Sometimes presented by latter-day scholars as a proto-feminist, Artemisia revelled in depictions of female heroines such as Judith and Sisera, as well as more traditional subjects such as Cleopatra, Danae, and female personifications of allegories. In the present work the heroine is at her toilet, attended to by two maid-servants. It successfully combines two of Artemisia’s career-long interests: the magnificence of the female form and the voluminous depiction of sumptuous fabrics, particularly in evidence in Bathsheba's yellow drapery.
Artemisia must have enjoyed the subject considerably – probably because it offered her a ready-made vehicle to explore the female nude and thus delight her patrons – and revisited it on numerous occasions, producing several very distinct treatments of the subject and a number of versions of each treatment, one of which is recorded in the inventories of Charles I of England, though is sadly untraced. That the differnet 'types' were carefully modified in each of the various versions lends further credence to the theory that the artist made use of preparatory cartoons.
The composition finds echoes in all the other treatments of the subject. While David is notably absent from the present work, which Ward Bissell dates to 1637/38, the closest variant is the painting in a UK private collection exhibited in Milan in 2011, which shows the three figures in identical poses but is considerably altered in the background.1 Another type, possibly earlier in date, is represented by the Bathsheba in the Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, which can also be linked to the present work since it repeats the disposition of the three figures.2 In the pose of Bathsheba's legs, the composition also makes use of features from another, later, scheme, whose best variant is probably the work in Potsdam, which has a much suffered version in the Uffizi (and a lost variant formerly at Gosford House, Scotland).3 This type can be extended to include the signed painting in the Haas Collection in Vienna, which is horizontal, and that sold at Sotheby's Milan in 2011, which introduces a handsome red curtain running vertically along the right edge of the design.4 The kneeling figure of the present work has been removed in both the last two types, with the basin taking a prominent central position as the fully nude Bathsheba is shown seated on a tasseled pillow.
1. See Contini and Solinas, under Literature, pp. 228–31, cat. no. 41, reproduced in colour.
2. See Ward Bissell, under Literature, pp. 263–66, cat. no. 37, reproduced in colour plate XXIII.
3. For the Potsdam canvas see Ward Bissell, op. cit., pp. 284–85, cat. no. 48a, reproduced figs 188–89.
4. See, respectively, Contini and Solinas, op. cit., pp. 240–41, cat. no. 46, reproduced in colour, and pp. 246–47, cat. no. 49, reproduced in colour. The latter was sold anonymously Milan, Sotheby's, 14 June 2011, lot 27, for 180,000 euros.
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