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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25 thoughts on “413 Gazing through King David’s eyes at irresistible beauty”
Well the depiction in the Giustiniani collection is not so rare: It is the gesture of an “ANASYRMA”.
” Anasyrma is the gesture of lifting the skirt or tunic. It is used in connection with certain religious rituals, eroticism, and lewd jokes. The term is used in describing corresponding works of art. The act of lifting up one’s skirt can be seen as an apotropaic device; warding off the enemy—or healing—curing the sadness of a deity or bringing fertility to the earth” (wiki)
Look at this: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Anasyrma#/media/File:%C3%84gyptisches_Museum_Leipzig_206.jpg
I translated this (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anasyrma) from German:”The classic example is the story of Baubo, a resident of Eleusis, who takes in the goddess Demeter, completely exhausted by the search for her daughter. All attempts to pull the guest out of her dull despair fail. Then Baubo resorts to other means: she goes and makes her abdomen smooth and soft like a child (which probably means that she shaves her pubic hair), then she returns, begins to joke, and finally uncovers her smooth abdomen, whereupon the goddess laughs uproariously.
And Clement of Alexandria quotes from the Orphics the relevant passage:
Spoke it and gathered up the garments and showed
the whole formation of the body and was not ashamed.
And the little Iakchos
laughed and struck with the hand of Baubo under the breasts.
When the goddess noticed this,
she smiled from the heart,
Then took the blank vessel in which the mixed potion was handed to her.
Arnobius explicitly notes that the gesture of Baubo is to be seen as parallel and equivalent to the presentation of the Phallos in the cult of Dionysus.
Another well-known example of anasyrma is the exposure of women traveling on the Nile to the sanctuary of Bastet at Bubastis (identified by Herodotus with Artemis), as reported by Herodotus. Herodotus tells that during the journey the very numerous pilgrims would sing, clap their hands, the men would play the flute, and the women would make noise with the sistren. But when they passed a town situated on the shore, they would go ashore, they would exchange teasing and mocking speeches (tothasmos) with the women of the town, and some of the pilgrims would lift their robes and thus expose themselves.
See: Otto van Veen (1556-1629): The Persian Women
See: Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642): The Bravery of the Persian Women
Plutarch reports in his Moralia of the Persian women in the 6th century B.C., who met their men, defeated in a battle under Cyrus II against the Medes, and fleeing, lifted their skirts and said, “Whither do you hasten, you greatest cowards in all the world? For surely in your flight you cannot crawl back in here from whence you came out.” The Persians, thus humiliated, gathered their forces, attacked the enemy again, and defeated him.”
If Vaenius and Francken knew the sources (Herodot and Plutarch) – Rembrandt might possibly have known them too….
What a terrific disquisition on the motif, Sven! Can’t thank you enough. I doubt that Rembrandt will have known this, but the implications can still be present in his panel.
I fully concur with the Poseq comparison and recall how the Perrier source was invoked in Ann Adams’s monograph on the Louvre Bathsheba, only to be trashed there by Leo Steinberg (whose vitriol toward all who disagreed with him was the dark side of his own brilliant formal insights).
May I direct you to an unpublished 2008 dissertation from Temple University by Martha Gyllenhaal that pulls together many other examples of Rembrandt’s use of sculpture as models for his art, many of them familiar, albeit not including your use of Poseq, but still useful:
On a different note, my sadness about the snafu with the Russians still aches, so thanks for posting the videos anew.
Dear Larry, I’m very glad to know about and have access to that interesting dissertation. Another of the unending stream of answers to the question that gets put to me all the time: Is there really anything new to say about Rembrandt?
Curiously, neither of these paintings, neither of these women, makes me think of sex at all. Both lack, and seem to make a point of lacking, the “lineaments of desire”; both women appear absorbed in their experience, without any sense of themselves as potential objectives of sexual potency. Their poses lack gesture; they are disconnected.
And the paintings, to my eyes, act to distance them: Bathsheba as a bas-relief, very credibly sourced from marmoreal stasis; the bather’s body secondary to enveloping chiaroscuro and fabric, a predecessor to the National Gallery’s later possible portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels in which white is the hero.
Any nude, however, can be a focus of lust as depicting what Linda Nochlin calls “gendered flesh.” And nudity presumably had a greater, more immediate effect in times when it was less often on display. Nonetheless, I “gat no heat.”
When drawing daring conclusions, why not shoot the moon? If the Bathsheba tempts the viewer to re-enact the reaction of “very old” King David, does the bather not put us in the position of the elders ogling Susanna?
About Bathsheba, Richard – she doesn’t have to look seductive to you to make you think about sex – that’s her story. And the woman in the water, while I do not agree with Posèq that she is obscene, and although she is indeed absorbed in her own action, is presented in a way that make you either think about sex or not think about it, which is the same thing.
Why should I go for the elders and Susanna, when there is a missing King David right in this confluence whose role, in my suggestion, we are invited to fill?
Viewpoint: “From the roof he saw a woman bathing.” We look down at the Bathsheba, but not the other.
Well, that’s the daring part of my theory – that lust is aroused by a woman that the first owner, who was also the owner of the Bathsheba, could have encountered in his own surroundings. It puts the woman from a palace garden in the Bible story into a pool in Amsterdam.
An illuminating and thus valuable comparison at the very least. Thank you. I like it. David was not old at the time of his sighting Bathsheba, only when she came to him much later and he confirmed that their son Solomon would be his successor and went public with that announcement.
It would, I think, be more correct to say that David abetted the killing of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in battle than to say that he murdered him.
You’re right, but it does boil down to the same thing, no? Maybe even worse – an egregious abuse of power, with a measure of hypocritical deniability built in. I’m starting to feel like the prophet Nathan.
David’s age – indeed. My error. Thanks for the correction.
Leo Steinberg is correct that many art historians take visual similarities and assume some sort of significant appropriation which is then used to support a particular interpretation. The apotropaic display of the vagina, so richly discussed in one comment, is one such visual similarity which does not seem relevant for Rembrandt’s “Woman Bathing in a Stream”. There are no warriors being shamed (as in Van Veen) nor are the genitals even visible, much less flaunted. This is a problem with our discipline, which is part of a much larger problem that all humans see what we want to see, play up or concoct evidence which supports our views, and minimize or ignore anything which undermines it.
Steinberg was correct to diagnose this as a problem in our discipline. But he picked the wrong example, in my view (having published on that painting’s relation to the antique relief back in 1984). Moreover, Steinberg’s critique displayed another malady which also afflicts all of us to a greater or lesser extent – the problem of infallibility and excess certainty about our own views. The more important we are in our discipline and the more “important” our university, the more infallible we become. This is particularly acute in universities where big name professors are surrounded by fawning graduate students. For that reason and for reasons of temperament, Leo Steinberg was both the insufferable sun-king of absolute truth, and, a brilliantly sensitive reader of the most subtle aesthetic and human nuances which most of us can never articulate. His essay on Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is a great example of him at his worst and best.
To disagree with one point made by my friend, Gary Schwartz, there are many images of Bathsheba without King David, especially in the later episode where she receives his letter. This is Rembrandt’s subject, not Bathsheba at her bath, so David is supposed to be absent. Others who painted this moment include Lievens (1631) and three works by Steen. There are also a few images of Bathsheba naked, in her bath, without David (as far as I can tell). Two were painted by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (Rijksmuseum and Berlin). Both show palaces in the rear but I can’t see any David. I am relying on reproductions which are never reliable. Inspired by Rembrandt’s Louvre painting, Drost painted a mostly naked Bathsheba with no David. She holds no letter and her state of undress suggests the earlier moment. In 1832, the Russian artist, Bryullov also painted a fully naked Bathsheba with an equally naked, black female servant but no David. It is a mistake all of us make when we claim something “never” ( or “always”) appears in a given subject, if only because none of us in Renaissance and Baroque art has seen more than 25% of the art produced in those 3 centuries. As an collector of 167,000 art images, many organized in thematic slide shows, I know after 50 years in this business that it would take many lifetimes to see the millions of images creates between 1400 and 1700. 90% of 15th and 16th c. manuscript illuminations will never be seen by any of us. Who can know what exceptions exist to our absolute pronouncements. Artistic license was steadily increasing after 1400, and even more in Rembrandt’s day. And starting with Antonello da Messina’s Annunciate Mary, if not earlier, artists sometimes took a subject of two persons and left one out, allowing the real viewer to fill in. This is more common in the 17th century. Even in the later episode when Bathsheba receives the letter, the viewer still takes on the role of King David, even if no flesh is shown. Almost all of these works, with or without nudity, cater to the same male gaze David enjoyed as an all-powerful king who could collect as many wives as he desired and have husbands killed. I agree with Gary that the Louvre Bathsheba also does this to some extent – cater to our male desire. But in an article on Rembrandt’s classical and Italian Renaissance sources published in Source, 4, 1, 1984, I argued that Rembrandt’s Bathsheba rejects the objectification of women and forces the male viewer to see their own visual and sexual predation. I wished I had noticed back in 1984 that there are four examples in Renaissance and Baroque art depicting the parallel theme of Suzannah and the Elders which place the male, would be rapists in the immediate foreground to encourage or criticize the real male viewer for whom most art was made. These works include Lucas van Leyden’s engraving of 1508, Rembrandt’s painting of 1636, Tintoretto’s painting of c. 1555), and Guercino’s painting of 1617 (Prado). Much later, Rowlandson did a Suzannah showing what almost all of these Bathshehas and Suzannas were really about, starting in the later 15th century when nudity first began to spread widely, namely material for male masturbation. Tintoretto’s painting is blatant in this regard. Lucas van Leyden and Rembrandt’s Suzannas, in my view, call out this male predation, as does the 1654 Louvre Bathsheba. Here was my conclusion about this work, published back in 1984 with the beginnings of feminist thinking creeping into the analysis.
