"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 9, 2013

"Susanna and the Elders" by Artemisia Gentileschi (Stories behind paintings)

Susanna and the Elders (Suzanna e i Vecchioni), painted in 1610 by Artemisia Gentileschi. The painting is now in the Graf von Schonborn Kunstsammlungen, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany.



Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656) was an Italian Baroque painter, the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, and one of the most fascinating painters of her generation. Her private history was marked by a disastrous incident: in 1611 Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter who had been hired by her father to tutor her. Together with her father, she pressed charges against Tassi even though this meant she had to undergo a demeaning gynecological examination and was tortured using thumbscrews. After a seven-month trial, the rapist got off with a conviction of one year which he never had to serve. Fortunately, Artemisia Gentileschi went on to become one of the best painters of her time - she painted many strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible; perhaps her most famous painting is Judith Beheading Holofernes, showing the decapitation of Holofernes in a scene of horrific blood-letting. Although her private history long overshadowed her achievements as an artist, today she is in the first place seen as the great artist she was.

Susanna and the Elders is Artemisia Gentileschi's first signed work, painted when she was only seventeen. Made before her own traumatic experience, but at a time when she may already have been suffering from sexual harassment by Tassi, it shows Suzanna sexually accosted by the two Elders when she is about to take a bath, a popular Biblical theme in painting, as it made some gratuitous nudity possible - typically, Gentileschi was the only one to paint the scene from a female point of view and rather bring out the fear and repulsion that Suzanna felt.

What do we see?
Suzanna is about to step into her bath (in her garden). She is already undressed and has one foot in the water. Two lecherous Elders are secretly observing her from behind a wall (in the picture uncomfortably close to Suzanna) - the finger on the lips of the right-hand figure points to secrecy - perhaps they are also commenting to each other in a whisper on her charms. Suzanna sits in a posture of fright: she has turned her head away and tries to push something back with her outstretched hands, as if a great danger is approaching from that side.

The background
  • The story of Susanna or Shoshana is included in the Book of Daniel, although in the Protestant tradition it is considered as an apocryphal chapter in that book. It is set during the captivity of the Jewish tribes in Babylon. Susanna, a fair Hebrew wife (whose husband is apparently temporarily away from home), was secretly desired by two Elders of the community, who plotted together to seduce her. When Suzanna took a bath in her garden, having sent her attendants away, the lecherous voyeurs hid themselves and secretly observed her. When she made her way back to her house, they emerged and threatened that, unless she gave in to their desires and had sex with them, they would publicly accuse her of adultery - the penalty for which was death. But Suzanna spurned their vile proposal and refused to be blackmailed. The "pious" Elders duly made their false accusation, claiming that they had caught Suzanna while she was having a tryst with a young man in her garden. Suzanna was charged and condemned to die, but at the last minute the youthful Daniel - the future prophet - interrupted the proceedings, demanding that the Elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent. The two men were separately questioned about the details of what they saw - and they disagreed about the sort of tree under which Susanna supposedly met her lover. Thus Susanna's innocence was established and instead the false accusers were put to death.
  • From about 1470, Susanna was the subject of paintings by many artists, including Lorenzo Lotto, Guido Reni, Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Tiepolo. The story of Suzanna was in 1749 made into an oratorio by Handel.
  • Besides having the important distinction of being painted from the point of view of Suzanna (and not showing her as flirtatious as many male artists did), Artemisia Gentileschi's rendering of the famous sexual harassment story is characterized by advanced color and construction, as well as anatomical accuracy. It is a very accomplished work, especially for such a young painter. Suzanna is depicted as vulnerable in her nudity, and shocked by the vile demands of these "pillars of society." In contrast, the two men loom large and menacingly over her, in a dangerous conspiracy trying to wreck her life. Psychologically, the painting exactly hits the mark. 
  • What we also realize now, is that this is a composite painting showing various parts of the story at one and the same time: the fright of Suzanna, her outstretched hands pushing something back, belong to a later scene - it is the shock she feels when the men make their mean proposal.
  • Some further biographical facts about Artemisia Gentileschi: her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was also a painter and she first studied with him in Rome. Her rapist, Agostini Tassi, was a landscape painter and the reason she became his pupil was to learn drawing in perspective. After the long legal proceedings were over, Artemisia married an artist from Florence (not out of interest in the man, but to show society she was "respectable"). She lived in Florence from 1614 to 1620 and enjoyed huge success as a painter. After the marriage broke up, she returned to Rome. In 1630 she went to Naples and in 1637 she traveled to London to the court of of Charles I, where her father had become court painter. Her father died however in 1639 and by 1642 Artemisia had also left England. In 1649 we again hear about her in Naples. She probably died in that city during the great plague of 1656.
  • Artemisia Gentileschi has been called "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting." The characters in her paintings intentionally lack stereotypical feminine traits, and are instead bold and defiant, probably because Artemisia was well aware of how female artists were viewed by society. For the same reason she often treated violent subject matter. She fought with determination against the prejudices towards women painters and was able to introduce herself into the circle of the most respected painters of her time, aptly using the weapon of her personality and her artistic qualities.
  • Because Artemisia returned again and again to violent subject matter as Judith and Holofernes, a "repressed-vengeance" theory has been postulated. Indeed, when viewing the painting below, made in 1611-1612, it is difficult not to imagine that Artemisia was cutting off the head of her tormentor Tassi, nice and slow... Or was she using her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market of sexually-charged, female-dominant art for male patrons (as the Wikipedia article on Artemisia Gentileschi puts it)? This is a cruel painting - see how cool Judith remains, as if she is just carving up a chicken: