An essay by Pailin Bennett
Copy attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi
‘Susanna and The Elders’ is a story in the Bible which follows the eponymous Susanna, who is accused of adultery by two elders after refusing their sexual advances. While there have been many depictions of this story, it was Artemisia Gentileschi who, according to Mary Garrard, was the first artist to use an ‘explicitly feminine point of view’ and change the subject from ‘blatant pornography’ that exploited Susanna’s fear and body for the male gaze to a depiction of the ‘heroine’s plight’, one that expressed the horrors of the threat of rape. This is something that Gentileschi was unfortunately all too familiar with as in 1611, the year after she painted her first version of ‘Susanna and the Elders’, she was raped by painter Agostino Tassi.
In this representation of Susanna, painted originally in 1622, she is portrayed more traditionally with some critics suggesting this is because it was a commission by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. This copies painter has quite successfully recreated Gentileschi’s impressive grasp of human anatomy. However, around the abdomen, the artist has painted a large shadow over what could have been the folds of skin that made Susanna’s body so realistic, which I feel removes the beauty of Gentileschi’s skill.
Susannah’s arms are arranged in a pose known as ‘Venus Pudica’ which is best portrayed by the Hellenistic sculpture of ‘Crouching Venus’ where Venus is surprised while bathing like Susanna. The two lecherous men tower above Susanna, with their crouched bodies almost merging in the dark shadows and becoming an amalgamation of true immorality. Though the colours in the copy are more subdued there is still quite a clear juxtaposition between the bright figure of Susanna and the darker figures of the elders, known as ‘chiaroscuro’, representing the idea of ‘innocent virtue eventually triumphing over evil’. She stands out against the darkly painted fountain and walls around her, immediately drawing attention to her vulnerable and naked body which she tries hard to cover with a white undershirt. White traditionally symbolises purity and chastity, something that Susanna is at risk of losing at this very moment.
There is a lot of tension in this painting, most notably in the way Susanna and the elders seem to have their eyes locked on each other. It forces the viewers to move between Susanna and the elders, wondering who will break first. She leans awkwardly away from her tormenters, clearly uncomfortable, yet her face remains calm with her lips parted like she is uttering a small prayer. Her eyes are turned to heaven to represent the moment she turned to God for help in the story, one can only wonder if Gentileschi did the same thing when she was raped.
Tassi was convicted but released by the judge and Gentileschi was tortured to prove her honesty. Painting became her way of exacting revenge on her rapist Tassi, easily seen in her painting ‘Judith and Holofernes’, where she, as Judith beheads Holofernes (Tassi). Even 400 years later many women may find Gentileschi and Susanna’s stories unfortunately relatable as sexual violence against women is still present in today’s society, with many of us tortured by the fear of what a man may do to our bodies. To lose control of your own body is terrifying. Gentileschi regained control of her body through her art by highlighting the horrific nature of rape and condemning the male fixation on sexual violence in art. It is both beautiful and powerful that art has the ability to comfort and heal even the most damaged parts of anyone.
Original 1622 painting
The story of ‘Susanna and the Elders’
Venus Pudica- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_of_Knidos
Crouching Venus - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crouching_Venus
On her rape and Agostino Tassi - https://rhapsodyinwords.com/tag/rape-of-artemisia-gentileschi-by-agostino-tassi/
Susanna and the elders, 1611- https://medium.com/thinksheet/how-to-read-paintings-susanna-and-the-elders-by-artemisia-gentileschi-28098c776476
On Artemisia Gentileschi - https://www.collegeart.org/pdf/artbulletin/Art%20Bulletin%20Vol%2072%20Vol%203%20Pollock.pdf