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Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome 1593-Naples 1652)

Susanna and the Elders c.1638-40

Oil on canvas | 189.0 x 143.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 402702

In an exhibition, Tate Britain Gallery [London]

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  • This depiction of 'Susanna and the Elders' was recently identified as the painting by Artemisia Gentileschi which was recorded in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall Palace during the reign of Charles I c.1639. Two major inventories of Charles I’s collections were compiled; the first by Abraham van der Doort, the King’s Surveyor around 1638-40. The second was drawn up after the King’s death in 1649, recording Charles I’s possessions in advance of the sale. In the two inventories of Charles I, there are seven different paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi listed. Until recently only one of these paintings was identified as still extant today, the 'Self-Portrait of the Allegory of Painting' (RCIN 405551).

    The story of Susanna comes from the Apocrypha in the Book of Daniel. Susanna, a beautiful and virtuous young wife, is bathing in her garden, whilst unknown to her, two lecherous voyeurs are watching. They accost her, demanding she give in to their lustful desires, and threatening to accuse her of adultery, punishable by death, if she does not comply. Susanna refuses to give in, and is arrested when they carry out their threat of blackmail. She is only saved when Daniel finds inconsistencies in the accounts of the two men.

    A popular subject for artists in the seventeenth century, Susanna highlights the moral triumph of truth and virtue over evil and lust. It was also an opportunity for artists to paint a beautiful naked young woman for their (typically) male patrons. In many artists’ depictions of Susanna, the viewer of the painting is invited to put themselves into the voyeuristic position of the Elders.
    Artemisia is one of the first artists to depict Susanna in a fearful or reluctant position; the profound anguish of her first Susanna (1610, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden) has often been set against a backdrop of personal resonance for the artist, given her endurance of torture and trial as a result of her rape by Agostino Tassi, an artist working in her father Orazio’s workshop. The subject of Susanna is one Artemisia returned to many times throughout her career (the first in 1610, the last in 1652), with seven versions known of today.

    In the present work, a young nude woman descends stone steps towards water. We see the moment that the Elders have surprised her, appearing menacingly close above her, only separated by a low wall. The life-size figure of Susanna steps down and outwards towards the viewer. The claustrophic composition and compressed picture plane, as well as the contorted pose of Susanna rapidly shielding her body from unwelcome intrusion, all serve to heighten our sense of disquiet. The drama of the composition is particularly effective from a low vantage point, suggesting that Artemisia designed the work with its intended position over a fireplace.

    Documentary and technical evidence suggests that it was painted for Henrietta Maria during Artemisia’s years in London. The placement of the entry in Van der Doort’s inventory suggests that it was inventoried in the later stages of the working draft, likely in 1639. The record of the picture hang in the Queen’s Apartments at Whitehall provides further context – Henrietta Maria’s apartments were redecorated before the birth of her sixth child, Catherine, who was born and died at Whitehall Palace on 29 January 1639. It seems plausible, therefore, that the paintings in the Queen’s Whitehall apartments were hung at least partly in anticipation of her pregnancy, birth and lying in. The Susanna was not hung in Henrietta Maria’s bedchamber, but in a neighbouring room in the same apartment, where the accounts show substantial renovations in the period 1639-40, including a remodelling of the fireplace: the accounts record £40 paid to the sculptor and architect Nicolas Stone for an elaborate white marble chimney-piece with Henrietta Maria’s cipher. The placement over the fireplace of Artemisia’s work in conjunction with these renovations seems highly plausible.

    There are signs in the present work of reuse or adaptation of existing figures, as was standard practice for both Artemisia and her father Orazio Gentileschi. Susanna’s head has been matched to that of St Catherine of Alexandria in Stockholm. The head of the turbaned elder features as the female midwife in the Birth of John the Baptist in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (1635), retaining the ear, neck and facial features, but with a masculinised appearance. The same facial type was also translated to Judith and Holofernes in the National Museum, Oslo, dated 1639-40. The balding elder’s head matches that of Zechariah in the Prado painting. This flexible approach to the design of a painting, forming a jigsaw of varying parts of previous compositions, gives an insight into Artemisia’s practice and what she saw as most successful. For example, Susanna’s contrapposto pose is repeated in at least three of the artist’s later renditions of the story of Bathsheba, in the form of a female water-carrier on the left hand side. The posture is flipped: the female figure now has her back to the viewer. Modifications work to conceal the instances and varieties of adaptations, which are at odds with the artist’s famous boast, “never has anyone found in my pictures any repetition of invention, not even a single hand.”

    Acquired by Charles I; recorded over the chimney in the Queen's Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall in 1639 (no 34); sold for £20 to Robert Houghton and others from Somerset House on 23 October 1651 (no 223); recovered at the Restoration and listed in the Privy Chamber at Somerset House in 1710 (no 5); recorded without artist attribution in Queen Caroline's Bedroom at Kensington Palace in 1818 (no 417), and depicted in a watercolour of the room published in 1819 leaning on the wall (RCIN 922159); in Redgrave's 1861 inventory of Hampton Court (no 1126) attributed to Benedetto Gennari, 'in a bad state' of repair and without a frame.

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    189.0 x 143.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    200.9 x 157.8 cm (historic measurement)

    210.1 x 164.7 x 9.8 cm (frame, external)

    183.8 x 138.6 cm (sight)

  • Category
    Object type(s)
  • Other number(s)

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