Back

David and Bathsheba
(Artemisia Gentileschi)

Description

While King David observes her from the balcony of his Venetian inspired colonnaded palace, a half-draped Bathsheba attended by her maids, nonchalantly sits at her bath, languidly combing her long, silky blond hair. Overwhelmed by her beauty, David sent her a summons to appear at his palace, and though she was married, Bathsheba was forced to comply. Determined to possess her, David commands her husband Uriah, a general, to battle and his inevitable death. With Bathsheba now pregnant by him, David marries her, but the sins of the father are visited upon the child, who later dies.

 

Previously, in depicting the meeting of Bathsheba and David (Samuel 11:2), artists had often portrayed Bathsheba as distraught about her dilemma, tempering the inherent lasciviousness of the lovers’ first encounter with the strong moral overtones of its eventual outcome. But by the 17th Century, Bathsheba was more often depicted as a temptress, rather than the innocent victim of the king’s passion, and Artemisia’s treatment of the subject is a study in sensuality. So much so, in fact, that it is possible that Artemisia did not paint the Old Testament beauty as an unwitting object d’amour, but rather as an active participant in the romance, preparing herself for an assignation with her new lover.

 

Artemisia painted at least five versions of this subject, all of which were executed during her two Neapolitans sojourns, the first lasting between 1630 and 1638, and the second from her return from England in 1641 after her father’s demise until her own death around 1652. The present painting most closely resembles the composition of a painting that was formerly on loan to the Leipzig Museum and was last reputed to be in a collection in Halle, though attempts to trace its exact whereabouts have failed. The Halle painting was badly damaged in WWII and is only known from a poor photograph from which it is clear there are notable variations in the composition and that the standing servant girl behind Bathsheba is of cruder facture (although this may be due to damage). It is hard to judge the quality of the kneeling servant in the Halle picture, as this appears also to have been damaged, but certain elements of Bathsheba’s accoutrements, such as a the comb, are clearly less refined than in the present picture. Therefore, it is not clear whether the Halle picture is a studio copy executed in Naples or, as tentatively proposed by the writer, a possible collaboration between Artemisia and Massimo Stanzione, with whom she had worked in the Naples Duomo.

 

It is known that after her Roman period, where she was aided by the influence of her father and her subsequent success in Florence, that Artemisia found the promotion of her skills to a wide clientele in Naples something of an uphill battle. Her surviving correspondence shows that she not only regularly wrote eliciting commissions, but frequently sought to work with (and absorbed the influence of) other established Neapolitan male artists such as Stanzione, Cavallino and Domenico Gargiulo. This resulted in a slightly ‘chaemeleon-like’ style during the Naples periods which tended to change according to which of the other artists she was in direct proximity to. She also attempted to put together a partnership with Annalisa de Rosa, the daughter of Pacecco (see De Domenici), but the jealousy of her intended colleague ruled out the possibility of their working together. Clearly Artemisia found her patrons by repeating versions of her most successful commissions, which provided an element of discrete titillation for her noble clients, such as her Bathsheba and Susanna.

 

Much work remains to be done on these Neapolitan periods and on account of the rather limited knowledge currently available on several artists styles, the precise nature of Artemisia’s collaborators is hard to assess. Suffice to say that when Toledo purchased their Lot and His Daughters as by Bernardo Cavallino, debate raged as to whether it was by Artemisia, or by Francesco Guarino, or Antonio de Bellis. Equally the ex Feigen Gallery’s Triumph of Galatea (now in the National Gallery, Washington D.C.) has been given to Cavallino and Artemisia both jointly and singly though it is now once more thought to be solely by Cavallino. Add to the conundrum the known existence of such ‘Cavalinesque’ painters as Niccolò di Simone whose work remains unidentified, and Stanzionesque artists such as Onofrio Palumbo or Giuseppe Marullo, and the identification of often overlapping styles is exceedingly difficult.

 

That this painting is a design by Artemisia has been confirmed by Mina Gregori, Keith Christensen, Judy Mann, Nicola Spinosa, Mario Epifani and Prof. Ferdinando Bologna, amongst others. On account of her propensity for working with other Neapolitan artists, the extraordinary beauty and the sophisticated handling of the surfaces on the standing servant girl have most often lead to a proposal to identify this figure with the hand of Bernardo Cavallino, whom Artemisia certainly knew. Prof. Bologna has alternatively tentatively suggested that this figure, if not by Cavallino, might possibly be by Francesco Guarino, who indeed used the same form of drapery in the fiçhu. The treatment of the servant girl’s profile, in particular, bears a striking resemblance to her own self-portrait as an allegory of painting in the Royal Collection, Windsor

It is certain that the plan for the compositional layout is Artemisia’s and probable that she also executed the tiled floor, baluster and the architecture in the right background. The treatment of the baluster with its oranges and lemons is not dissimilar to that found in the Venus and Cupid (formerly Matthiesen Fine Art, Ltd., now Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), while Bathsheba’s lapis-lazuli drapery (a sign that the painting was an important commission) is identical to that in Artemisia’s Cleopatra (formerly Matthiesen Fine Art, Ltd., now private collection, Rome). The tiled floor is readapted from an earlier painting by Artemisia, the 1633-35 Birth of St. John the Baptist in the Prado. Although it has been suggested on the basis of the drapery folds that the drawing of the kneeling servant girl to the left might be by another Neapolitan artist, such as Giuseppe Marullo, a pupil of Stanzione, this seems unlikely and a direct comparison with Artemisia’s handling of the servant women in the shadows behind the aforementioned Cleopatra seems more apposite. Certainly, the background architecture and the small details of King David and his guards (their costumes seemingly influenced by the papal Swiss Guard, a possible allusion to her role as an ambassadress to the Papacy on her visit to London) are by another hand, which has yet to be identified, though it has been tentatively proposed that these could possibly be by Bellessario Corenzio, the master of Battistello Caracciolo. It is interesting to note that the architecture of King David’s palace has a decided Venetian quality and may be based on a print.

 

The dating of the present picture is problematic. Was it painted late during the first Neapolitan period or after her return from England? The striking similarity of the Bathsheba and her facial type to her father’s early work would lead one to surmise that the painting was executed shortly after her return to Naples after 1641, after she had been briefly, but directly in touch with her father once again. Ward Bissel has argued that Artemesia’s renewed contact with her father in London, with whom she worked at the Queen’s House, Greenwich, profoundly influenced her art on her return to Naples. More telling is the remarkable clear blue sky with wispy clouds, something quite alien to the first Neapolitan period where the heavens are deeply influenced by artists such as Gargiulo’s pink-shot vault and darkened by a significantly dark red-bole Neapolitan ground which has a tendency to ‘grin’ through. Here, instead, the ground appears to be the same whitish grey ground Orazio used in some of his earlier works, particularly under the blues, and the manner of the sky has distinct similarities to Orazio’s Holy Family with the Infant St. John, oil on copper (formerly Dublin, now New York private collection), the Prado Executioner with the Head of the Baptist, or several later works where the skies become evermore burdened with delicate cloud. Artemisia rarely uses this motif, perhaps the most notable case being her early 1610 Susanna and the Elders, when she would have certainly still have been subject to the influence of her father. Is the David and Bathsheba therefore a conscious or unconscious act of homage to her father? If so, then the painting must surely date immediately from after her return from London and thus from c.1641-43.

 

Measurements
185.4 x 145 cm (73 x 57 in.)
Type
Oil on canvas, c. 1634
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Subject
Religious: Old Testament
School
Italian - Neapolitan