letter to Joab….: ‘Station Uriah in the thick of the fight and then fall back behind him so that he may be struck down and die’….And Uriah the Hittite was killed….”
2 Samuel 11, 6-17
Robert: I don’t know as much about Rembrandt’s biography as you so I can’t say which woman it was. She doesn’t really look like Saskia, does she? Why couldn’t this be just any model? As to her possible pregnancy, see Erika’s clever comment and my answer to her.
I have no idea who did the statue of Hendrickje in Bredevoort. I had never seen it and now I just had a look. Is there some reason to take more than that one look?
No, to the statue! I suppose I am less interested in the story of David and more intrigued with the painting, could it be a cover up? He was having all sorts of problems at that time.
I have been trying to find your other blog. Where is it? I wrote down a link I saw here some time ago, but can’t find it anymore. Could you tell me again ?
I have also started a second blog called Shop Talk. It is going to be about language learning, si Dios quiere. Right now there is only a fight about Esperanto.
And Dios mediante you would appreciate the little sculpture or relief I put in my header. It had to be small, about 140 pixels high. It is signed, but as always, no way to read the signature. — The idea for artists to handsign their work is a remnant from the past and highly counterproductive.
Cantueso: Here is the link to my Famous Names blog:
It’s as much about Rome and the ancient world as about Spain.
Language learning is a good idea for a new blog and I like your title. Good luck with it.
As for the relief in your header, it is very nice. Didn’t you use to have a blog called Cycling or Bicycling? I may have seen it there. Where did it come from? The boy is well modelled.
What is your idea: that signatures are no good because they can’t be read when the computer photo is reduced? Maybe so.
Sumptuous paintings – it was a real treat to see them together.
Hahaha, Swallows, a detective? Observing is fun. Thanks for clearing up the role of the husband. I’ve been always more interested in Greek-Roman mythology then the Bible.
I also anjoy the sumptuousness of it all, and the voluminousness, and the voluptuousness…
What scandalous behavior on the part of King David!
Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)
Eileen: Yahweh thought so too and killed the baby.
Rich: As you enjoy all those -ousnesses I’m going to get you one for Christmas.
Sooo he got in trouble a ywat and he didnt even do anything!!