Bathsheba: Rembrandt’s Confession

 
Rembrandt, Bathsheba Reading David's Letter, 1654, Louvre (courtesy of the Louvre, image in public domain)

Detail of Rembrandt, Bathsheba Reading David’s Letter, 1654, Louvre (courtesy of the Louvre, image in public domain)

 

Patrick Hunt – 

1  “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.  2  One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, 3  and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4  Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. 5  The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”     II Samuel 11:1-15

The story of Bathsheba as told in II Samuel 11 is a tragic narrative in the literary saga of King David. Its hermeneutics are murky from almost any angle however Bathsheba’s minimal role is interpreted, but what is clear is a profound concatenation of unintended consequences and bad choices whose ripples spread outward ever larger in the lives of David and his family. Shirking his kingly duty as war leader, sleeping in late, waking to lust after a bathing woman, compelling her to come to his palace while her husband is away in battle, sleeping with her and getting her pregnant is only the beginning. Murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is followed by David’s own family disintegrating in II Samuel 12-18  – who among the children didn’t know what really happened? – into incest, fratricide, exile, usurpation of power and ultimately the deaths of many Israelites in battle compounded by the loss of several other sons of David to tragic premature deaths. The one son, Amnon who rapes his half sister Tamar, defiles the family even more, but David’s lack of predictive judicial insight leads to more murder as Absalom takes revenge on his half brother Amnon and then becomes a fugitive from justice in exile. The theme of misdirected power is a constant throughout the narrative, from David, to Amnon, to Absalom, to Joab and so on.

David’s abuse of power, first in purloining his faithful officer Uriah’s wife, is a relentless theme while he abdicates good responsibility for leading his people – staying at home while his army fights – and lacking discipline in every facet of his life, even rising late in the day. So who’s running the country while David takes his holiday?

Detail of Jean-Léon Gérôme , Bathsheba, Private collection (image in public domain)

Detail of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bathsheba, Private collection (image in public domain)

The French historical and Academicism painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), sees exactly where the sequence of David’s sins led. Having traveled widely in the Near East, his above meticulous landscape Bathsheba imparts the biblical cheesecake rationalization of voyeuristic nudity. He has the bathing Bathsheba almost gyrating for the viewer with David leaning out of his palace tower to the left (not in this above detail). The view from the rooftop is a realistic Jerusalem looking west toward Zion hill from the Ophel ridge where David’s Palace was, with even the then-contemporary monuments of the Armenian Quarter visible on the horizon. But Gérôme has cleverly added a sombre proleptic device in the landscape: David’s palace on the left the palace terminates in a tower that is the exact profile of Absalom’s Tomb (or Absalom’s Monument, Yad Absalom) in the Kidron Valley of Jerusalem. This is where the sad narrative culminates with more death and loss.

Absalom's Tomb or Yad Absalom, Absalom's Monument in Kidron Valley, Jerusalem (courtesy of israelinphotos.com)

Absalom’s Tomb or Yad Absalom, Absalom’s Monument in Kidron Valley, Jerusalem (courtesy of israelinphotos.com)

Artists typically offer their own interpretation of literary ekphrases, often inserting details of their personal lives as well, as Rembrandt certainly did in his Louvre Bathsheba Reading David’s Letter of 1654.

After the premature death of his wife Saskia in 1643, Rembrandt was forced by the terms of the prenuptial usufruct her family had imposed to never remarry. The suspicious van Uylenburgh relatives had viewed Rembrandt as a social climber and this prenuptial condition became part of the legal marriage contract between him and Saskia van Uylenburgh at the outset. As long as he stays legally “single” he cannot touch the principal but can siphon off the interest from Saskia’s inheritance. His succession of child nurses cum mistresses included Geertje Dirckx, who claimed he had promised marriage and who wore his wife’s jewelry. He paid her off and in court proceedings had her placed in an asylum spinhuis. [1]

Rembrandt had already brought into his house the much more amenable nurse-mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he had certainly fallen in love by 1654 when the Louvre Bathsheba was painted with Hendrickje as Bathsheba. But the circumstances were no different: he still could not remarry. The Dutch Reformed Church saw this open relationship between Rembrandt, who had already fallen out with much of the Amsterdam city power circles, and Hendrickje as flagrant adultery.

Around 1653 the local Amsterdam church council had summoned both Rembrandt, who was notoriously lax in church attendance and openly resistant, possibly because his family had remained Remonstrant Catholic,  and his mistress Hendrickje to a summons to give an account of living openly in sin and face punitive measures. Church officials being painted by Rembrandt had overlooked this or that peccadillo while he had been the artist darling of the city. But things were different in 1653-4 about the time of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy. Of course Rembrandt did not show up to the church hearing but Hendrickje did as a faithful churchgoer. She was promptly punished by being forbidden to attend services among other things conveyed in formal writing. In some sense, Rembrandt has included all these proceedings with the charge of adultery against both of them in the Louvre painting of Bathsheba.

Hendrickje wears Saskia’s pearl earrings – Rembrandt flaunts this before the van Uylenburgh clan – and not much else. As Bathsheba during her bath she is holding the letter from David, ambiguously conflated to include both the original summons of David to come to him as well as the subsequent letter from him telling her that her husband Uriah is dead.  But the painting is also filled with personal details about Rembrandt and Hendrickje, where Rembrandt is David and Hendrickje is Bathsheba.

Bathsheba’s face is one of the most poignant in art, contemplatively filled with conflicting emotions and subtleties; mixed sorrow over Uriah and her mostly silent role in his fate is juxtaposed with relief that her future with David can also be more open. A genius like Rembrandt can amalgamate multiple emotive bittersweet responses in a face he personally knows well. It certainly helps sell the biblical portrayal that Hendrickje’s face shows her own current conflicted angst over her adultery with Rembrandt – whom she likewise loves – and her temporary deathlike “excommunication” from the Church, all the more painful because she is a devoted churchgoer. Rembrandt may even suggest Hendrickje is holding in her hand the formal church edict against her. Rembrandt’s bankruptcy and loss of nearly everything is set against David’s losses; Rembrandt’s fall from Amsterdam favorite and king of painters coupled with David’s temporary fall from kingly power and usurpation by his own heir Absalom.

So here in the Louvre masterpiece Rembrandt confesses his love for Hendrickje and her predicament with him, knowing full well that adultery is a charge he is willing to accept for love regardless of the consequences, and at the same time milking his personal misfortunes for all the artistic reality he can muster like no other artist.

 

Notes

[1]   Patrick Hunt. Rembrandt: His Life in Art. New York: Ariel Books, 2007 2nd ed., 89.

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