Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter by Rembrandt
Interpretation of Biblical History Painting

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Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter by Rembrandt
Bathsheba Holding
King David's Letter
By Rembrandt.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654)


Interpretation of Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Biblical history painting
Movement: Dutch Baroque
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris.

For other important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To evaluate paintings by
Dutch Realist artists
like Rembrandt, see our
educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter

Considered to be one of Rembrandt's greatest portrait paintings and a masterpiece of 17th century Dutch Realism, this piece of Biblical art illustrates a scene from the 2nd book of Samuel (11:2-27). One evening while pacing the roof of his palace King David observed the beautiful Bathsheba bathing. She was the daughter of Eliam and wife of his neighbour, Uriah the Hittite, who was away in the army. Totally smitten, he summoned her by letter to the palace, as a result of which she became pregnant. Later he arranged for Uriah to be sent into the heaviest fighting, where he was killed. David then married Bathsheba, for which he was later punished by God. The story is an excuse for Rembrandt to paint another of his wonderfully expressive female nudes, and he chooses to depict Bathsheba after receiving her summons, as she prepares for her meeting with King David. One of the most subtly expressive examples of Christian art, it captures Bathsheba's mixed feelings of regret, submission and anticipation at the prospect of her impending liaison. This beautiful masterpiece of 17th century Dutch painting hangs in the Louvre, in Paris.




Prior to this work, a common way of pictorializing this Bible story was to show Bathsheba bathing outdoors. A tower was usually set in the distance, often with a small figure representing King David. Rembrandt himself had used this design in his earlier picture The Toilet of Bathsheba (1643, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). But in Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter, he offers a minimalist yet monumental treatment, in which we become the voyeur instead of David. Bathsheba is portrayed sitting on a bed in her darkened chamber, her head turned slightly to one side, lost in thought while a servant washes and dries her feet. We know from X-ray analysis that the position of Bathsheba's head was carefully planned: initially Rembrandt had painted her looking upwards, in a less evocative pose. The maid, who discreetly averts her gaze, also knows the content of the letter which her mistress holds in her hand. The bedroom setting hints at the consequences which Bathsheba's meeting with David will have, while her nakedness emphasizes the source of her undoing. See also: Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700).

Rembrandt's model for this exquisite piece of religious art was Hendrickje Stoffels, his 28-year old life companion, following the death of his wife Saskia. The critic Svetlana Alpers has compared Bathsheba with Hendrickje - "Bathsheba's story was not dissimilar in certain respects to Hendrickje's own situation" - referring to the latter's illicit relationship with the artist. Yet this overlooks the fact that Rembrandt used his companions as models for all sorts of different people and situations. Her pose and that of her maidservant are taken from an engraving based on a classical relief sculpture, probably representing a bride being prepared for her wedding night. This is also, in part, how Bathsheba herself is depicted, making the painting a profound commentary on human sensuality.

Brushwork and Colour

The richness of this life size nude is exceptional even for Rembrandt: each fold of flesh is lovingly detailed, its sensual nature emphasized by the transparent drapery and delicately worked jewellery. The paint used on Bathsheba's figure is carefully nuanced: its broad brushwork and strong highlights lend a tactile resonance to the body, making its presence almost palpable. This overt sensuality (a reflection of Basheba's imminent sin) contrasts with the subject's air of profound sadness. The warmth of the painting, created by tones of copper and gold, has echoes of the colour schemes of the great Venetian masters like as Titian (1480-1576) and Paolo Veronese (1528-88), while the mellow chiaroscuro, designed to highlight the body of Bathsheba, also produces a dramatic effect. The gold cloth in the background and the pure white of the linen provide a luminous setting for her nudity. (See the more monochrome colour palette of The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666, Minneapolis Institute of Arts) and the richer palette of The Jewish Bride (1665-8, Rijksmuseum) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg).


The meaning of Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter remains tantalisingly open. The deep sadness visible in Bathsheba's face remains ambiguous. After all, no wife is likely to feel relaxed about cheating on her husband, even if the prospect has its thrilling side. Rembrandt was never satisfied with trivial depictions, and would have been aware of the fact that Bathsheba might have been a passive accomplice in David's approach to her. Thus it seems likely that he wanted to show her as both victim and sinner. Or, he may simply have wanted to say that a woman's physical beauty can be, by itself, a major cause of sin. Whatever the case, the psychological complexity and chromatic beauty of the work - once described by the eminent British art scholar Kenneth Clark as "Rembrandt's greatest painting of the nude" - reminds us that Rembrandt remains one of the best artists of all time.

Rembrandt Van Rijn

As well as portraits of groups, couples and individuals, Rembrandt produced a number of important religious paintings and allegorical works. These include: The Sacrifice of Isaac (1635, Hermitage); Susanna Surprised by the Elders (1647, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin); Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656, Kassel); The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661, National Museum, Stockholm); The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669, Hermitage). These exquisite historical works, along with his huge range of portraits, make Rembrandt one of the best artists of all time.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Mauritshuis, The Hague
The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum
Portrait of Jan Six (1654) The Six Collection, Amsterdam
The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662) Rijksmuseum

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