Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fragments ~ Revising Art History

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
(born July 15, 1606)
Bathsheba at her Bath

(from Wikipedia)

Iconic Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born July 15, 1606. Rembrandt is known mostly for his detailed drawings and his use of light in portraiture. In this painting, for example, notice the fine detail of light and shadow on the attendant's neck and face.

This painting depicts a Biblical scene -- Bathsheba at her bath, as she is being spied upon by David. According to the Bible, David saw Bathsheba, sent for her (hence the letter), seduced her, and married her. This is a simple story, except that Bathsheba was already married and that David also decided to marry her -- but only after he had impregnated her -- by having her husband killed. 

You have to wonder why Rembrandt painted Bathsheba as looking so pensive -- even sad? -- upon receiving David's letter. Did she foresee what was to come? Art historians note Rembrandt's obvious sensitivity to what they call Bathsheba's "moral dilemma." Almost as if Bathsheba had a choice. Some consider this to be Rembrandt's best painting of a nude. Others speculate that Bathsheba was not painted from a single model because the parts don't quite match up, and they criticize many things about her form, including the twist in her left arm; but most notably, from my perspective, they point out that her left breast is deformed, possibly from breast cancer or other disease. 

As a breast cancer survivor myself, albeit non-deforming, and with family members who were forced to have mastectomies, I wonder whether David would have been so smitten with the real Bathsheba had her breast been equally deformed. And then I have to wonder what Rembrandt was saying by this. The art historians don't speculate much about that.

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