Mark Harden's Artchive Rembrandt van Rijn
Bathsheba at Her Bath
1654
Oil on canvas
56 x 56" (142 x 142 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Text from Simon Schama, "Rembrandt's Eyes":

"Rembrandt...makes the most beautiful nude of his career, in fact, the last nude painting of his career, a vessel of pure tragedy. In the 1640s, he had made a much smaller version of the same subject in a sharply different temper. The smile on the face of that Rubensian blond Bathsheba speaks of naked complicity. It's the expression of a mindless flirt, a come-on. But the 1654 Bathsheba is burdened by thought, the lines of the body evoking, for once, the self-containment of classical friezes to suggest Bathsheba's fatalism; the mood intensely self-interrogatory. Rembrandt's brushwork has as many calm passages as agitated strokes, limpid cool tones as well as Venetian warmth and softness. And it is heavy with telling contrasts - between the richly brocaded gold robe (painted with loaded strokes of yellow ocher and black), the garment of her royal destiny, and the pure white shift of her betrayed innocence; between her own dewy roselike beauty and the knowing, shaded countenance of the old servant washing her feet.

"The stain was on Bathsheba's pregnancy. For once David realized she was with child, he attempted, as forcefully as he could, to persuade Uriah to sleep with his wife so as to conceal his own adultery. Inconveniently though, Uriah turns out to be an even more exemplary patriot than he is a model husband, and refuses to return home while a battle in which he had been fighting for the King is still raging. The strategy of his sexual convenience sabotaged, King David's fallback tactic is to ensure that Uriah is sent to a place on the battlefield where death is guaranteed. After Uriah's demise and a year of mourning, David takes Bathsheba as his queen, but as the Bible puts it with ominous economy, "the thing that David had done displeased the Lord." The prophet Nathan admonishes David for his wickedness and warns that henceforth "the sword shall never depart from thine house," and that although the King would not die for his sin, the child born of his illicit liaison would perish.

...

"The Bathsheba preserves [a] deep contemplative inwardness even while it is painted on the same scale as Rembrandt's energetically extroverted histories of the 1630s. At the emotional - and compositional - center of the painting is the letter on which not only David's fate but the fate of the whole House of Judah seems to be inscribed. The implications of the disaster for the political history of the children of Israel would not have been lost on the Dutch, who were repeatedly likened by their poets and preachers to the Chosen People, their blessings guarded by a watchful Providence on the condition that they obey His laws. As the hinge of disaster, the letter receives Rembrandt's closest attention, a corner curled back to reveal (indistinctly, as usual) the King's own hand, the paper casting a light shadow on Bathsheba's thigh. But she is not reading the thing. She has already understood, too well, its content. So Bathsheba stares beyond it, toward the servant washing her feet. But this ostensibly anecdotal detail itself becomes weighted with tragic implications, and Rembrandt means us to see it. For the Bible relates that David lay with Bathsheba after "she was purified from her uncleanness," in other words, after her postmenstrual ritual bath . So that Bathsheba is, in effect, watching an act of cleansing turn into an act of pollution, and the reaffirmation of her conjugal purity turn into the preparation for her adultery. No wonder, then, that her gaze is both concentrated and distracted, the lips soft and loose, on the verge of trembling, the eyebrows tightly arched as though battling against the onset of tears."