My Favourite Painting: Sister Teresa Keswick

The lawyer-turned-Carmelite nun chooses Bathsheba at her Bath by Rembrandt.

Sister Teresa Keswick on Bathsheba at her Bath by Rembrandt

‘This is the finest portrayal of sadness that I know. We are shown a Bathsheba who has hindsight and, therefore, knows the consequence of David’s terrible command. It is a command and not a request; she is not at liberty to refuse it.

‘But there is a second and far greater meaning to this picture and that is the affection with which Rembrandt has painted Hendrickje Stoffels. There can be few greater privileges for any woman than to be seen and then revealed by a genius who loves her, with a love that is a reflection of divine love.’

Sister Teresa Keswick has been a contemplative Carmelite nun for 37 years. A former London lawyer, she is a skilled embroiderer and has a column in The Oldie.

John McEwen on Bathsheba at her Bath

The story appears in Samuel II: 11, 2: ‘And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and she was very beautiful to look upon.’

King David sent messengers who brought her to him and he ‘lay with her’ and she conceived a child, although she was married to the soldier Uriah the Hittite. David proceeded to get Uriah killed in battle by secretly having him ordered to the front and then married the widowed Bathsheba. The story ends: ‘But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.’

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In an earlier version, Rembrandt includes a distant view of ‘the king’s house’, but Bathsheba seems in a daydream. Here, her dilemma is movingly apparent as she ponders David’s summons in the note he has sent. That the model was Rembrandt’s mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he had a child out of wedlock (for which she was banished from her congregation), places her in empathy with the subject — although her decision was willingly made.

An older female servant, the light catching her neck, dries Bathsheba’s feet. The light gilds the outline of her red headdress, which is barely visible against the glinting embroidery of a voluminous cloak that emerges from the surrounding darkness. The nobility of Bathsheba’s sad acceptance made this, for Kenneth Clark, the ‘greatest of painters’s greatest nude’.

Selectors for this page agree about Rembrandt’s mastery: this is the 10th of his paintings to have been chosen, placing him in top spot alongside his Spanish contemporary Velázquez (1599–1660).

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