Van Rijn, Rembrandt Harmenszoon
Genre: Oil on canvas
- Winkler, Mary
- Date of entry: Jan-25-1999
Rembrandt painted this interpretation of the story of David and Bathsheba in II Samuel: 11 in 1654. Although the Biblical narrative focuses on David and his relation to his people and his God, Rembrandt focuses on Bathsheba and her quandary. Rembrandt conflated two parts of the narrative to convey his message. Bathsheba is simultaneously completing her bath and contemplating David's summons--the summons that will lead to tragedy.
Many critics, particularly feminist critics, have commented on the role of the female nude in western art, noting that it is rare to find a representation of a nude woman that renders the woman as a whole person. Rembrandt's Bathsheba is beautiful and haunting--in part because she is a woman thinking. In The Nude, Kenneth Clark paid tribute to this work: "[Bathsheba] is one of those supreme works of art which cannot be forced into any classification . . . Rembrandt can give his Bathsheba an expression of reverie so complex that we follow her thoughts far beyond the moment depicted: and yet these thoughts are indissolubly part of her body, which speaks to us in its own language as truthfully as Chaucer or Burns" (p. 342).
The Louvre, Paris
Rembrandt painted his Bathsheba in the context of certain cultural and social conventions. The work is done in a period when intense scrutiny was fastened on the human anatomy; a time when anatomist were achieving new knowledge about female reproductive anatomy. Moreover, he was painting in a period when hierarchical gender/sex roles were understood as fundamental and even divinely ordained.
Yet Rembrandt succeeded in according respect to this woman (the model was his mistress, Hendrickje Stouffels) by acknowledging the limits of observation and objectivity. He makes a compassionate leap of imagination in depicting the thoughtful privacy of this individual woman. His respect for the mystery of her individuality invites reflection on the limits of contemporary medical knowledge.