Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath (1643)

Rembrandt's Bathsheba in the Metropolitan Museum is not as well known as Rembrandt's variation on the theme, Bathsheba holding King David's Letter, in the Louvre. However, I showed yesterday in Rembrandt's Skater (c.1631) how the young artist hid an extremely rough sketch of his own features in the folds of the man's trousers. The skater thus "appears" from Rembrandt's mind. Some readers may be skeptical (understandably so) so I thought I would show how Rembrandt used the same form here on a different scale.

The painting is dark, however, so this version, digitally brightened, makes more of the detail in the background visible.1 Bathsheba is being prepared for her erotic encounter with King David who can just be seen on the walls of his palace at upper left looking down at Bathsheba. Vision is the theme and the focus Bathsheba's toilette. Here's why.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath (1643) Oil on wood. 22½ x 30in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The image has been digitally brightened for clarity.

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The maid, as in almost all great toilette scenes, is the "artist" painting Bathsheba with her paintbrush-shaped tool. Beside the old woman a small saucer filled with water represents her "palette" with what looks like a sponge in it. Artists actually use sponges to paint. Rembrandt's signature is on the raised dais directly below the saucer thereby strengthening the link to the artist. Above her is a large tray and silver jug, the jug's side shaped like a reflective eye. In it lies a gold chain like those given to great artists by their royal patrons. Rembrandt had painted himself actually wearing one he never received in 1629.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Rembrandt's Bathsheba at Her Bath

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The sketchy "face" with the bulbous nose that Rembrandt formed into The Skater's trousers (center and bottom images) is very similar to the overall form of this much larger canvas (top). Just as one of his "eyes" in The Skater is in the figure's groin to suggest fertility, one "eye" in Bathsheba is a dark grotto for insight and one with King David on his sunlit palace to indicate exterior perception. That David is looking from within Rembrandt's "eye" supports the claim. Even within The Skater (center left) one "eye" is a dark spot, the other a light space. In Bathsheba vegetation growing along the upper contours of the cave further suggests both "eyebrows" and fertility. More precisely, the large spaces for the "eyes" really resemble the orbital cavities of a skull with the actual eyes missing. We are inside Rembrandt's mind. The bulbous-nose shape is fused with the form of his own "skull", just as Leonardo turned his own "skull" into a grotto with orbital cavities in The Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of Rembrandt's Bathsheba
Center L&R: Rotated detail and diagram of Rembrandt's "face" in the trousers of his Skater
Bottom: Detail of Rembrandt's Skater (c.1639) with "face" area indicated

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Here you can see (bottom) in an engraved self-portrait how broad Rembrandt's nose was. In many self-portraits his nose is less prominent; it was, nevertheless, a very significant part of his face as it was for Michelangelo and other artists too. One of the probable reasons is that Ovid's Metamorphoses was for many centuries the most important source of visual stories save the Bible, read in every studio, and Ovid's middle name was Naso, or Nose. Naturally, he was thought to have had a big one. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of Rembrandt's Bathsheba
Bottom Detail of Rembrandt's Self-portrait in a Fur Cap (1631) Etching on paper. 

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Bathsheba resembles a model on a raised dais lit through a studio window. She performs "on stage"2 surrounded by water as a symbol of Rembrandt's androgynous mind. He signed it close to the surface as though the image itself rises out of the depths of his mind.  With one hand touching her breast Bathsheba as a painting "paints" herself though the maids actually "paint" her. Yet even there we know that Rembrandt did. In addition, in placing a king and palace inside his "eye" Rembrandt implies that his inner eye is both pure and royal, an esoteric symbol of spiritual perfection.3

The scene is yet another inside view of an artist's skull.4 It is a mental image of his own mind conceiving the composition, fusing symbols of craft (the maid's hands, brushes, sponge, bowl) with conception (the imagined copulation between King David-as-artist and Bathsheba-as-model.) Given that every painter paints himself Bathsheba must be "Rembrandt" too and, as a nude woman, the most fertile part, no doubt, of Rembrandt's mind.
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath (1643), digitally brightened for clarity

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. The background was seriously worn during a past cleaning but the basic forms and details remain.

2. See my explanation under the theme Art On Stage.

3. In the 16th century people were encouraged to imagine their minds as palaces with many rooms in order to imporve their memory. See Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Both Alberto Giacometti and the playwritight Eugène Ionesco made palace-mind allusions in the 20th century: Giacometti's Surrealist sculpture The Palace at 4am (1932) and Ionesco's play, Exit the King (1962).

4. Other artists I have shown using skull-like forms to indicate their minds are Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel and his drawing The Dream of Human Life; Leonardo da Vinci in The Virgin of the Rocks and St. Jerome (c.1488-90); Giovanni Bellini's Agony in the Garden and various paintings of St. Jerome in Seeing Bellini's Eyes (c.1450-1525);  and Anish Kapoor's Memory (2008). I have also argued that many of Michelangelo's sculptures as well as the figures in his planned painting, The Battle of Cascina, are standing on faceted rock, a hidden symbol for the multi-faceted forms of the cerebral cortex. One of the reasons Renaissance artists were so interested in anatomical dissections is that many were representing the insides of their minds and body in their art.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 04 Apr 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.