Susannah and the Elders
Susanna and the Elders is the first work known to be entirely painted by Artemisia Gentileschi. She was just 17 years old. The painting illustrates how a girl brought up in a society ruled by men felt about the constraints of this world.
During her lifetime Artemisia created four paintings of Susanna and the Elders (three have been lost). The paintings are more than a re-telling of a popular Bible story. Together with her other work, they focus on the vulnerability of women in a society whose rules were made by men.
This story has been a frequently depicted scene from the Old Testament: two voyeuristic elders spy on the virtuous Susanna while she is bathing, then attempt to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them with false accusations of adultery.
Many artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chose this subject. These include Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Guido Reni, Paolo Veronese, Ludovico Carracci, Rubens, Van Dyck and Artemisia Gentileschi.
This story spawned different artistic interpretations. In early examples, the focus is on the vindication of Susanna and sets her as an example of Roman piety and faith, comforting bereaved families that they will be vindicated by god-like Susanna. In the 15th and 16th century artists highlighted the nude Susanna bathing in the gardens. In the Baroque period, the artists emphasized the dramatic elements of the story.
About the Painting
Artemisia has framed Susanna close to the viewer. She is sitting upright on a bench, recoiling from the men who are positioned in a threatening position above her. They appear to be colluding in their act. This juxtaposition of Susanna and the men creates tension in the composition. Her eyes and mouth are half-open indicating her alarm at the men's behaviour. Her use of Chiaroscuro (light and dark) is an important element of her interpretation of the story in which she is determined to redeem Susanna 's integrity. Susanna is bathed in light while the two men are in dark tones and shadow. There is no doubt in Artemisia's painting who the victim is – Susanna.
Artemisia's painting is not about the act of rape but the behaviour of a couple of sexual predators and their impact on a young woman. Susanna's response is at the centre of the painting, demonstrating Artemisia's unprecedented psychological realism. Her Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional female character who is heroic. The expressive core of Artemisia's painting is the heroine's plight, not the perpetrators anticipated pleasure, and this offers an entirely different set of concerns to many of her male counterparts.
We do not know why she chose to paint this scene. She finished this painting before her rape by Tassi who worked in her father's studio. The subject may reflect the sexual harassment she was receiving at male artists' hands once she began training in her father's studio.
Susanna is usually presented by male artists as unaware of the elders' presence, or even welcoming them in a flirtatious fashion.
In the painting by Tintoretto, Susanna is represented as a vain woman, much more preoccupied with her reflection in the mirror, she is unaware of the elders peering at her from behind the wall.
In Rembrandt's painting, Susanna felt ashamed, because she is aware that she was caught naked not just by the elders, but by the painting viewers too. The viewers are involved in the story. They act like the elders, as voyeurs of a woman bathing. Viewers don't come to her defence but choose instead to gaze at her naked and vulnerable body.
Tintoretto, Susanna and the Elders. 1555. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Rembrandt Susanna and the Elders. 1647. Gemaldegaleries. Berlin Germany