My Daily Art Display today features three main characters. Two are women and one a man – the artist. The artist and painter of today’s featured work of art is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. I will not go too much into his life story except for when his path crosses one of my two featured women, namely, Hendrickje Stoffels.
Hendrickje Stoffels was born in Bredevoort, which is a small Dutch town close to the border of Germany. Her father Herman worked at the castle at Bredevoort as a sort of gamekeeper. He died in 1646, one of the many victims who perished in the devastating explosion of the town’s gunpowder tower when it was struck by lightening. Her mother re-married six months later to a neighbour who had three young children of his own and Hendrickje had no choice but to leave home and go to Amsterdam. It was here that she first met Rembrandt. At this time Rembrandt had been widowed for some two years. His late wife was Saskia van Uylenburg and she was the cousin of an art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburg at whose house Rembrandt had been lodging and who had carried out a number of commissions. Saskia had actually posed for many of these commissions. Saskia had come from a wealthy family, her father was a lawyer and at one time was the burgermeester of Leeuwarden.
Hendrickje became Rembrandt’s maid and soon after, although twenty years younger than the artist, became his lover. This was frowned upon by the local church and she was brought up before the town council for “living in sin”. So why didn’t they get married? Well the answer was all about money, to be precise, Rembrandt’s money, for on the death of his first wife Saskia he received a sizeable inheritance which he would have to give back to Saskia’s family if he remarried. Rembrandt, even with this inheritance, was suffering financially so the thought of losing his inheritance was unthinkable. The reason why I am mentioning Hendrickje is that she was the model for today’s featured painting.
Now to my second featured woman – Bathsheba who is the subject of today’s oil on canvas painting entitled Bathsheba at her Bath and was painted by Rembrandt in 1654 and which now hangs in The Louvre. The story behind the painting is the Old Testament tale of King David who lusted after Bathsheba after seeing her bathing. She was the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers, whom he then sends off into battle and orders his generals to abandon him, thus leaving him to certain death. He then makes a play for Bathsheba. The painting depicts Bathsheba having received a letter from King David summoning her. The work of art is an insight into Bathsheba’s moral dilemma – her husband is away in battle and her Lord and Master, the King has summoned her, by letter, to his bedchamber.
The depiction of Bathsheba bathing was not a new idea but most other artists had painted her with her hand maidens as part of an outdoor scene and often incorporated the figure of David surreptitiously gazing at her the naked body. However Rembrandt ignored this standard treatment of the scene and instead we see Bathsheba alone except for her maid who is bathing her feet, in preparation for her encounter with David. David is no longer the voyeur of this painting – maybe in this case we, the viewers, are the voyeurs as we look at Bathsheba’s naked body. This is a life-sized painting (measures 142 cms x 142cms) and the figure of Bathsheba dominates the canvas. In the background we see her abandoned clothes.
Look at Bathsheba. Kenneth Clarke, the author and art historian, is in no doubt about the quality of the figure when he wrote that “it was one of Rembrandt’s greatest painting of a nude”. This figure of Bathsheba is not a figure of perfection. This is no naked beauty we see in magazines. This is simply a woman with a woman’s normal body shape but in my mind it does not lose its sense of eroticism and beauty. Look how the artist has drawn her belly. This is not the flat stomach of a supermodel. This is simple reality. If we talk about the reality of the painting look at her left leg, just below the knee and you can make out the mark made by a garter or stocking top as it clings to the flesh. This is an example of the detail the artist has put into the painting.
She sits their gazing vacantly as the maid bathes her feet. She is lost in her own thoughts. What has made her so pensive? The artist gives us the answer. In her left hand we see her grasping a letter. The letter is her invitation (or is it a royal summons?) to join King David whilst her husband is away in battle. There is her dilemma – remain faithful to her husband and risk the wrath of the king or submit to his sexual overtures and dupe her husband. Look at her facial expression and the sadness in her eyes. She knows she is going to betray her husband and we can perceive her guilty expression.
This is a moralistic painting and maybe we stand in judgement. Do we look at her with an air of condemnation as we know that she goes to King David or do we look at her and sympathize with her because of her dilemma?
That’s it – well not quite as there is a scientific/medical twist to this painting. A number of breast surgeons studied the figure of Hendrickje, the model for Bathsheba and said that the way Rembrandt had drawn her left breast showing a slight deformity was a classic symptom to early stages of breast cancer or it shows an abscess due to tuberculosis. Many medical articles have been written on this matter. However Hendrickje lived for another nine years after this painting and strangely enough, in other of Rembrandt paintings in which she modeled there was no sign of a deformity to her breast!