Dec 052007

The woman’s face becomes an emotive center point: the slightly risen brow discloses surprise, the faint blush on her cheek reveals a measure of pleasure from being noticed by the king, the downcast eyes express humility and inevitable doom. When combined, these emotions synthesize into a sense of fate, along with recognition and acceptance of it. Bathsheba’s absent-minded gaze points towards the slave as if in an envy of the servant’s plain and uncomplicated position — the opposite of the mistress’. The rest of lady’s body enacts mentioned feelings. Her left hand (which seems disproportionately large) grabs the blanket in an unsure motion, which both repels and summons the future. The other hand, holding the letter, rests weak-willed on the right thigh. Rembrandt often used written messages as plot propelling tools, and this painting exemplifies how the letter triggers the conflict mirrored on Bathsheba’s face.

Buy at
Bathsheba Bathing, 1654
Buy From

But I find the artist’s method of conveying the content of the letter even cleverer. Without the need to go into the biblical details, it is easy to recognize the subject of the message as the nude sitter in front of us — indeed a subject, of the king this time, and an object, of his sexual desires. Though the sexiness of the luscious curves of the woman’s body may seem questionable by our contemporary standards, it was then the model of female attractiveness? and understandably so: the plumpness attests to high fertility, a universal sexual lure. Particularly the excessive belly fat demonstrates the female’s ability to properly feed a possible baby. There are several attributes that substitute clothing as a telling sign of refined manners: the exquisite done hair, the jewelry on the lady’s neck and right arm, and the pearl earrings. The elegant pose and the maid complete the picture.

Buy at
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Buy From

I would like to discuss the triangular composition and how it serves to immerse the viewer in the conflict at hand. One of the lines of the imaginary geometrical figure is also imaginary: the above mentioned gaze that connects Bathsheba’s eyes with her servant. This line assumes symbolic meaning; the lady is literally busy from head to toe with what is about to happen. First, there is the mental and moral concern and second, the preparation and making of her toilet for the meeting with David. The letter is right in the middle, and on the same level as her genitals — in fact, it may appear to echo the infamous fig leaf, inviting a flood of compatible associations on the original sin, illicit sexual encounter, shame and knowledge. In one way or another, all of these factors are involved in the (future) proceedings. One possible interpretation would posit that the language used to write the letter is the metaphysical carrier of the knowledge unduly obtained from that same tree, thus linking the depicted event with the legendary one.

  2 Responses to “Rembrandt: Bathsheba with King David’s Letter”

  1. Hi, what an interesting blog — and how much you and I have in common! i found you googling Rembrandt entries… ill give you a link and be back!

  2. Thanks, and I’ll say the same about yours. I see you discuss Japanese wood prints, which are also very interesting to me. I hope to talk about a few in the future. Thanks for the compliments! Can’t wait for your comments! :)

Leave a Reply