Pondering an old, bitter debate, Schwartz puts together some previously unconnected pieces. In one year, 1654, Rembrandt painted two bathing women who make you think of sex, both of whom have been linked to models in classical antiquity. Leading to a daring conclusion.
With a mixture of sarcasm and vitriol, in 1998 Leo Steinberg lashed out at an older colleague, Henrik Bramsen, and anyone who believed Bramsen’s assertion of 1950 that Rembrandt’s painting of Bathsheba in the Louvre (1654) owed a debt of any kind to an engraving of an antique relief of a woman in a similar position (1645).
François Perrier, Icones et segmenta illvstrivm e marmore tabvlarvm qvae Romae adhvc extant (Statues and fragments of famous marble reliefs still existing in Rome), plate 50
Maarssen, Loekie and Gary Schwartz (a clearer image than the ones from libraries on internet)
Rembrandt, Bathsheba with King David’s letter
Oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre (MI 957)
Comparing the engraving with the Bathsheba, the first consideration is of course the date – 1645. This would have been a recent and stimulating publication when Rembrandt painted his picture (1654). Next to be noticed is the motif and the composition, which are as unusual in classical art as was Rembrandt’s composition in the art of its period. They are both exceptional in their fields, a fact which makes the connection between them all the more significant. The resemblance is not merely confined to similar motifs, but extends to composition and the placing of the figures within the pictorial space and in relation to each other. The position of the right hand [he means left] is the same in both representations and so is the main direction of the composition, the broad and clearly distinct movement from the left hand of the seated woman [I think he means right] to the head of the kneeling servant. The similarities are so striking that the differences seem of relative unimportance as far as our thesis is concerned.
Twenty-three years ago, in a convocation address to the College Art Association Conference in Washington, D.C. (January 1975), I discussed a pathological streak in art historical practice. Homeosis, I called it, i.e., a propensity to induce – by hook or by crook but mostly by fiat – similarities between dissimilar things. As one conspicuous symptom of the malaise, I cited the then recent critical fortunes of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba. […] Pared down by the poverty of [Bramsen’s] verbal description, the Perrier and the Rembrandt do seem to have points in common. Both print and painting show a seated young woman facing left, undergoing a pedicure […]
At this point, I would have liked to show, for comparison with the Perrier, a news photograph by John Kiefner from war-torn Ethiopia, which appeared on August 30th, 1988, in the New York Times, page A6. I do not reproduce it, because the reproduction fee asked by the Times equals the fee received by contributors to this volume. But please trust my description.
A young boy seated at right has his raised injured foot dressed by a nurse. She sits at left, her head bent over her work, both hands showing. Close behind hangs a cloth stretching from side to side. The resemblance to the Perrier engraving is overwhelming. To adapt Bramson’s phrasing: the position of the boy’s leg and retracted arm “is the same in both representations and so is the main direction of the composition …. The similarities are so striking that the differences seem of relative unimportance ….”
The news photo cited in the above parenthesis resembles the Perrier engraving more closely than does the Bathsheba.
Does it really? And if it does, then so what? All my great esteem and affection for Leo Steinberg aside, does he really want us to believe that the resemblance of a news photo of 1988 to a print from 1645, which can only be fortuitous, disproves that in 1654 Rembrandt appropriated that image, which he could easily have known, even owned?
Steinberg is convinced that it does. He goes on, “Nevertheless, [despite this resounding proof of the contrary,] Bramson’s Burlington article was received as a lucky strike, and the proposed French connection became an instant and enduring success.” He then excoriates a number of Bramsen followers – Kenneth Clark, Horst Gerson and me. What I do grant immediately is that I should not have written that “the composition [of Bathsheba] is unquestionably based on an engraving of 1645 by François Perrier.” Bramsen’s comparison does not fall in the category of the unquestionable. (But I do believe it.)
And now comes the really interesting part. In a note that has escaped the attention of later writers, the Israeli art historian Avigdor Posèq published a comparison between a Rembrandt motif of the same year as the Bathsheba, 1654, and another print after an antique statue.
