Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders, c.1610, Oil on canvas, 170 x 119 cm, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden / Akg-images / Album / Fine Art Images

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Susanna and Gentileschi Exposed

Commentary by

The elders are in the midst of propositioning Susanna, whispering in her ear; the fingers of the elder on the left may even be brushing against Susanna’s hair. Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi paints a grimacing Susanna awkwardly turning her head and corkscrewing her body away from the lurking judges, in obvious discomfort and repulsion. The elders have violated her privacy and she has been cornered. The spare background keeps the viewer’s attention focused on the interaction between Susanna and her oppressors, and emphasizes the sense of entrapment. So does the placement of the figures close to the front of the composition.

Artemisia was an outlier in her time both for being a female artist and for what some believe were her motivations for painting this apocryphal tale.

The daughter of a well-known artist, Orazio Gentileschi, she trained with her father during a period when female artists were almost always excluded from the field, save in unique circumstances. For some male artists, the story afforded an opportunity to paint a nude or half-nude woman. Typical renditions of Susanna by Italian artists of the earlier generation, such as Tintoretto (1555–56), do not show Susanna as a victim or parse the psychological ramifications of her encounter with the elders. Rather, these artists’ interpretations of the narrative, and most others from a male hand, revel in flesh and the female body.

Artemisia appears to have had other provocations. She endured sexual harassment and then, at nineteen years old, was raped by an artist her father had hired to teach her perspective. Some scholars believe that her sensitivity to the subject of Susanna and the Elders, which she painted four times and (by all evidence) of her own volition, came from a personal place. For Artemisia, Susanna’s plight needed to engender empathy in the viewer, and her presentation of Joachim’s unfairly threatened and maligned wife conveys the agony endemic to her predicament. 

 

References

Christiansen, Keith. 2004. ‘Becoming Artemisia: Afterthoughts on the Gentileschi Exhibition’, Metropolitan Museum Journal, 39: 101–26

Garrard, Mary D. 1982. ‘Artemisia and Susanna’, in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed. by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harper and Row), pp. 146–71

Locker, Jesse. 2015. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press)