One sin always begets another. Even the great King David learned this lesson to his detriment. One day he beheld the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing near the royal palace walls. A servant summoned her to his bedchamber, and soon thereafter David learned that she was with child. In a desperate attempt to cover up his adultery, David sent for Uriah and ordered him to go home to his wife. The noble soldier Uriah refused to abandon his men, who were on campaign against the Ammonites. No amount of food or drink could persuade Uriah to return to his wife. So the deceitful King David turned to murder—not with his sword but with his pen.
Pieter Lastman depicts the fateful moment when King David hands Uriah a letter addressed to his commanding officer, Joab, which contains the following orders: “Place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed” (2 Samuel 11:15). Lastman captures this pivotal and dramatic moment through expressive gestures and lush undulating folds of drapery, the clarity of his design already evident in the painting’s bold underdrawing (fig 1). David, dressed in regal purple and draped in a red, ermine-trimmed cloak, sits high upon his throne. Twisting his body awkwardly, David grasps his scepter in one hand while holding the letter with its red wax seal in the other. Troubled by guilt and unable to make direct eye contact with Uriah, David gazes off to the side. Uriah looks directly up at the king and maintains the perfect, upright stature of an honorable man. His fidelity to the king is emphasized by the dog seated between the two men. In the distance, Uriah’s fellow soldiers gather to await the king’s latest command. Only the scribe at the right knows the treacherous content of the letter, and he is in no position to betray David’s trust.
Lastman derived this composition from the design he made in 1611 for a monumental stained glass window for the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam, King Cyrus Returning the Vessels from the Temple of the Lord to the Jews (fig 2). In this scene a different king, also holding his scepter, similarly delivers a decree to a kneeling man within a classical architectural setting overlooking a large domed cathedral.1 A painted copy of the stained glass window executed by Thomas de Keyser in 1660 shows that Cyrus wore an elegant ermine-trimmed red robe similar to that draped around David’s shoulders.2 The many compositional similarities between these works indicate that Lastman explicitly sought to contrast the actions of the two kings, Cyrus’s benevolence and David’s treachery. Indeed, it is noteworthy that in 1611, the year in which Lastman designed the stained glass window with the story of Cyrus, he also painted his earliest depiction of King David and Uriah (fig 3).
The subject of David and Uriah was rarely illustrated in art; earlier prints and drawings primarily depict the meeting of the two men, not the final transaction of the letter. Lastman, however, rendered this fateful moment in such a way as to remind the viewer that it marks David’s fall from God’s grace. Lastman based his narrative on Josephus’s The Antiquity of the Jews, a popular biblical and historical record of the Jewish people written in the first century AD.3 Josephus states that David wrote the letter and “stamped it with his own seal.”4 This detail, which is not noted in the Bible, is clearly emphasized in Lastman’s painting. The implications of the seal would have been understood by the Dutch. For example, in 1614 Roemer Visscher, in his emblem book Sinnepoppen, warned his readers to distrust any official letter that did not have a seal of authenticity.5 King David’s letter has the proper seal, but its content was unworthy of such honorable verification.
In 1619, the very year that Lastman painted this panel, he also painted The Bathing of Bathsheba (fig 4). He may have intended the two paintings to be pendants, since both works are derived from the same biblical episode and are virtually identical in size.6 The year 1619 marked a tragic event in Dutch history that may explain the artist’s decision to paint this biblical subject. On 13 May, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, once the great and heroic compatriot of William the Silent, was executed for high treason. His death shocked many in the Netherlands, since Van Oldenbarnevelt had served as the Land’s Advocate of Holland, was instrumental in founding the United East India Company, and played a critical role in bringing about the Twelve Years’ Truce. In 1618, however, Van Oldenbarnevelt fell out of political favor when he sided with the Remonstrants, a moderate branch of the Calvinist Church that supported the rights of each provincial government to determine its own religious doctrine. The stadholder Prince Maurits sided with the Anti-Remonstrants, a stricter fundamentalist branch of Calvinism that favored government protection and support of one official Reformed Church. Prince Maurits ordered Van Oldenbarnevelt’s arrest and beheading, and subsequently consolidated all political and military might in the Dutch Republic. One can imagine how the biblical story of David and Uriah resounded in certain sectors of the Netherlands, demonstrating that even the greatest and most loyal of public servants could swiftly become a pawn in the cruel game of politics.
This exquisitely preserved painting is one of Lastman’s finest works, not only in the characterization of the figures but also in the way the structural clarity of the composition reinforces the dramatic thrust and power of this narrative moment. One appreciates immediately in this work why two aspiring history painters from Leiden, namely Jan Lievens (1607–74) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), came to Amsterdam to study under this renowned master. Each of these artists remained indebted to Lastman’s influence long after their periods of study (Lievens from around 1617–21 and Rembrandt for six months in 1625), with Rembrandt actually making a number of copies of Lastman’s compositions in 1633, the year of that master’s death.
Beyond its outstanding artistic qualities, David Gives Uriah a Letter for Joab has had a fascinating place in the complex history of the Nazi and postwar eras that adds to the work’s cultural significance. Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent Jewish dealer of Old Master paintings in Amsterdam, acquired this painting around 1919. In May 1940 Goudstikker fled Amsterdam just days prior to the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, but he died tragically on the ship that was taking him and his family to safety in London. Goudstikker’s gallery and his collection of paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. The gallery, now run by Alois Miedl, soon sold Lastman’s painting and a number of other works to Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. In 1944 Göring traded Lastman’s painting, among others, back to Miedl for Han van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgery, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (fig 5). Lastman’s painting was then acquired by Hermann Voss for Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum in Linz.
After the war, the Allies recovered Lastman’s painting and turned it over to the Dutch authorities in 1946. A special Dutch Recuperation Commission decided against returning the painting to the family despite years of protest by Goudstikker’s widow, Desirée. The painting was lent to the Groningen Museum in Groningen from 1975 to 1987 and to the Mauritshuis in The Hague from 1987 to 2006. The complex story of the Goudstikker case was reexamined by a special restitution committee in 2005, which recommended that the Dutch government reverse its earlier decision. The painting was returned to the Goudstikker heirs, and eventually purchased by present owner in 2007.7