Rembrandt & women

Quite recently I was at a lecture accompanying the 36xRembrandt exhibition at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. One of its main highlights is the Girl in the Painting’s Frame – a work that has not yet received the world fame it deserves. In the aforementioned lecture, the pose of the girl was described as seductive and placed in line with the characters of other temptresses of Rembrandt’s oeuvre, including Bathsheba at her Bath from the Louvre. As much as I appreciated the construction of the lecture in which I had the pleasure to participate, still resonates in me the doubt whether these two works really tell the story of  women being the seductive daughters of Eve?

Rembrandt van Rijn, Bathsheba at her Bath, 1654, Louvre, Paris

I’ll start with Bathsheba at her Bath painted by Rembrandt in 1654. The painting depicts the Old Testament heroine, the future mother of King Solomon, just after the bath. She sits naked on the bank of a bench covered with fabrics, holding a letter in her hand, but her eyesight is clearly absent. She is submerged in her thoughts. The older maid finishes drying her mistress feet, her gaze seems to be focused on this activity, but she may as well be concerned with similar concerns as Bathsheba.

Jean Bourdichon, Bathsheba Bathing, 1498-99, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

This motif is inspired by the biblical story from the Second Book of Samuel. While walking on the roof of his palace, King David saw a bathing beauty and wanted to possess her. He sent his envoys to bring her to him. The artists often used this subject as a pretext to present a female nude supplemented with a motif of voyeurism and eroticism. Bathsheba became that way an involuntary temptress, aware of the king’s gaze. However, this is not based on the Holy Scriptures. There is no information about how Uriah’s wife reacted upon the arrival of the king’s messengers who were to take her to the palace. There is also no mention about the letter. Maarten van Heemskerck is assumed to be the first artist to include the letter in the iconography of this scene. He illustrated with this scene the sixth of the Ten Commandments – “Do not commit adultery”. Bathsheba takes a bath surrounded by her servants when a man with a caduceus – an attribute of a messenger – approaches her. The artist thus pointed out that what happened later between the King of Israel and his subject, the wife of a member of his guard, was the sin of adultery resulting from her choice. It seems to me that this scene would be more appropriate to illustrate the ninth commandment, about not coveting one’s neighbour’s wife, but it is a subject for a different discussion. 

Maarten van Heemskerck, Thou shalt not commit adultery, “The Ten Commandments” series, ca. 1566, British Museum, Londyn

Rembrandt was partially inspired by the Heemskerck’s composition. However he placed Bathsheba in a dark room, hidden from the eyes of observers, but her maid, as in the engraving, takes care of her mistress’s feet. The latter keeps a letter, probably with an invitation to the palace. We do not know in what form it was expressed – an order or a veiled proposal. Bathsheba, however, has no doubt that there is not much to choose from. A rich robe embroidered with golden thread, visible in the background, is waiting for her, in a moment she will put on a underwear shirt, on which she rests her hand. Her hair is elegantly pinned, ear petals are decorated with pearls, and her forearm – with a golden bracelet. Despite all this glamor, her face is devoid of joy. Rembrandt showed her an internal tear between loyalty to her husband and obedience to a ruler whose one word could kill her entire family.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, ca. 1656, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Some researchers see Bathsheba’s features similar to Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s illegitimate partner. In 1654 she gave birth to his daughter, for which she was brought before the church council on charges of offending morals and was excluded from receiving communion. Rembrandt, who was in an increasingly difficult financial situation at that time, could not marry her because he would lose the right to funds after his deceased wife – Saskia. Hendrickje remained with him despite these difficulties. Bathsheba with the face of Hendrickje is a woman making a difficult decision, contrary to divine law, but dictated by care and love for her loved ones. Bathsheba was afraid to refuse of the king’s wish. However, she hoped that submission to the will of the ruler would protect her loved ones. Her husband, father and grandfather belonged to the closest circle of the king, David’s anger could seriously threaten them. As we know from the continuation of this story – David did not hesitate to send Uriah to certain death in battle, when he considered it necessary.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Girl in the Painting’s Frame, 1641, Royal Castle in Warsaw

For the reasons just discussed, I am against calling Rembrandt’s Bathsheba a temptress. Similarly, I do not agree with treating his Girl in the Painting’s Frame the same way. A young, well-dressed girl, delicately smiling, looks calmly straight into the eyes of the viewer. There is no flirtatiousness in it, that we can find in other Rembrandt girls’ representations. I find in her youthful curiosity about the world. Researchers often pay attention to two elements that make this picture so interesting. Evoking the suggestion of movement by the gesture of the right hand of the girl being put on the picture frame, following the left one, which has already grasped the frame and, resulting from it, the illusionist game with the viewer, creating the illusion of entering real space by her. The space in which the viewer’s life goes on. The depicted  girl does not resemble the features of a particular person, she is the tronie – that is, the representation of a characteristic type of character. In this case, I would risk calling it a type of young girl who is entering adolescence. But I wouldn’t related it closely to the readiness to marry, but the active attitude the girl adopts. She turns to us and with some gesture takes the space she occupies in her possession. She even goes beyond its limits. She does not yet know the worries that Bathsheba has, she looks curiously and without fear. She does it still – looking at us freely while we return the look.

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