Susanna and the Elders: Artemisia's Earliest Masterpiece
Updated: 17 hours ago
Looking back at history and tracing the evidence of art, one can see the incredibility of various individuals and their works that celebrate the period's culture. One of those periods we eagerly learn about is the Renaissance, the Italian marvel that recreated how we see art today and in the past. While most remember the dominance of artists like Cimabue and Fra Angelico in the Early Renaissance and the High Renaissance brilliance, of Da Vinci and Raphael, they never forgot the mapping of male geniuses with the intellectual women on their canvases, who together formed the basis of the period. Now, when we take a step forward through different eras, we see that the principles of the Renaissance were applied best for truly desirable works in the Baroque period. Furthermore, the timeframe witnessed a close alignment with establishing authority towards artworks in both men and women. Unlike Renaissance, the females were more active in craftsmanship, rather than just holding themselves to the subject of paintings from male artists. With my previous articles, you might know that the later periods after Renaissance showed an immense growth of artists and inventions. However, amidst all these events, one peculiar thing I notice every time is the division of paintings through gender but not their quality and perfection. Whenever I read history through different historians, I feel more vulnerable when some of the astonishing artists are narrated in a sexist manner. I believe gender has no bearing on any of the problems and the reason for women's participation towards early art that has existed to date. Thus, if Sirani and Artemisia were the most famous female artists in history while Duparc remained in the shadows, this is not a question of gender. They lived in our hearts because of their talent and irresistible story towards the emotions they displayed through the historical characters. Previously, I managed to write an article on Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia, and today again, I am putting one of the most stunning paintings by the artist, which will connect many minds through its sensual emotions. Yes, we are here for the famous, Susanna and the Elders!
General Information About the Artwork.
1. Artist's Statement.
"You will find the spirit of caeser in this soul of a woman."
2. Subject Matter.
The composition narrates the Apocryphal story of the attempted seduction of the wife of Joachim, Susanna, by the two Elders. It shows the biblical occasion for painting an erotic nude with a drama in terms of sexual dynamics and the interplay of male aggression and female resistance.
One of the leading Italian female artists of the seventeenth century who rivalled the exquisite fame of Sirani, Artemesia Gentileschi painted this artwork. She was an artist who was one of the most crucial Caravaggisti, reaching maturity between 1610 and 1620.
The Susanna and the Elders is an illustration which is the earliest work of Artemisia Gentileschi and dates back to 1610.
A little history about the illustration is that it was executed in Rome by Gentileschi only a year after she began her career. In the late 16th century, the biblical story became quite popular, which made many artists paint it, including Guido Reni and Annabelle Carraci. Artemesia might have looked upon them, so she painted her own version.
The opportunity to examine the artwork today is only because of the exhibition of Women Artists, 1550-1950 in 1977. During the 1991 exhibition at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence of Gentileschi's work, one art historian argued that the painting represented a collaboration between the artist's daughter and father. However, it was only a formal and colouristic approach of Gentileschi and not her father on the canvas.
Many contemporaries like Mary Garrard's feminist readings and Renaissance and baroque scholars Richard Spear and Francis Haskell have surrounded the painting.
The artwork is in the Schloss Weißenstein collection in Pommersfelden, Germany.
7. Technique and Medium.
Susanna and the Elders displays the baroque style of artwork with the illuminance of subtle colours and appearances. A sensuous feeling, an emotional exuberance, a drama, a richness, and a heightened dilemma are all part of it.
Learning About the Masterpiece In-depth.
About the Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi.
Artemisia was one of the artists who developed a forceful personal style, placing her among the leading artists of the generation who worked with the Carravagist style. In my previous article, I have assured you a brief introduction to the life of Gentileschi. Still, for those who haven't read it, I am putting my efforts to let you know about her.
As the daughter of the successful painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia grew up in an artistic environment. After Orazio taught her all the lessons he could give, he arranged for her to study perspective with Agostino Tassi, a successful artist and collaborator receiving major commissions for fresco decorations, but Tassi instead seduced and raped her, further promising her to marry. After Orazio knew about this incident and it became clear that Tassi exploited Artemisia, he took him to the court for his daughter. What's next? The trial took place in 1612 and lasted for several months, where innocent Artemisia was also tortured on the witness test with thumbscrews (a seventeenth-century lie detector). However, with her ruined reputation, she albeit won the trial but costed Tassi just eight months of jail. Shortly after the case, she married a florentine artist and went to live in Florentine, where she got numerous commissions due to her talent and expressive artworks based on Caravaggio.
