Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Susanna and the Elders: Gentileschi’s Dramatic Feminist Masterpiece

Artemisia Gentileschi’s achievements as an Italian Baroque artist were almost overshadowed by the events of her personal life, such as the fact that she was a female painter and that she was instrumental in the prosecution of her rapist Agonisto Tassi. However, she has since been recognized as one of the most accomplished painters of her time. Singulart will be examining her piece Susanna and the Elders, depicting the story of Susanna from The Book of Daniel. We’ll be exploring how Gentileschi was able to represent the event from her unique viewpoint, the story that inspired the work, and the legacy that she leaves behind.

Who was Artemisia Gentileschi?

 Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615–17
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615–17

Artemisia Gentieleschi was born in Rome on July 8, 1593. Her father was the painter Orazio Gentileschi, and she learned how to paint in her father’s workshop. Similar to her father, her style was heavily influenced by Carravagio, although her paintings were more realistic while Orazio’s were idealistic.

Gentileschi’s father hired landscape painter Agonisto Tassi to tutor his daughter, however she was raped by Tassi during his time tutoring her. Although after the act they were expected to be wed, Tassi later revoked this promise, prompting Orazio to press charges against Tassi. Gentelischi was tortured with thumbscrews during the trial in order to verify her testimony; the end result was Tassi being sentenced to two years in prison, which he would never serve.

After marrying Pierantonio Stiattesi and moving to Florence, Gentileschi became a successful court painter, employed by the House of Medici and Charles I of England. It has been suggested that during this time Gentileschi also painted Virgin and Child, which is currently displayed at the Galleria Spada in Rome.

 Madonna and Child, 1613, precursor to Susanna and the Elders
Madonna and Child, 1613

During her time in Florence, Gentileschi was accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She was the first woman to be accepted to the prestigious school.

Susanna and the Elders, An Ancient Story

Gentileschi’s painting depicts the story of Susanna and the Elders, from The Book of Daniel. Susanna, a Hebrew wife, was falsely accused of participating in sexual acts with a man who was not her husband by two voyeuristic judges. The judges had watched her bathe before making advances towards her, which she refused. In retaliation, they spread the rumor of her infidelity to disgrace her name. The townspeople believed the judges and called for Susanna to be killed. A boy named Daniel saw through the claims of the judges and suggested they be separated and asked for their version of events. Each judge told a different story, disproving their claims. Susanna’s name was cleared, and the townspeople decided the judges should be killed instead.

Susanna and the Elders: Gentileschi’s Unique Interpretation

Incredibly, Gentileschi completed this painting when she was just seventeen years old. Art historians have questioned how Gentileschi was able to portray the female form in such a realistic way, surmising that it may have been due to the female models that were constantly coming to the house to pose for her father. While her style does in some ways reflect that of her father, her work is more dramatic and stylized.

Artemesia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders , 1610
Artemesia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders , 1610

While there have been many depictions of Susanna and the Elders, Gentileschi’s painting differs as it shows Susanna noticing the judges and clearly looking distressed; in other works, Susanna does not notice the judges watching her and is portrayed in a voluptuous, sensual way, almost encouraging the judges. Gentileschi’s biographer Mary D. Garrard explains “Artemisia’s Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional character who is heroic… the expressive core of Gentileschi’s painting is the heroine’s plight, not the villains’ anticipated pleasure.” Perhaps due to her background with Tassi, Gentileschi places the focus on Susanna, making her the heroine of the piece and prompting the audience to empathize with Susanna.

Gentileschi has also been praised for her realistic depiction of the female form. The bust of Susanna has been noted as being particularly realistic; her bust sinks under her arm and the folds under it are especially true to life.

An earlier painting of Suzanna and the Elders by Claude Vignon.
An earlier painting of Suzanna and the Elders by Claude Vignon.

The Legacy of Gentileschi

Although Gentileschi was celebrated as a great artist during her life, she was almost entirely erased from art history after her death. This was thanks in part to many of her works being mis-attributed to her father, due to the similar style.

In the early 1900s a Caravaggio scholar, Roberto Longhi, became a champion of Gentileschi’s work; however, even this acknowledgement was overshadowed by sensationalized accounts of her life, after Longhi’s wife published a novel detailing the salacious details of Gentileschi’s life and career.

Gentileschi fought against low pay and sexism during her career. In a letter to her patron Don Antonio Ruffo, she stated “I was mortified to hear that you want to deduct one third from the already low price I asked”, also saying in a later letter “And now, I’ll show your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do!”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Gentileschi was included in a collection of female artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that audiences began to notice the impact of her work. Even today, her work is constantly being reassessed, seemingly difficult to separate her art from her personal life. However, it cannot be denied that she remains an important female artist and one whose work should be celebrated and recognized.

View contemporary artists in the style of Gentileschi with Singulart’s official Inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi collection.

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