Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker
March 15 – August 02, 2009
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, New York
In one of the most complex and controversial of biblical narratives, the book of 2 Samuel recounts an almost operatic moment in which Uriah the Hittite, husband of Batsheva, was instructed by King David to unknowingly carry his own death sentence to the Jewish general Yoav (Joab). Had Uriah betrayed his king’s confidence and opened the letter, he could have surely have escaped death.
One can almost sense this nuance in a painting by the 16th-17th century Dutch painter (and Rembrandt’s and Jan Lievens’ teacher) Pieter Pietersz Lastman titled “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” The painting is part of an exhibit at The Jewish Museum of works by many artists once owned by Dutch, Jewish collector Jacques Goudstikker, whose works were looted by the Nazis.
Pieter Pietersz Lastman (ca. 1583-1633). “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” 1619.
Oil on panel. Private collection. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, N.Y.
Lastman portrays David sitting on his throne clad in a blue-purple robe and red cape and bearing a golden scepter. Like many 17th century Dutch paintings, Lastman’s work should not be “read” simply on a surface level. Ironically, a dog, the symbol of fidelity in art, stands between David and Uriah, and two pillars, typically symbolic of fortitude, flank the anything-but-confident David on both sides. Additionally, a young boy, who seems most interested in the scepter, stands on the king’s left, and might represent Absalom, who later rebelled against his father, seeking to steal the kingdom from Solomon. Uriah kneels before David with his helmet at his feet, and about a dozen soldiers appear in the background, which contains a Christian propagandist element: a depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica, rumored to contain pillars from Solomon’s Temple. By casting an Old Testament scene in Vatican City (which of course did not exist in David’s era), the Catholic Lastman was suggesting that the episode from the Jewish bible also bore significance to Catholics.
Pieter Pietersz Lastman. “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah.” 1611. Oil on oak panel. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.
The letter David holds in his right hand – in a pouch bound with the king’s seal – is exactly the same sort Lastman had depicted eight years earlier in “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit version includes writing on the outside of the letter (presumably by David’s hand), which the later version lacks. (Incidentally, a letter written and sealed by a royal hand might be relevant in interpreting verses like Esther 3:12, 8:8, and 8:10, and 1 Kings 21:8, and Daniel 6:18). The boy who sits on the king’s right in the Detroit version might be the same one on his left in the later version, though he looks at David’s crown rather than his scepter. Though he wears armor, Uriah is dressed in the contemporary Dutch fashion (with a feathered hat replacing the helmet) in the Detroit version, while the later Uriah looks to be dressed in a more “biblical” fashion, though both in fact wear the same tan robe with brown stripes at the hem. St. Peter’s also appears in the Detroit painting, but it is accompanied by a fountain with a pagan river god pouring water. Another difference is that the Detroit David is a much older man than his peer in the other work.
It is difficult to locate Lastman’s two depictions of David and Uriah in a larger artistic tradition, because there was not much of a precedent for the scene. Jean Colombe’s “David entrusts a letter to Uriah” from the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (1485-9) shows an entirely different composition: David in gold sitting in the foreground, Uriah, clad in blue, kneeling behind, in what appears to be a medieval castle, and two court advisors. The illumination accompanies the text of Psalm 50 (in the Greek numbering, 51 in Jewish counts), which begins, “A song to David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, when he went to Bathsheba.” On the throne, Colombe painted a jester carrying a stick and wearing animal ears, perhaps a reference to 1 Samuel 21, where David impersonated an insane person to evade capture at Gath.
French Gothic. Detail: “David and Bathsheba.” C. 1250. Pierpont Morgan Library.
The 1490 “David, accompanied by Bathsheba, gives Uriah a letter for Joab” by the Master of Cornelis Croesinck, also known as the “Master of the Dark Eyes,” also does not seem to have captured Lastman’s attention. The work, which is at the Hague, mysteriously adds Bathsheba to the scene standing behind David as he hands the letter to Uriah. This bold interpretive move, which makes little sense in the context of the larger story, is also unprecedented. Other depictions of Uriah that would have been available to Lastman feature Uriah’s death rather than his receiving of the letter (a 1511 “Killing of Uriah” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, and a c. 1430 “Uriah is killed in the battle before the city of Rabbah” by Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, also in the Hague).
For the most part, other depictions feature a medieval knight kneeling before David , some include a letter, which often looks more like a loaf of bread than a letter (most notably a c. 1500 illumination from a Book of Hours and a 13th century illumination from “Image du Monde”), but most do not. “A 13th century illumination from a Psalter and Book of Hours” is the only one to show a letter bearing a dangling seal that resembles Lastman’s works, and might have served as a model for the piece. A supposed “David and Uriah” is attributed to Rembrandt in the collection of the Hermitage dated 1665, but the Hermitage calls the scene “Haman Recognizes His Fate,” and even though Rembrandt studied with Lastman, he does not seem to have copied Lastman’s motif.
Psalter and Book of Hours. Ms. 730, fol. 109v. Detail: “David sends Uriah to Joab.”
13th century. Pierpont Morgan Library.
But where Lastman’s predecessors tended not to show the Uriah scene altogether and when they did depict David and Uriah, they tended to opt for stylized portraits, Lastman’s David looks worried or morally torn, in short, more human. This is surely a mode of biblical interpretation that Lastman passed along to Rembrandt, evidenced by the latter’s many naturalistic depictions of biblical characters.
Many viewers will surely find the Jewish Museum show fascinating for historical reasons, and will be interested in the back-story of the return of looted art. But examining the larger context of even one of the works shows what a tragedy it would be for the public to not have access to viewing them.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.