Susanna and the Elders by Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Susanna and the Elders, 1938, Oil and tempera on canvas, mounted on panel, 152.4 x 106.7 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1940.104, © 2019 T.H. and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts / UMB Bank Trustee / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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Susanna in Modern Missouri

Commentary by

Thomas Hart Benton, especially known for his pictures of American subjects in the period between the World Wars, subverted nearly every artistic norm in his modern portrayal of Susanna and the Elders. As Benton pictures the episode, a contemporary Susanna dips her toes into a stream in rural Missouri, the locale featured in many paintings by the Missouri-born-and-bred painter. Muscular and lithe, this erotic Susanna wears vibrant red nail polish, has coiffed hair pinned up with a barrette, and is replete with pubic hair, a shocking inclusion in paintings of nudes, biblical or otherwise, in the history of Western art. Susanna’s dress, cloche hat, and stylish high-heels sit on the grass next to her, conspicuously discarded, further underscoring her nudity.

Two men in contemporary clothing peer at the unsuspecting Susanna from behind a tree, trying to get a better view; the man farthest away wears a moustache and strongly resembles Benton. In the distance, a church, mules, and Model T Ford are visible. The church offers a stark contrast to the decidedly profane actions of the Peeping Toms, and as such the painting has been interpreted as a critique of religious hypocrisy.

At a 1939 exhibition in the City Art Museum of St Louis the painting garnered much controversy. One viewer derisively called this modern, sexualized rendition, ‘Lewd, immoral, obscene, lascivious, degrading, an insult to womanhood, and the lowest expression of pure filth’ (quoted in Adams1989: 290). As Benton recalled in his autobiography, at that same exhibition a rope stanchion had to be placed before the painting because so many men came to ogle the nude Susanna (Benton 1968: 28).

Without the title, the subject of the work would have been almost impossible to recognize because of its departure from traditional representations of Susanna and the relative lack of biblical art in America. The strain of Puritanism in America after the birth of the country discouraged a religious art, preferring the verbal as a means to communicate ideas about God. A few nineteenth-century artists attempted an occasional biblical theme, but America’s taste for biblical subjects was rare.

Without a heritage of religious iconography, most twentieth-century American artists also ignored the Bible as a source. Benton, one of a small number of interwar American artists to paint biblical subjects, gives attention to this subject from the Apocrypha in an original and subversive fashion.

 

References

Adams, Henry. 1989. Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Benton, Thomas Hart. 1968. An Artist in America. Third edn. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press)

Burgard, Timothy Anglin, et al. 2005. ‘The Naked Truth’, in Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), pp. 357–61