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Scholarly Essay

Pieter Lastman’s David and Uriah: Storytelling and the Passions


Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Pieter Lastman’s David and Uriah: Storytelling and the Passions” (2020). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed June 22, 2024).

History paintings tell stories. They may depict episodes of confrontation, recognition, or reconciliation, or moments inciting fear, betrayal, or desire. Often driven by an individual’s weakness, a deep passion, or an inner conflict, historical narratives have the potential to reveal either vice or virtue, to display a flawed moral character or an expression of unwavering faith. Capturing the complex relationship between the “movements of the soul” and their outward manifestation in gesture and expression constituted one of the greatest challenges for seventeenth-century Dutch artists. One approach was to render history paintings, which were primarily drawn from the Bible, ancient history, and mythology, with great naturalism, so that beholders could understand—and even personally experience—the passions, or emotions, portrayed before them. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Karel van Mander (1584–1606) called the passions “the kernel and soul of art,” while Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78) considered them “the most noble [part of art].” To achieve the lofty goal of depicting the passions meant that Dutch artists should not only “instruct and delight” the beholder but, above all, “stir our minds.”

The Amsterdam painter Pieter Lastman (1583–1633) was one of the most consequential Dutch history painters in the early seventeenth century. The extraordinary aptitude for storytelling on view in his David Gives Uriah a Letter for Joab (), a pivotal scene from the life of the Old Testament King David, situates this work at the nexus of The Leiden Collection, which features paintings of the human figure, not only portraits and tronies, but also historical, mythological, and genre subjects. Lastman brought an erudition, innovation, and expressiveness to his depiction of historical themes that impacted a generation of artists in the Netherlands, most importantly in the work of his pupils Jan Lievens (1607–74) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), but also in paintings by Rembrandt’s students, including Ferdinand Bol (1616–80), Govaert Flinck (1615–60), and Carel Fabritius (1622–54). Lastman’s artistic heritage was likewise significant for artists working outside of Rembrandt’s immediate circle, such as Frans van Mieris (1635–81) and Jan Steen (1626–79), who painted history scenes into the later seventeenth century.

This essay explores key aspects of Lastman’s approach to history painting through the lens of David Gives Uriah a Letter for Joab. It addresses some of Lastman’s central concerns as a history painter in seventeenth-century Amsterdam as well as the pictorial implications his narrative and stylistic choices had for Dutch history painting. More specifically, it examines the artist’s interest in portraying a moment of intense inner conflict and demonstrates how his knowledge of antique visual and textual sources, along with contemporary cultural and intellectual traditions, impacted his storytelling. Exploring these issues provides insight into Lastman’s ingenuity as a painter and offers a broader perspective on his place within The Leiden Collection.

Lastman and Religious History Painting in Early Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

History painting held an important role in the artistic and cultural life of the Dutch Republic, and by the second quarter of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam had risen to become the genre’s center. While stories drawn from ancient histories and mythologies, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pliny’s Natural History, and Virgil’s Aeneid were popular among Dutch collectors, religious subjects from the Old and New Testaments flourished alongside them. Despite the contentious role of religious imagery in the Calvinist Reformed Church, the official religion of the Republic, narrative biblical scenes were tolerated and even encouraged for the ways in which they could evoke moral themes and provide a source of emulation for people’s daily lives. Depictions of Old Testament patriarchs, kings, and prophets, apocryphal stories from the Book of Tobit and Book of Esther, and episodes from the life of Christ, the Apostles, and the Evangelists, could be seen in historical terms and provided models for human behavior, whether displayed in private homes or public, civic spaces.

In a city like Amsterdam, which represented the multiconfessional nature of Dutch society, members of the different sects of the Reformed Church (predominantly Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants) lived alongside Roman Catholic and Jewish populations. Artists, regardless of their own faith, negotiated these various belief systems. Religious history paintings were therefore not strictly made along confessional lines, but rather could be viewed from within an individual’s own set of beliefs. As a Catholic artist, Lastman would have produced works for Protestant as well as Catholic households, and neither his religious convictions nor those of his collectors and patrons would necessarily have determined his choice of subject matter. Yet, as Tico Seifert and others have observed, Lastman may have adapted the manner in which he approached certain biblical themes to reflect the faith of his patrons, many of whom came from the high end of the art market.

These broader circumstances laid the groundwork for a new approach to history painting in the early decades of the seventeenth century. For Lastman, this meant turning away from the exaggerated expressions of Mannerism that had dominated history painting at the end of the sixteenth century—large-scale works, often with nude figures in active poses—and toward the depiction of biblical and profane themes with small, multifigure compositions, often set into landscapes, with “historical” details. Orientalizing motifs, for instance, were intended to situate biblical scenes in a context that resembled the holy land. A group of contemporaries in Amsterdam, including Claes Cornelisz Moeyaert (1591–1655), Jan (1581/82–1630) and Jacob Pynas (1592/3–after 1650), François Venant (1590–1636), and Jan Tengnagel (1584–1635), followed Lastman’s narrative approach and rendered their scenes with a similar clarity of form and historical consciousness. Together, they helped to establish Amsterdam’s new artistic tradition.

Lastman emerged as the most innovative and erudite of his contemporaries. His work was informed by a vast knowledge of literary and historical texts, as well as antique, Italian, and Netherlandish pictorial sources. Significant for his artistic development was the journey to Italy that he undertook between ca. 1602/3 and 1607, which likely included time in Venice, Padua, Florence, and Rome. He studied the work of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto in Venice and saw the paintings and sculptures of Raphael and Michelangelo in Rome alongside antique sculpture and architecture. Elements of these artists’ works served as inspiration for Lastman and would later become part of his pictorial repertoire. Among the contemporary artists in Rome, some of whom Lastman may have encountered directly, were Caravaggio (1578–1610), the Flemish artist Paul Bril (ca. 1553/54–1626), and the German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), whose small-scale figures, depictions of landscapes, and night scenes greatly impacted Lastman’s handling of narrative and composition.

Back in his native Amsterdam in 1607, Lastman increasingly looked to sixteenth-century prints and biblical illustrations, incorporating their subjects and motifs into his paintings. Biblical prints by Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) and Maarten de Vos (1532–1603), for example, which brought an historical vantage point deeply informed by antiquity to their depictions of Old Testament scenes, supplied Lastman with subject matter that had never before—or rarely—been depicted in paintings. With this visual inspiration he combined his vast knowledge of literary sources. He was familiar with ancient Greek and Roman texts, stretching from Euripides, Herodotus, and Ovid to Livy, and with contemporary sources like Karel van Mander’s Het Schilderboeck, Guillaume du Choul’s Discours de la religion des anciens romains, as well as sixteenth- and seventeenth-century emblem books. By combining a range of pictorial models and multiple textual sources in the depiction of a single subject, Lastman imbued his scenes with their narrative and historical authenticity. Such erudite paintings would have appealed to Amsterdam liefhebbers (art lovers), who—as the diplomat and poet Balthasar Gerbier (1592–1663) noted in his monumental poem of 1620, Eeer ende Claght-Dicht Ter Eeren van den Lofweerdighen Constrijcken ende Gheleerden Henricus Goltizus—would have gazed upon Lastman’s paintings with pleasure.

Lastman’s iconographic choices, careful selection of authentic details, handling of paint, and modeling of forms were not the only aspects of his work that distinguished him in the early seventeenth century. He also understood the significance of selecting a precise narrative moment. Lastman favored scenes from the Old Testament in which the “hero” is shown in a moment of great conflict, particularly one that represented a change in the individual’s fate. Such episodes—meetings, encounters, and appearances of the divine—affected the expressive potential of the story and placed the protagonist at a crossroads. Lastman could achieve this expressiveness in his work by representing dramatic physical action, but also by capturing the character’s inner struggles, passions, and strengths, thereby portraying the essence of an emotional moment.

Lastman’s David and Uriah: Moving the Passions

In Lastman’s David and Uriah, which depicts a story from the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 11), a youthful King David sits on a dais between two large columns placed slightly off center. He grasps a letter that he will give to Uriah, a document that is tantamount to a death warrant as it orders the soldier to be sent to the front line of battle. Though David’s bearing is powerful, his furrowed brow and twisted body language bespeak the moral ambiguity of his position. Uriah, in contrast, kneels beside the throne forthrightly, his right hand outstretched to receive the letter, the other placed resolutely on his thigh. The young scribe looks on incredulously; his hand hovers in space as if frozen in time. Bystanders in the background—even the dog beside the throne—gaze upon the exchange between David and Uriah with anticipation, heightening the composition’s emotional and psychological tension.

The well-informed viewer would have recognized what preceded and followed Lastman’s scene: David had committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, while her husband was away serving in the king’s army, and she had become pregnant with his child. In an attempt to conceal his act, David recalled Uriah on a pretense and tried to send him to Bathsheba, but Uriah’s loyalty to his fellow soldiers prevented him from lying with his wife. David’s letter to Joab, the commander of his forces, essentially condemns Uriah to be killed at the front, allowing David to marry Bathsheba.

