Giving a beauty of art a double look

Mary Tompkins Lewis, author and scholar of Paul Cézanne, discusses the controversy behind his nude portrayal of Bathsheba.

by Danielle Flood

A nude painting is still turning heads, causing debate and alarming critics 350 years after its creation.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Bathsheba” is critiqued by many for its nudity as well as historical context. This was Mary Tompkins Lewis’ main focus in her Nov. 7 speech entitled “The Nude in Narrative.” She compared Rembrandt and Paul Cézanne.

In the painting, Bathsheba is holding a letter from David. The biblical story of “Bathsheba” is one of tragedy and turmoil. Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah, was taking a bath when King David saw her and immediately fell in love. He arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle and soon after married Bathsheba. Their second son, Solomon, became the most famous king of the Jews after David’s death.

In the lecture, Lewis, an author and Cézanne scholar, closely compared the artist with Rembrandt because the two were regarded as iconoclastic giants and shared an interest in narrative literature, especially the Bible and mythology.

The Bathsheba painting has been the focal point of artists such as Cézanne, who created a copy of the original, and is said to be responsible for the revival of Rembrandt.

Lewis noted how Cézanne’s copy of Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba” closely followed the original in regards to similar brush strokes of vigorous layers of painting, thick paint, and an overall rough technique. Both Rembrandt and Cézanne shared an interest in voyeuristic themes.

A difference between Rembrandt and Cézanne’s “Bathsheba” is that Cézanne, in his painting, celebrates the spectacle of a beautiful nude in a lovely countryside. He focused on the landscape as well as Bathsheba herself.

Another difference is the portrayal of the woman. In Rembrandt’s painting, she is looking down at the woman who is washing her feet. In Cézanne’s painting, however, she is facing the right and there is no woman attending to her.

During the revival of Rembrandt’s work, several 19th-century French writers have critiqued him in regards to his originality. They re-evaluated his technique, examined his “rough manner” and criticized him for having unqualified naturalism and fierce independence.

Criticisms of Rembrandt’s most famous nude painting, “Bathsheba,” were in regards to his depiction of women. Critics said he depicted only women who suffered negative deformities, and he offered nothing but gross nudities. They said that the painting was pretty but the woman was not.

Only a few people have appreciated the iconic status of Rembrandt’s painting “Bathsheba.” The painting was incorporated in the movie “Entrapment.” Others have called the painting a vessel of pure tragedy and have described “Bathsheba” as having a quiet melancholy and silent repose.

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