La Gallería Giustiniana del Márchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, 2 vols., Rome 1631, vol. 1, fol. 165, plate 80
Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Réserve des livres rares (Rés.J.484)
Rembrandt, A woman bathing in a stream, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
London, National Gallery (NG54)
The model proposed is an engraving in an album of prints after antique objects in the legendary collection of Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637). Giustiniani was one of the foremost collectors of his time, whose estate included three hundred paintings and twelve hundred pieces of sculpture. He was also a major patron of individual artists, foremost among them being Caravaggio, but also including a slew of Dutch and Flemish artists who were given lodging in his palace in Rome. There can be no doubt that the publication of his gallery would have been prized by a collector like Rembrandt.
Avigdor Posèq is impressed by the eroticism of the two images, the sculpted figure raising her shift to show her genitals, the painted one hiding them in shadow even more suggestively. So am I. He could have said the same thing of the imagery as Henrik Bramsen said about the pictures of footcare – both are found seldom in their respective environments, making the correspondence that much more striking. (No sculptural model after which the print in the Giustiniani album was engraved has ever been identified. Posèq thinks it was assembled from disparate elements, as was sometimes done, he said, to create sculptures of hermaphrodites.)
What Leo Steinberg would have said of Posèq’s theory I think we can guess. He would have ridiculed it. But this time a snort would not have been enough. Look at the odds. In 1654 Rembrandt painted two erogenic images of women in or after bathing. The naked Bathsheba, having unwittingly aroused the lust of King David, the wading woman raising her garment, as if unspied, in a pose apt to stimulate desire. To then entertain the ideas posed by Harmsen and Posèq, independently of each other, that both have antecedents in ancient sculpture, in models available to Rembrandt the irrepressible print collector, and that Rembrandt deliberately used them in this way, I find not pathological but irresistibly seductive. Rembrandt had long been complimented with his capacity to improve on the ancients. Was he doing it here or wasn’t he?
I would go further. I would draw Rembrandt’s two bathing women together in a way I think has not done before. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba has one divergent iconographical feature that is always commented on but never explained. Other pictures of the scene always show King David, usually on a palace terrace in the background, looking – excuse me, gazing – at beautiful Bathsheba. [Not so, with apologies for the overstatement. See Robert Baldwin’s comment below.] In Rembrandt’s painting in the Louvre he is not there. What if – this is a what-if speculation – Rembrandt conceived of the two paintings as complementary and delivered them that way? What if the buyer of Bathsheba was presented, along with his majestic acquisition, with the intimate bathing woman, putting him in the position of King David? Challenging him to resist the temptation to which David succumbed, to the point of committing a murder to get Bathsheba for himself? Picturing the object of desire not as a biblical heroine but as your neighbor’s wife, who you might come across in undress and become madly excited. That biblical and historical personalities were appropriated this way in Dutch religious culture is known to all. Was Rembrandt doing it here?
Henrik Bramsen, “The classicism of Rembrandt’s ‘Bathsheba,’” The Burlington Magazine 92 (May 1950), pp. 128-31
Leo Steinberg, “An incomparable Bathsheba,” in Ann Jensen Adams, ed., Rembrandt’s Bathsheba reading King David’s letter, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press) 1998, pp. 100-18
Avigdor W.G. Posèq, “Rembrandt’s obscene ‘Woman bathing,'” Source: Notes in the History of Art 19 (Fall 1999), pp. 30-38
© Gary Schwartz 2023. Published on the Schwartzlist on 23 January 2023.
Duncan Bull and Taco Dibbits did compare Bathsheba to Woman bathing in a stream, without making the connections above. Exhib. cat. Rembrandt-Caravaggio, Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) and Zwolle (Waanders Publishers) 2006, pp. 151-52.
On January 24, 2022, I moderated the first of four Monday sessions of three lectures each on the theme of an exhibition I and Mirjam Knotter were curating for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, “Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes.” The last set was streamed live on February 14th. The spirit of cooperation between all participants, in Russia, the Netherlands, France and the U.S., and the wide international audience we reached, was not only good for the series, it was also heartwarming.
Ten days later all hearts went cold, when something happened that was so inconceivable that I still have trouble believing it. Vladimir Putin initiated a bloody war against a brother country to the south, Ukraine. No longer in my lifetime will I experience the self-evident trust between that Russian museum and the tens of museums in other countries that allowed for the offer of loans.
In all despair, over not the loss of loans but the loss of life, and of trust, I refer you once more to the videos of those talks, relics of another world.
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