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Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, 1654

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This work is one of the highlights of the Louvre in Paris. We see a young beauty bathing naked. She has just read a letter and is in doubt. Should she obey the king’s command to spend the night with him, or should she remain faithful to her husband?

If an artist wanted to portray drama, he would normally do so with big gestures: looking up in alarm, waving arms, movement and theatre. That is what we expect as viewers. But how do you portray inner turmoil? How do you show pure human doubt? Rembrandt was confronted by these questions when he painted the decisive moment in the life of this introverted, beautiful bathing woman.

Told in another way
Rembrandt probably used his lover Hendrickje Stoffels as a model. It is remarkable that Rembrandt shows her earthly, natural beauty. Nowadays, we would say that he did not photoshop her, but let her natural beauty shine through instead. Rembrandt often painted biblical scenes. However, especially in his latter years, he used compositions and moments from biblical stories that were different to the ones commonly used. Like a director, he thought about how to tell a story in the most beautiful and arresting way possible. And in doing so, he used some remarkably modern techniques for drawing us, the viewers, into the story.
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Sleeping with the king
The story behind this painting comes from the Old Testament. While King David’s soldiers are defending Israel with heart and soul against the enemy, the king spies at a bathing woman from the roof of his palace in Jerusalem. She is Bathsheba, the ravishing wife of Uriah, the commander of the king’s army. Rembrandt has painted the moment that Bathsheba has just read the letter in which the king summons her to the palace to spend the night with him. She will obey him, go to the palace and get pregnant by the king.

Covering up the adultery

In order to cover up the adultery, the king orders his lover’s husband, the commander, to come home quickly. But things do not turn out as the king wants. The commander is loyal to his troops, refuses to go indoors to his wife and sleeps outside the door of his house. The plan has failed, and the adultery is likely to be discovered. The only solution that King David can think of is to send Uriah to the front to die in battle. This is a cruel act of the king against a loyal and heroic servant. Bathsheba grieves for her dead husband for a long time, but eventually decides to marry the king.

Inner turmoil takes place on the inside. How do you paint that?

Earthly beauty

In a darkened room, Bathsheba’s feet are washed by a serving girl. A pillar in the background suggests an edifice, probably the palace of King David. Rembrandt places the focus on Bathsheba’s body and expression. We see Bathsheba lost in thought, introverted and in mental anguish. Should she obey the king’s command or should she remain faithful to her husband?

  • Letter from the king

    Should she listen to the king and sleep with him or remain faithful to her husband?

  • Irresistible body

    Rembrandt does not idealise Bathsheba’s body, but rather shows her earthly beauty.

  • Rubens

    This story is usually told by making Bathsheba look startled, as seen on this work by Rubens. But Rembrandt shows the woman’s inner turmoil instead.

X-ray

An X-ray of the painting shows that Rembrandt originally wanted to portray Bathsheba with a raised head and startled expression. But in the end he decided not to do that at all. He chose to express her agitation by giving her a calm pose, lost in thought. It is this barely visible inner turmoil that still gives the painting such a modern appearance today. This is exactly what good actors can do, too: show deep emotions without overdoing it, in such a way that viewers can fill in and complete the story themselves.

Over het schilderij

  • Bathsheba with King David’s letter (1654)
  • Canvas 142 x 142 cm
  • Musée du Louvre, Paris
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