“To the casual viewer, Rembrandt’s Bathsheba might seem even more classical, in depicting an unclothed woman and seemingly celebrating her beauty. This would indeed be true for almost all European paintings of Bathsheba which typically flaunt beautiful female nudes, paintings which ultimately depend on a classical-Italian Renaissance celebration of ideal beauty. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba however, expresses the tragedy of a human being whose beauty leads to her sexual exploitation and to her husband’s murder. Where most images of Bathsheba cater to the very voyeurism they supposedly condemn, Rembrandt maintains a dichotomy between outer beauty and inner humanity. His Bathsheba is naked rather than nude, stripped of her defenses and her dignity along with her clothing. By insisting on a troubled Bathsheba, a Bathsheba degraded to an object, Rembrandt forces us to look beyond the body, beyond King David’s voyeuristic seeing, and confront the reality of the human being beneath. Needless to say, this antithesis of outer and inner is far from the classical-Renaissance ideal of nude female beauty as the outward expression of an inner loveliness.”
By the way, my 167,000 images of Western art, mostly 1300-1920, my 3,500 PP slide shows on art by subject matter, and my 2,600 slide shows by artist are available for free to anyone who sends me a new hard drive (500 GIG) and return postage and shipping envelope. At 68, I need to give this legacy away lest it get swallowed up by you know what! Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org / Robert Baldwin
The letter changes everything, turning the moment inside out. Thank you.
I’m very pleased to have elicited this rich response and cri de coeur. Thanks for calling me on my overhasty remark about David not being in the scene. I’ve referenced it in the text. You’re also (too) right about how egos, confirmation bias, institutional status, reputation mongering, and sheer bypassing of our ignorance leads to overconfident statements. I’ll try to be better from now on.
Thanks for enriching this discussion so generously, not to mention your fantastic offer. Should help the Schwartzlist go viral.
Many thanks for your insightful and informed comment—most important, for your noting what is, in the end, the most significant artistic difference between Rembrandt’s work and other treatments of the same subject. He helps us (I’d avoid the now all-too-fashionable suggestion that a work of art “forces” us to do anything) “to look beyond the body, beyond King David’s voyeuristic seeing, and confront the reality of the human being beneath.” The women portrayed become more than mere physical sex objects. Through Rembrandt’s exquisitely sensitive rendering of the face, we gain access to their inner life.
Now that the discussion is expanding beyond its original scope, let me bring in my own contribution to the volume in which Leo Steinberg’s essay appeared. In it, I make a case for relating Rembrandt’s Bathsheba to the play on Medea by his patron Jan Six, for which Rembrandt etched a title print. In his adaptation of that story, Six makes a point of emphasizing Medea’s victimhood. The tie I drew is this:
“This maneuver by Six and Rembrandt has a striking parallel in Rembrandt’s treatment of Bathsheba in his painting of 1654. It is not too much to say that Rembrandt’s Bathsheba of 1654 is to other depictions of the subject as Six’s Medea of 1648 is to its predecessors. Just as Six enlists our sympathy for a woman otherwise defined in terms of evil, Rembrandt does the same for a heroine reduced in other paintings to an image of sin. Like Six, Rembrandt took a heroine who was usually treated as a flat figure, standing for a purely negative quality, and reshaped her in a characteristic way of his own, rejecting the existing stereotype, and imbuing her with a richer array of feelings. There is even a close thematic tie: Medea and Bathsheba were both sexual victims, powerless against the lust of a royal personage, each in a doomed battle with her own conscience, forced into fatal sin by the adulterous desires of another. Parallels of this kind between figures from the Bible and classical literature were especially loved by Dutch writers, who would sometimes set out in search of them.”
Thanks to Michelle (and Robert) I have finally gone to the trouble of posting my article, at http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/though-deficient-in-beauty-a-documentary-history-and-interpretation-of-rembrandts-1654-painting-of-bathsheba/. The scan was made by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, which offers a free, extremely precious service of this kind.
