In Amsterdam in the summer of 1654, a pregnant, 28-year-old nursemaid by the name of Hendrickje Stoffels (1626–1663), was called before the Church Council to answer charges of ‘living in whoredom with the painter Rembrandt’. She worked in Rembrandt’s household, caring for the painter’s young son, Titus, and had for some time been Rembrandt’s lover. But her pregnancy had brought their relationship to the notice of the Council who severally chastised Hendrickje for her wickedness, banned her from Calvinist Communion and sent her on her way. Her reaction is not recorded but she did return to Rembrandt’s house and a few months later she gave birth to a daughter, Cornelia, named for Rembrandt’s mother.
It was around this same time that Rembrandt painted one of his most beautiful nudes, Bathsheba Bathing, and of course, Hendrickje was his model. The story of Bathsheba is from the second book of Samuel and, as it provided a legitimate excuse to depict a naked woman, was a popular theme with painters. King David spotted Bathesheba, the beautiful wife of a general in the king’s army, while she was bathing and fell madly in love. David summoned her to him by a letter, forced her into adultery and when she fell pregnant, the king made sure her husband died in battle. As with most Old Testament stories it ends badly: God punishes the adulterous couple with the death of their child.
Despite the tragic overtones of the tale, most painters focus on the sex, depicting David’s desire or Bathsheba as a seductress. But Rembrandt chose instead to represent Bathsheba’s reaction to the letter. She sits at her bath, holding the letter and staring off into space. A servant sits at Bathsheba’s feet with her head bowed, either absorbed in her task or, perhaps she knows the contents of her mistress’s letter. Bathsheba’s body is depicted with loving, tantalising detail, but it is her profound air of sadness that dominates the scene. She has read the letter and now must choose between disloyalty to her king or disloyalty to her husband: lost in reflection, she knows either route will lead to tragedy. The scene is classic Rembrandt: poignant and psychologically powerful, it exudes compassion and humanity, focusing on Bathsheba’s sad acceptance of her fate.
The moody sensuality of the scene is enhanced by Rembrandt’s mellow chiaroscuro and warm, smoky colours – gold, copper, brown – that recall the work of the great colourists, Titian and Veronese, whom Rembrandt adored. Bathesheba’s body glows in a soft light that also plays on the gold brocade cloth in the background and the dazzling white linen. The picture harmonises profound depths and shimmering surfaces, calm and agitated brushwork, limpid cool zones and Venetian warmth. It is a symphony of light, texture, gesture and quiet drama; a masterpiece of Rembrandt’s late style.
At the same time, Bathsheba is clearly Hendrickje; her face is recognisable from other works painted during the same period. Though they never married, Hendrickje remained with Rembrandt for the rest of her life, bearing him two children, running his household and, when he went bankrupt in 1556, it was she and Titus who became the owners of Rembrandt’s business, which enabled him to continue working. She died in 1663, six years before Rembrandt, but was immortalised in several of his masterpieces.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1654 Diego Velázquez: Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Gown, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1655 Nicolas Poussin: Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art