Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at the Bath

From the lecture series: Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre

By Richard Brettell, Ph.D., The University of Texas, Dallas

By many accounts, the greatest artist produced in 17th century Holland was Rembrandt van Rijn. He’d defined and redefined himself in ways that very few great artists of the 17th century could compare with. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at the Bath is one of his most beloved paintings in residence at The Louvre. It not only portrays a harrowing sense of introspection, but also highlights the painter as a true master of his craft.

Image of Rembrandt's Bathsheba

Bathsheba, in the Old Testament, is the wife of a then absent military figure named Uriah. As Uriah was off fighting in war, King David happened upon Bathsheba bathing. As the story goes, he saw her, fell instantly in love, and conquered her physically. Upon becoming pregnant with King David’s child, her life fell apart. After her husband Uriah passed away, she became the wife of David, and eventually the mother of King Solomon, one of the greatest kings of the ancient world.

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The Beginning of a Narrative

In Rembrandt’s painting, we’re looking at a queen who is not yet a queen— a queen who becomes a queen by virtue of being raped by a king. It’s a scene of considerable moral complexity — a scene that’s not very often represented at this point in its story, the very beginning of the narrative.

The painting is dark, suffused with a  deep, rich, black background that seems to sink back forever.

We see her at her bath — a letter from King David in her hand. She’s beautifully painted. The painting is dark, suffused with a  deep, rich, black background that seems to sink back forever. We see a soft cushion and fabrics to the left of her. But they’re rather mysterious, and we don’t really know where they lead, and it’s hard to go farther back into the painting. Her feet are being washed by an attendant in the way that baths were given in the ancient world, and we see this plump woman with beautiful red hair, with coral beads wound around it, looking down sort of in reverie as she’s reading the note in her hand.

This is a transcript from the video series Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Her own hand, her left hand, is placed on the white drapery that she wore before entering the bath. This is this moment in which somehow she is coming to terms with herself, with her body, with her desires, with her history, and we are cast seemingly as King David, spying her at the bath. We are lustful viewers. We are viewers who are cast as male, which a good many art viewers in this period of time were. We look with sort of lustful desire at a female who is not engaging with us, but is lost in her own thoughts, and comes out of this mysterious blackness of the background to dominate our sensibilities.

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Image of Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar (1659), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Painting Arrives at The Louvre

Of the great Rembrandts in the Louvre, this one entered rather late. It entered as part of the first private donation of pictures to the Louvre that made a huge impact on artists and the public— the La Caze Bequest. Monsieur La Caze was one of the great collectors in Paris in the 19th century. At his death in 1869, his collection came to the Louvre.

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The crowning point of his collection was the Bathsheba by Rembrandt. It redefined the female nude, not as an idealized female body, but as the body of an actual woman. When you look at the Rembrandt, you don’t feel that you’re looking at mythology, or a kind of sort-of recreation of something from the imagination. You feel like you’re looking at a real woman, and her flesh and the character of her flesh and her palpability are powerfully conveyed just as they were in the young Realist painters, Courbet and Manet.
The tactile qualities of this painting are abundant. The wonderful detail of her plain-spun, rather crude cotton cloth of the chemise that she’s taken off, the weight of her hand pushing down into the fabric with the sense of the palpability of it and the rather elongated fingers themselves. This painting—which deals with a queen, with guilt, with rape, with motherhood, with modesty, is a complex work that continues to be admired by artists around the world.

Common Questions About Rembrandt’s Bathsheba

Q: What did Bathsheba do in the Bible?

In the Bible, Bathsheba was seduced by King David while bathing, and he made her pregnant. King David arranged to have Bathsheba’s husband killed so that he would not find out about the indiscretion. God punished David by striking their first child with a deadly illness.

Q: Why is Rembrandt’s Bathsheba so famous?

Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath is both sensual and emotionally complex. It depicts Bathsheba’s inner conflict between her passion for King David and her loyalty to her husband.

Q: What is the perspective in Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath?

Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath is meant to capture the male gaze. We—the viewers—are like King David gazing lustfully upon Bathsheba.

Q: What makes Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath groundbreaking?

Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath was groundbreaking in its level of realistic detail. Although Bathsheba was a Biblical figure, in this painting she resembles a real woman in the flesh and blood whom ordinary women could relate to.

This article was updated on 7/14/2019

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