Rembrandt was not the only one who knew Perrier’s print. See Diana and her companions by Johannes Vermeer in the Mauritshuis.
Defying Homeosis, I find this an excellent observation. I am told that the ancient relief was copied early on by Joachim von Sandrart, who was in contact with Rembrandt. Still looking for this connection.
“Rembrandt forces us to look beyond the body, beyond King David’s voyeuristic seeing, and confront the reality of the human being beneath.”
Isn’t this a rather sentimental interpretation of Rembrandt’s intentions and roundabout justification for the display of what remains the obvious? I doubt very strongly that depicting nude/naked women involves much Christian feeling or any kind of compassion with a vicrtim of rape and bereavement. Voyeurism is the least of David’s crimes, yet isn’t it precisely the taste that a painter is in a position to satisfy? After all, Rembrandt did his best to show his painterly stuff here and a painting can be desired, bought and owned and enjoyed to one’s heart’s content. If it were otherwise, Hoet’s catalogue would have less Susannas and Bathshebas in it and more Uriahs.
Having frequently gone to the Louvre to study a painting that used to be displayed opposite from Bathsheba, I often turned around and admired the expression on her face, which I could only describes as “wistful.”
Jean-Marie, please see my response to Michelle and my article on the painting. As for “sentimental,” it is a downputting word that is a near synonym of the more elevated notion of “emotion,” of which Rembrandt was considered by his contemporaries as the grand master.
You are the expert on the matter. I should be asking questions instead of making such bald statements. Questions like: what was the purpose of depictions of Bathsheba in the 17th-century Netherlands? Was the viewer expected to commiserate with her impending lot, even though the biblical account, so verbose in other episodes, makes absolutely no mention of her feelings? Can the spectator, surely male in Rembrandt’s day, take any other viewpoint than that of a voyeuristic David? As we can see from the record of Artemisia Gentileschi’s trial, the real crime was not against her as a human being, but against her as the until-then untouched property of her father: it was she who was submitted to questioning under torture, not the rapist. Would a 17th-century beholder really have considered Bathsheba (or any nude woman) as a human being first, rather than as a potential or virtual possession (an aspect underlined by the fact of being objectified/commodified in a painting)? Doesn’t the naked truth of the image give the lie to the edifying discourses? In other words, is Rembrandt’s Bathsheba a sermon or Exhibit A in a courtoom crowded with sensation-seekers?
Interesting discussion here. I am travelling and away from my copy of Rembrandt’s Eyes, but I think Simon Schama there found Rembrandt’s female nudes pretty much devoid of a (Rubensian or other) erotic charge and in this sense even “ideologically sound” in the modern era – as do I. Schama touched on this topic in alecture I heard him give at Oxford before his book was finished (I think).
But, “caveat videntium”, as some present-day art-historians, who will remain unnamed by me here, suggest that Rembrandt’s “washerwoman, or a peat-treader from a barn”-style of nudes rather pornographic.
All is and presumably always was in the eye of the beholder, and depends on our personal psychological projections. Even back in 1654, what aroused a 12-year-old pupil would probably have differed from the 48-year-old Rembrandt, or other viewers, whether male or female. But I think we can say that Rembrandt’s nudes appear less overtly erotic and more human than those of many other painters of his and other times.
“many other painters of his and other times” –
and so one is glad to be reminded of a similar humanity, in a similar pose, in another time:
Au Bord de L’Eau, Collection Pierre Lévy, Troyes
Isn’t the real distinction to be made the one between “aestheticized” (idealized) nudity and “non-aestheticized” (naturalized) nudity? And what would make the latter qualify as more specifically “human” and less erotic than the former? Must the “human touch” so readily attributed to Rembrandt exclude the erotic spark?
This one has stayed in my thoughts, which lead me to agree (sort of) with your daring conclusion.
If Hendrickje modelled for Bathsheba with the Letter, in the year that the church condemned her for living in sin with Rembrandt, and she bore his daughter; if the private bather was painted at the same time; if that bather is also a picture of Hendrickje; then it is entirely plausible that “Rembrandt conceived of the two paintings as complementary and created them that way.”
Had he heard Hendrickje denounced as a Bathsheba? “That biblical and historical personalities were appropriated this way in Dutch religious culture is known to all,” as detailed in your article on Medea. Did he then depict as pendants the two summonsed women? I am grateful to you for leading me to the question.
While Bathsheba has just been informed of her public status, the bather is sheltered, alone with the painter and the viewer and her lover, originally perhaps one and the same. When the painting became someone else’s, that environment dissolved; it entered the same world as Hendrickje, not a biblical heroine but their neighbor’s concubine, shamed as an object of desire. The painting, on this reading, forms an overpowering rejoinder.
“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”