In a dream God granted King Solomon "a wise and an understanding heart," which the turbaned potentate made use of the following day. Two women each claimed an infant as their own, so Solomon ordered it cut in two. One of the women cried out that she would give up the child, thus revealing herself as the true mother. From 1616 until 1627 the Delft painter Bramer worked in Rome, where he adopted a broad range of dramatic ideas from Early Baroque artists, including Caravaggio and fellow Netherlanders such as Gerrit van Honthorst.
This painting of the 1640s treats the Old Testament subject of the Judgment of Solomon (1 Kings 3:5–28). In a dream the Lord appeared to Solomon, who was the son of David and Bathsheba and David's successor as king of Israel. The youthful monarch beseeched God for "an understanding heart to judge thy people," and the Lord answered that his request would be granted, because he had not asked for wealth, a long life, or the lives of his enemies. Upon waking, Solomon burned offerings before the ark of the covenant "and made a feast to all his servants." Then two women, who had each recently given birth to a boy, came to the king with conflicting stories about their newborn children. One of the infants had died in the night, and was supposedly switched for the living one by the unfortunate mother. But the woman with the surviving son pleaded that she had done no such thing. Solomon ordered that the child be cut in two, so that each woman would have half. The true mother cried out, conceding the child to the other woman, who at the same time expressed assent to Solomon's decision. He gave the child to its actual mother, and all of Israel came to respect their new king, "for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him."
In this work, the center of interest—and the one passage of impressive painting—is the duplicitous mother and the swordsman dangling the live baby by one foot. The executioner's pose recalls that of the Dioscuri, or Horse Tamers, one of the most admired ancient sculptural groups in Rome. The ambiguity of the entire background is such that one might expect drastic revisions by the artist, with overpainted passages now showing through. But the haphazard space is as typical of Bramer as is the variety of architectural styles depicted.
Two other versions of this subject by Bramer are known: one dated 1643 (formerly Benedykt Tyszkiewicz, Warsaw; see Wladyslaw Tomkiewicz, Catalogue of Paintings Removed from Poland by the German Occupation Authorities During the Years 1939–1945, Warsaw, 1950, pp. 54–55, no. 122, pl. 116) and a taller composition with fewer figures, probably dating from the late 1640s or early 1650s (St. Annen-Museum, Lübeck).
[2011; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
National Surety Company (until 1911)
Wooster, Ohio. Josephine Long Wishart Museum of Art. "Exhibition of Paintings of French, Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German Masters, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 20–December 15, 1944, unnumbered cat. (p. 12).
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "Portraits, Figures and Landscapes," January 12–February 4, 1951, no. 5.
Minneapolis. University Gallery, University of Minnesota. "Space in Painting," January 28–March 7, 1952, no catalogue?
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
Albert Blankert. Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632–1675. Utrecht, 1975, p. 13, fig. 3 [English ed., "Vermeer of Delft," Oxford, 1978, p. 11, fig. 4].
Alfred Bader. The Bible through Dutch Eyes: From Genesis through the Apocrypha. Exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Center. Milwaukee, 1976, p. 102, fig. 23, under no. 46.
John Michael Montias. Artists and Artisans in Delft: A Socio-Economic Study of the Seventeenth Century. Princeton, 1982, p. 148, fig. 6, dates it to the 1630s.
Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 180, calls it an "especially attractive, small-scale history painting".
Albert Blankert inVermeer. Paris, 1986, p. 71, fig. 48 (color) [English ed., Rizzoli, New York, 1988], repeats Ref. Blankert 1975.
Michiel Plomp. "'Een merkwaardige verzameling Teekeningen' door Leonaert Bramer." Oud Holland 100, no. 2 (1986), p. 110 n. 5, under no. 14, compares it with a lost painting by Christiaen van Couwenbergh, "Historical Subject (Semiramis Commanding Her Husband's Death)" (known through a drawing by Bramer; Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
Wolfgang C. Maier-Preusker. "Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1604–1667), Œuvre und Wandlungen eines holländischen Caravaggisten." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 52 (1991), pp. 189, 235 n. 98, accepts Montias's dating to the 1630s [see Ref. 1982] and suggests that Van Couwenbergh borrowed the motif of the extended sceptre in his lost painting of Semiramis [see Ref. Plomp 1986] from the one in the MMA work.
Jane ten Brink Goldsmith et al. Leonaert Bramer, 1596–1674: Ingenious Painter and Draughtsman in Rome and Delft. Exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1994, p. 172, fig. 48a, under no. 48, discusses it in connection with another version of the subject by Bramer (St. Annen-Museum, Lübeck).
Walter Liedtke et al. Vermeer and the Delft School. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, pp. 65–66, fig. 68, dates it about 1640; compares it with the lost painting by Van Couwenbergh [see Ref. Plomp 1986] of about the same date, concluding that "the two painters were working along parallel lines" at this time.
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. xi, 90–93, no. 21, colorpl. 21, fig. 17 (color detail), dates it to the 1640s.