A particularly outstanding painting from this Florentine period of her career was Judith Decapitating Holofernes, where she depicted Judith in an expressive form of violence and suspense. She continued to express feminine expressions to the biblical female characters after this baroque composition, leaving a lasting impression on viewers to this day. Now that we know a little about our beloved artist, Artemisia, let us move towards the provenance of the artwork, Susanna and the Elders.
Discussing the History and Background of the Artwork.
Honestly, there is an entire sequence of the painting to help you understand it, as no document backs up its history. So, let us take a step forward and learn about it effortlessly.
In 1977, there was a large exhibition, Women Artists 1550-1950, where the viewers were treated to six exclusive paintings from Artemisia, and one among them was Susanna and the Elders, the rarest of Gentileschi's work. Now, there were lots of confusion in the attribution and dating of the artwork, which we will study here, backed up with shreds of evidence.
The painting has the prominent inscription, ARTEMISIA/GENTILESCHI F./1610, on the lower left. Numerous scholars have divided the attribution between Artemisia and her father, Orazio. It happened because, during this time, scholars knew that Artemisia was just thirteen years old, which makes it impossible for someone to draw such a mature painting at this younger age. Hence, it was only after the establishment of the correct birth year of the artist in 1968 by Ward Bissell, proving her year of birth to be 1593 rather than 1597. But in addition, he suggested that the date of the canvas must be read as 1619, the mature years of the artistic skills of Gentileschi, rather than 1610. But in the Los Angeles exhibition, Anne Harris confirmed her attribution to Artemisia and probable date as 1610, after reading the inscription. Furthermore, the close inspection of scholars of Gentileschi confirmed her date as 1610. Hence, after a such long process, we knew the correct attribution and date of the painting, Susanna and the Elders.
Now, getting back to history, there are no certain documents and events, proving why Artemisia painted this. But we have a few comparisons which can tell us a visual image of the background. Now, there were many versions of the Susanna theme. For instance, the Schonborn painting showcases the central confrontation between principal characteristics of the moment when the Elders return to the garden to seduce Susanna. Next, if we see the Susanna of Artemisia, she belonged to a group of Susanna paintings and prints from the Carraci circle and one of the paintings by Annibale from 1601-02. Hence, we can conclude that the favourite subject of the sixteenth century was Susanna due to its erotic nudity and a biblical message. It may have motivated Gentileschi to paint her own version.
Versions by Other Masters.
There were several versions of the biblical story through different artists. For instance, in Annibale's Susanna and the Elders painting, there is a pose of legs and a decisively changed position of arms and her image revised from a sexually available and responsive female to an emotionally distressed young woman. There is an awkward twisting of her body, emphasising her vulnerability through the forced seduction of Elders. Now when we compare it with the Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders, she eliminated the background of a sexually allusive garden and replaced various elements like lush foliage, a fountain and sculptured heads.
Other versions of the painting include Tintoretto's one, which displays the advanced manner of showing the scene more sneaky than bold, but a depiction of the theme in emphasis on the voluptuous body of Susanna and the ingenuity and lustrous look from the Elders upon her.
Sebastiano Ricci also painted Susanna and the elders, which demonstrated the pictorial treatment of the theme with an erotically suggestive garden setting and a partly nude Susanna with her alluring body and protestant expression instead of a completely miserable one.
From, Rembrandt's Susanna from 1647, we saw the most sympathetic treatment towards the biblical heroine and an effortless concern with her youth, innocence and vulnerability. Also, her arms covered her breasts and genitals in the canvas.
Further, there are other versions of Susanna and the Elders painting from artists Werff Adriaen van der and Peter Paul Rubens worth noticing. Hence, we saw that the Caracci circle of artists showed the possibilities of double entendre through classical allusion to the theme Susanna. In Gentileschi's version, the figure appears to hold a position and gesture in response to the judgmental eyes of two men, which no canvas was able to show clearly. Since you know the different versions of the painting, let us move towards the meaning of the painting.
Understanding the Meaning of the Painting.
You might have already gained the idea behind the painting, but let me explain the scenario through a story.
The elders rose as the maids left and ran to her, saying: "Look, the doors of the garden are closed, no one can see us; so give your consent, and lie with us." If you refuse, we will testify against you that your maids were sent away because a young man was with you.
A deep sigh escaped Susanna's lips as she said, "I am surrounded on all sides.". It will be my death if I do this, and it will be my death if I do not. Rather than sin in the sight of the Lord, I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands."
When Susanna calls out for her maids, the elders tell her they found her in the garden with another man. Because they were elders of the people and judges, their testimony against her is believed, and she is sentenced to death the next day.
