These evocative opening lines of the Old Testament story of David and Bathsheba have found expression in Western Art through the centuries. Blending the Biblical subject with a masterful exploration of light and the human form, Gérôme's interpretation of the story belongs to his most important works.
Compelling though the story is, Gérôme's interest lay not only in its dramatic narrative. Rather, it provided the perfect pretext for exploring the female form in natural light outside of the studio. The figure of Bathsheba, 'a marvel of plastic grace and delicate flesh-tints' (Hering, p. 274), is in essence like a bather from Gérôme's numerous interior bath scenes (fig. 1) transposed into plein air. The topography in the painting is left deliberately vague, the city of Jerusalem depicted as an imaginary, generic middle-eastern skyline. The real focus of the painting is the figure's contrapposto pose, the effect of the light on her delicate white skin, and the minutely observed fabrics draped over the stool and worn by Bathsheba's attendant. Bethsabée was in fact painted at Bougival in 1889 where Gérôme worked 'on the roof of his summer atelier, enabling him to pose his model in the open air and obtain wonderful atmospheric effects' (op cit).
Bathsheba was the wife of the Hittite Uriah, who served under Joab in King David's army. Uriah is away fighting a battle when David first spies Bathsheba from his palace. He sends messengers to find her. She goes to him, sleeps with him, and conceives his child. To conceal his sin, David recalls Uriah from battle, ostensibly to hear how the war is going, but actually to encourage him to sleep with his wife. Uriah renounces the opportunity out of conscience towards his fellow soldiers battling it out in the field, choosing instead to sleep before the gates of the king's palace. David now changes tack, instructing Joab to ensure Uriah fall on the battlefield, which he does. Bathsheba mourns her husband, then becomes David's wife, and duly bears him a son. However, Nathan prophesies that God will punish David for his sins and that his child will die. David fasts and does penance, but the child dies of illness. Having been punished, David and Bathsheba have another child, Solomon, the future king.
The preparatory oil sketch, compositionally similar to the finished version but without the shrubs and flowers, and measuring 60 by 98cm, was sold at Sotheby's New York on 24 May 1995, lot 95. In 1896, Gérôme modelled a sculpture on the Bathsheba in his painting. The life-size plaster version is now lost, known only from photographs (fig. 2). A polychrome plaster version (73cm in height) is in a French private collection, while a gilt bronze version 32 cm high is in the Cumner Art Gallery, Jacksonville, Florida.
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