Art historian Barbara Rose gives the background to Rembrandt’s “Balthazar’s Feast” in another entry in the Wall Street Journal’s Masterpiece feature:
When Rembrandt painted “Balthazar’s Feast,” his masterly version of the banquet scene described by the prophet Daniel, he was just past 30. He and his young bride, Saskia von Uylenburgh, the daughter of a wealthy burgomeister, whose dowry he was about to squander, were finally moving to their own home. The future looked as bright as the colorful garments and as glittering as the jewels worn by King Balthazar and his court. [ . . . ]
As Rembrandt depicts the scene, we are witness to the moment the turbaned potentate realizes his reign is over as he reads the prophetic words. The inclusion of the viewer as part of the banquet party was a compositional novelty Rembrandt borrowed from Caravaggio’s revolutionary depiction of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples in the “Supper at Emmaus.” By placing in the foreground the backs of the heads of the apostles surprised by the appearance of a resurrected Christ who stares directly at us, Caravaggio asks the spectator to become a witness like the audience in a theater.
Caravaggio, the master of chiaroscuro who popularized night scenes, died four years after Rembrandt was born, but no important artist of Rembrandt’s generation could ignore the theatricality of Caravaggio. His stark oppositions of light and dark created by illumination coming from within the painting as well as from outside the frame were introduced to Rembrandt by his teacher Pieter Lastman. In “Balthazar’s Feast” these contrasts are still strikingly dramatic and exaggerated. A few years later in “The Night Watch,” the painting that marked the beginning of Rembrandt’s financial decline and fall from fashion, these contrasts are softened into a dark and velvety golden glow. [ . . . ]
There are varied interpretations of the scene, either as an image of the punishment of vanity or as a caution against worshipping pagan idols, the accusation Dutch Protestants made against Catholics. Certainly the painting had a specific cultural meaning when Rembrandt painted it. The punishment of the sumptuous lifestyle of the Babylonian king may also have had a personal significance for Rembrandt, whose extravagant tastes were to ruin him.
Rembrandt’s Rich Banquet (Wall Street Journal)