But during the process of being led away, she prays to God to save her, causing Daniel to stand up and declare that he is innocent of the woman's blood. It turns out that this is only a preamble, and he goes on to challenge and disprove the elders' testimony. Susanna is pardoned, while the elders are sentenced to death.
But the painting is much more than just a message of innocence and purity of Susanna. The figure of Susanna symbolizes a Church conspired by the Elders, showing as pagans and other opponents. Next, it could be also a representation of deliverance (young Daniel clearing her name and saving a life) or a female loyalty who would rather die than dishonesty.
Looking at the Subject Matter.
The subject matter of the Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders includes:
Removing the traditional garden from the background, Artemisia showed a rigid architectonic frieze with the body of Susanna in a shallow and restricted space. The artist might choose to remove the garden, unlike in others painting to give a metaphor against femininity through nature. Furthermore, there is the use of darkened clouds and the inscription on the architectonic frieze, which completes the background of the artwork.
Susanna is seen to be totally nude with clothes on her thighs. There is an awkward twist in her body and thrust with outflung arms, which creates an image of distress and resistance. Artemisia showed a promising naturalism through the figure of Susanna. Her body is persuasively composed of flesh with conventional realism and standards of beauty.
Added to Susanna's realism are the naturalistic pendant breast, the normal abdomen, the awkwardly posed legs, and the wrinkles on her right arm. Her facial expression reflected resentment towards the abuse, which was more emotional than resentful. The uniqueness of Gentileschis' Susanna is that it displays a spectrum of human emotions, which the spectator can feel.
One of the elders whispers in the ear of another one wearing a red robe. The one with a gesture of hand over his lips looks psychologically terrifying when he moves toward Susanna. Gentileschi has a given naturalistic appearance which is quite visible in the hair, skin and beard of the elders.
The painting senses a heightened drama of several emotions through a blast of expressions, choice of colours and gestures.
Formal Analysis of Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders.
The indirect diagonal line highlights the conspiratorial glance of one of the elders towards Susanna, which produces disturbing psychological content and motion on the canvas. Further, the figure of Susanna is along an orthogonal or diagonal line which allows any spectator to move in the image. There is a clear flow of lines through the architecture behind where Susanna holds her place. Furthermore, there is a clear line of drapery of cloth. And even the slightest motions of Susanna are visible through her bodily wrinkles and lines.
It is possible to observe that the three heads form a triangle when you pay close attention so that Susanna is not only the object of the conspiracy but also implicates a third witness by observing the silencing gesture of the older man as if he were a part of the painting’s space.
3. Light and Value.
Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi encompass the rich brightness with higher contrast. When we see the overall theme of the artwork, it does have a lighter value. For instance, the colour shade of the clouds is darker, but with the creamy white Susanna, the artist puts a light on the canvas.
There is a presence of shadows in the artwork, for instance, on the left face of the elder wearing a red robe and the left upper torso of Susanna. The elders overpower their presence with the sudden overlapping of both of them, creating a sense of tension within the composition.
It has striking and contrasting colours blended with a warmer accent. For instance, in contrast with the brown shade of the architecture, the elder man wears a red robe. Similarly, the composition has a variety of naturalistic colours, making it look impressive.
Opinions and Conclusions.
The painting Susanna and the Elders is a masterpiece in the gallery of Artemisia. With such pouring of emotions of fear, resentment, stress, lust, wickedness and anxiety, the artist has successfully created a psychological masterpiece, known for ages. Whether it be a lesson about female chastity, the integrity of the Church against the odds, or the genuine feelings of Artemisia, it just awe-inspired us.
1. Harris and Nochlin, Women Artists.
2. Cohen, “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi".
3. Italian women artists: from Renaissance to Baroque.
4. Women, art, and society.
5. Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe By Mary Garrard.
Frequently Asked Questions.
What is the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders?
According to the Chapter 13 of the book of Daniel, Susanna and the Elders is the story of two Church elders trying to seduce the young and beautiful Susanna and threatening to falsely testify against her if she doesn't allow them to do so.
What does Susanna and the Elders represent?
Artemisia Gentileschi painted Susanna and the Elders to depict Susanna in a pure and innocent state while being threatened by the two elders who whisper their ill-suited demands in her ear.
Why did Artemisia paint Susanna and the Elders?
Susanna and the Elders was one of the favourite subjects of artists during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Due to this Annibale Carraci painted her version of Susanna between 1601-02. Historians suggest that Artemisia's painting of Susanna belonged to the Carraci circle, and hence she might be inspired by the artist to portray the scene.
How old was Artemisia Gentileschi when she painted Susanna?
Artemisia Gentileschi was just 17 years old when she painted Susanna and the Elders in 1610.