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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

Unknown Carolingian artist

The Lothair Crystal, Crystal: c.848; Fitting: 15th century, Rock crystal, gold, copper, 183 x 13 mm, The British Museum, London, 1855,1201.5, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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

Vulnerability, Vindication, and Voyeurism

Comparative Commentary by

The story is a familiar one with a terrible conundrum: Joachim’s beautiful and righteous wife Susanna innocently bathes alone in her garden when confronted by two eavesdropping, lecherous elders who desire her. These so-called exemplars of the community proposition and threaten Susanna: she must have sex with them or they will falsely accuse her of adultery. Susanna finds herself between a rock and a hard place, knowing that if she acquiesces then she will break a commandment and be killed for her transgression, while if she does not submit then (even though she will at least have remained faithful to the commandments) she will also be killed. The Greek Septuagint’s additions to the book of Daniel relays this salacious biblical soap opera, one of slander, sexual titillation, and blackmail. In the end, the heroine/damsel in distress Susanna preserves her purity when she stands her ground, providing an exemplar for her people. The hero Daniel swoops in and intervenes, tenders vindication, and decrees fatal punishment on the villains.

The three works of art exhibited here, from distinct geographical spaces and periods of time, offer conspicuously divergent approaches to this rich account. The unknown artist who designed the Lothair Crystal was commissioned to create a work of art either to further the reputation of a king in the eyes of his subjects or to exculpate the king’s wife. Daniel’s wisdom and Susanna’s faith take precedence in this early representation, which attempts to show various facets and nuances of the story in a continuous narrative. The Lothair Crystal avoids all nudity and salaciousness by virtue of its commissioned goals as well as the artistic conventions and moral code of its time. 

Like a majority of artists before her, Artemisia Gentileschi invites her viewer to focus on the specific moment in the garden when a pious Susanna is accosted by the prurient elders. Yet no verdant garden scene is depicted in Artemisia’s painting, nor is Susanna a sensual, voluptuous nude unaware that two men are spying on her. In her distinctly original interpretation, Artemisia intensifies our awareness of Susanna’s distress. Her Susanna expresses the emotions of a frightened woman under siege in an unprecedentedly acute way.

Thomas Hart Benton treats the theme very differently in his erogenous canvas—following no prototype. He paints a Susanna who, though oblivious to the unabashed Peeping Toms, is an object of unbridled lust . Thus the artist exploits the story, using it as an opportunity to paint a beautiful female body and a sexually charged scene. His Susanna recalls a pinup nude from a contemporary magazine, as opposed to Gentileschi’s innocent and anguished young woman.

An even more recent rendition of Susanna and the Elders (not included here) was that made by Archie Rand in 1992 as part of his acclaimed Sixty Paintings from the Bible series, which vividly updated the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha’s archetypal stories in an expressionistic comic book style. It is remarkable how some features of the very varied works presented in this exhibition seem to have had a legacy in Rand’s provocatively contemporary take on the subject. Like the Lothair Crystal, Rand used both words and image to convey the narrative (though in expletive-ridden speech bubbles). Unlike Artemisia, he conveys no special sympathy with Susanna, but he shares a Renaissance fascination with the specifics of the dramatic events in the garden. And in common with Benton (though in his own more loosely painted style) he is bold in bringing Susanna into a present cultural moment.

The works of art in this exhibition were chosen as a means to upend most viewers’ expectations of Susanna and the Elders: a classicized figure subjected to the male gaze, bathing in a bounteous garden, and painted on canvas by a male master from the Renaissance or baroque period. The unknown maker of the Lothair Crystal, Gentileschi, and Benton (and later Archie Rand) subverted the norms of the canon in strikingly different and surprising ways. These artists add depth and complexity to an ancient parable meant to convey themes of piety and wise judgement but often, and unfortunately, codified by an engrained construction of gendered classicism that distorts the intended meaning of the apocryphal account.

 

References

Baskind, Samantha. 2016. Archie Rand: Sixty Paintings from the Bible (Cleveland: Galleries at CSU)

———. n.d. ‘Archie Rand: Sixty Paintings from the Bible’, and ‘Archie Rand: Sixty Paintings from the Bible (all 60 paintings in color)’, www.academia.edu