Although Lastman’s depiction of this biblical narrative had few pictorial precedents, sixteenth-century prints provided him with important models for the representation of the exchange between the two men. In a woodcut by Hans Holbein (1497/98–1543), which first appeared in the 1538 edition of the Biblia Utriusque Testamenti iuxta Vulgatam Translationem (), David’s outstretched hand and pointed finger pass on the command, creating a physically charged encounter with Uriah. Hans de Laet’s (1524?–66) slightly later woodcut, published in Antwerp in 1556 (), depicts Uriah kneeling obediently by David’s side as he accepts the letter. In each of these examples, the balance of power is absolute. In his painting, however, Lastman presents an earlier moment in the story: David has not yet handed over the letter that will seal Uriah’s fate. The compositional structure and expressive poses of the figures thus present a more visually and emotionally complex relationship between the men and underscore David’s compromised position.

The narrative moment reflected in Lastman’s painting belongs to the classical Greek tradition of peripeteia (turnaround) that Aristotle described in his Poetics. Peripeteia signifies the plot’s reversal, or transformation, resulting in a significant change or resolution in the lives of the story’s characters. Germane to its development is the act of recognition, agnitio, or what Aristotle called “a change from ignorance to knowledge,” and from which the most intense and uncertain moment of the narrative emerges. Lastman’s challenge in David and Uriah was to portray David’s betrayal in progress—at the cusp of the plot’s transformation—for the viewer to witness as it unfolds. David and Uriah represents a dramatic reversal of events not through physical means, but by stirring the conflicting passions of loyalty, betrayal, and desire that shaped this moment of peripeteia.

In the 1640s, the playwright and author Joost van den Vondel (1587–1679), who was keenly interested in the visual arts and in Lastman’s work, described the role of peripeteia for contemporary theater, calling it staetveranderinge (“change of state”). Vondel explained how “both principal rules of embellishment, called by the ancients peripeteia and agnitio / or pivotal moment and recognition, function together.” Their representation—in the visual arts or theater, in this case—was intended to produce the greatest narrative tension. While Vondel’s concepts only became crucial for theater in the second half of the seventeenth century, as Amy Golahny and others have noted, they had already gained currency in intellectual and artistic circles in the 1610s, when Daniel Heinsius (1580–1655) first introduced Aristotle’s text into the Netherlands. A poet, scholar, and Leiden University professor, Heinsius published his influential edition of Aristotle’s Poetics in 1610, followed by his commentary De Tragoediae constitutione, in 1611. Heinsius discussed peripeteia and agnitio and their role in stirring the passions, following Aristotle’s explanation of the modes of recognition, and similarly emphasized the principle one as being when “the recognition gradually arises from the very subject matter.” Lastman was familiar with Heinsius, and likely also with Aristotle. Whether or not he sought to demonstrate these authors’ precepts of dramatic theory directly, his command of storytelling and poignant evocation of a crucial turning point in David and Uriah indicates that he was receptive to such ideas and applied them to his own history paintings.

Lastman’s powerful portrayal of human passions in David and Uriah was the result of a masterful combination of elements: a clear, structured composition with a bright palette, even lighting, and carefully selected details that reflected his knowledge of various literary and pictorial sources. As Christian Tümpel first demonstrated, Lastman consulted both the biblical account and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquity of the Jews (book 7, chapter 7), a record of the Jewish people written in the first century AD. Lastman included details only found in Josephus’s text, namely the red seal on the letter, signifying lawful authority. He also added other pictorial elements, such as the scribe, which are not mentioned by Josephus or in the Bible. At the same time, Lastman incorporated antique motifs and architectural elements in order to suggest the scene’s historical authenticity, including a dome resembling St. Peter’s, which was intended to evoke Jerusalem, and Uriah’s helmet, which he based on an Italian helmet all’antica that he had seen in Amsterdam.

Lastman had treated the subject of David and Uriah eight years earlier (). While the episode represented in the two works is nearly identical—the handing over of the letter—Lastman initially depicted a later moment from the narrative, when Uriah has already accepted the letter and thus his fate. In the first painting, Lastman arranged the figures in a more tightly organized vertical composition than the expansive, stage-like space he would utilize in the Leiden Collection work. The former scene is more closely related to De Laet’s sixteenth-century woodcut () in the expression of power dynamics between the figures. When Lastman revisited the subject in 1619, he introduced more storytelling to the scene and situated his figures parallel to the picture plane, encouraging the beholder to “read” the narrative as if played out before him. By expanding the space between the figures and allowing the exchange of glances to reveal itself slowly, Lastman instilled the composition with greater expressive and emotional anticipation. With this evolved approach almost a decade later, Lastman composed his story so that it could resonate more directly with the viewer, thereby fulfilling the aim of stirring the mind, and the heart.

