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.

Rembrandt, The Toilet of Bathsheba, 1643
(Image: Rembrandt/Public domain)

In the Old Testament, Bathsheba is the wife of a then-absent military figure named Uriah. As Uriah was off fighting in a war, King David happened upon Bathsheba bathing, and on seeing her, fell instantly in love and conquered her physically. To cover up his indiscretion and Bathsheba’s pregnancy, the king sends her husband into battle where he is killed. With her life forever changed, 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

Image of Rembrandt's Bathsheba
In Rembrandt’s painting, we see a scene that’s not very often represented at this point in its story. (Image: Rembrandt/Public domain)

In Rembrandt’s painting, Bathsheba is a queen who is not yet a queen—a woman who becomes queen after she is raped by her king. It’s a scene of considerable moral complexity that is not often represented at the very beginning of the narrative.

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. A soft cushion and a pile of fabrics sit to her left, mysteriously stretching to an indeterminate distance behind her. An attendant washes her feet in the way that baths were given in the ancient world. Bathsheba is depicted as a plump woman with beautiful red hair, with coral beads wound around it, looking down in reverie as she reads the note in her hand.

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

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

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

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

The Painting Arrives at The Louvre

Of the many Rembrandts in the Louvre, this one entered late as part of the first private donation of pictures to the museum 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. The crowning point of his collection was the Bathsheba by Rembrandt.

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Bathsheba’s Influence on Later Artists

The painting redefined the female nude, not as an idealized female body, but as the body of an actual woman. When viewing the Rembrandt, it’s not like looking at an interpretation of mythology or recreation of something from the imagination. The painting makes the viewer feel like we’re looking at a real woman; her flesh and the character of her flesh are palpably, 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 the plain-spun, rather crude cotton cloth of the chemise that she’s taken off; the tangible sense of the weight of her hand pushing down into the fabric; the slightly elongated fingers themselves. This painting—which deals with a queen, with guilt, rape, motherhood, modesty—is a complex work that continues to be admired by artists around the world.

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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 September 17, 2019

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