From Lastman to Rembrandt and His Pupils

In 1629, Constantijn Huygens, the secretary to the Stadholder Frederick Hendrik (1584–1647), art lover and poet, visited the studios of Lievens and Rembrandt in Leiden and observed how “Rembrandt was superior . . . in his sure touch and liveliness of emotions,” qualities that were essential for painting expressive history scenes. Both men had studied with Lastman, with Lievens spending several years with the master from 1617 to 1621, and Rembrandt six months in 1625. Lievens and Rembrandt would have learned the key principles of history painting from Lastman, from the arrangement of figure groupings within a composition to portraying emotion through action and expression. Lastman would have showed both pupils the essence of storytelling, demonstrating how gestures and glances, body language and composition, could contribute to depicting deeply moving episodes of the human experience. Nevertheless, Rembrandt, more than Lievens, excelled in capturing the “movements of the soul.”

In his unpublished autobiography written between 1629 and 1631, Huygens summarized Rembrandt’s depiction of the passions in Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver ():

Rembrandt devotes all his loving concentration to a small painting. . . . The gesture of the single man, the despairing Judas . . . wailing, begging for forgiveness, and at the same time completely without hope, preserving no trace of hope in his expression, the horrible face, the torn-out hair, the ripped garment, the twisted arms, his hands clenched to the point of being bloody, lying prone and on his knees because of some dark impulse, the whole body wracked by some horrific misery. . . . I maintain that it did not occur to Protogenes, Apelles, or Parrhasios, nor could it occur to them, were they to return to earth, that a youth, a Dutchman, a beardless miller, could put so much into one human figure and depict it all.

Huygens’s ekphrastic account of Rembrandt’s painting revealed his admiration for the young artist’s ability to represent a complex range of emotions in a single figure, qualities that reflect a critical aspect of Lastman’s teachings. Rembrandt had successfully transformed Judas’s inner despair into its outward expression, evoking for the viewer by naturalistic and forceful means the truthfulness of his emotions.

Lastman’s sophisticated approach to history painting, defined by its attention to narrative and historical detail and a wide range of pictorial and textual sources, continued to exert an impact on Rembrandt and his circle into the mid-1630s and beyond. Two paintings in The Leiden Collection by Rembrandt’s pupils Ferdinand Bol (1616–80) and Carel Fabritius (1622–54), display some of the ways in which Lastman’s narrative choices and understanding of dramatic concepts like peripeteia resonated in the work of later Amsterdam artists. Both Bol’s Angel Appearing to Elijah () and Fabritius’s Hagar and the Angel () depict biblical subjects of divine intervention at their most pivotal moments. In Bol’s painting (1 Kings 16:29–34 and chapters 17–19), Elijah will soon be awoken and saved by the angel who exhorts him to “arise and eat.” In Fabritius’s moving scene (Genesis 21:15–19), the angel’s appearance to Hagar, who grasps her hands in prayer and has begun to weep, will result in Hagar and her son Ishmael’s salvation. Each painting portrays the narrative moment just prior to when the characters’ lives will change. Bol’s and Fabritius’s large-scale works, which were rendered with earth-toned palettes and contrasts of light and dark, differ from Lastman’s paintings in form, style, and in their precise attention to historical specificity. Yet the manner in which these artists sought to capture the inner struggles of the main protagonists at a pivotal and as yet unresolved point in the narrative—a strategy dependent upon the viewer’s knowledge of the story and its consequences—is consistent with Lastman’s treatment of historical subjects and the evocation of their human element.

Pieter Lastman was a seminal figure in establishing the character of Dutch history painting. His rich knowledge of various visual and textual sources and motifs, erudition, and familiarity with dramatic theater shaped his sophisticated approach to the representation of historical themes. At the core of this achievement was the depiction of the passions and his ability to kindle for the beholder the inner motions of the mind and soul, often stirred by peripeteia. Lastman impacted painters well into the seventeenth century, his work offering artists a model for rendering this noble genre of painting. His powerful, nuanced representation of the human experience in David and Uriah makes this work enduringly compelling and aptly reflects Vondel’s characterization of the artist as the “Apelles of our Age.”

- Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 2020
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