Susanna and the Elders (Artemisia Gentileschi, Pommersfelden)

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Susanna and the Elders
Susanna and the Elders (1610), Artemisia Gentileschi.jpg
ArtistArtemisia Gentileschi
Yearcirca 1610
Mediumoil on canvas
Dimensions170 cm × 119 cm (67 in × 47 in)
LocationSchloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden

Susanna and the Elders is a 1610 painting by the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. It currently hangs in the Schloss Weißenstein collection, in Pommersfelden, Germany.[1] The work shows an uncomfortable Susanna with the two men lurking above her while she is in the bath. This was a popular scene to paint during the time of the Baroque period.[1] This subject matter for this painting comes from the Book of Daniel.


Subject matter[edit]

The painting shows two elderly men spying on a young woman named Susanna.[1] Susanna had gone out to the garden one day for a bath and during that time Susanna's housekeeper let the two elders in and they found Susanna.[1] The elders then demanded sexual favors from her.[1] Susanna denied them but they threatened to ruin her reputation if she did not change her mind.[1] The two elders kept their word and tried to ruin Susanna's reputation until a young man named Daniel intervened.[1] He noticed that some of the details in the two elders' stories did not match up. Daniel suggested that the two elders be questioned separately.[1] When they were questioned separately, their stories did not coincide with each and so Susanna’s name was cleared.[1]

Gentileschi's interpretation[edit]

Art historians Roberto Longhi and Andrea Emiliani have questioned how Gentileschi could paint a convincing female nude at such a young age.[1] They wondered if she had studied female anatomy or if she used a model because her father would have models coming in and out of their family home because of his work studio that was in the home.[1]

Annibale Carracci, Susanna and the Elders

Gentileschi was compared to other artists who painted that same subject.[1] When Gentileschi painted Susanna, she made Susanna awkward and uncomfortable.[1] Gentileschi did that by adding a twist to Susanna’s body. A common comparison with this painting is Annibale Carracci’s version of Susanna and the Elders.[2][1] Gentileschi and Carracci’s have two different styles when handling Susanna’s body.[3] As mentioned before, Gentileschi made Susanna uncomfortable, but she also made her more feminine than Carracci.[1] Carracci's Susanna is more masculine and has an eroticized beauty and is receptive to the two elders' attention.[1] Gentileschi also decided to go against the typical body type that is normally shown in many other versions of Susanna and the Elder paintings and went with a more classical style. By choosing a more classical style for Susanna’s body, it creates a more heroine feeling. Since Gentileschi painted this vertically, the elders are allowed to be spread out at the top, which turns them into a dark element hovering over the scene and creates a feeling of pressure on Susanna.[1] Gentileschi painted this scene at least two other times in her lifetime.[4] Since this is the first time she painted this scene, it was assumed by Roberto Contini, Germaine Greer, Susanna Stolzenwald, and Mary D. Garrard that she painted this painting with her father's guidance.[5][3] However, it is also true that no other artist had ever explored the psychological dimension of this Biblical story before, which suggests that Gentileschi's father, a traditionally-trained artist, had no helping hand in the design of this painting.[1]


The signature for this painting is on the back instead of the front.[1] Gentileschi only signed nineteen of her paintings.[6] She did not use the same spelling or format for these signatures because during the time that Gentileschi was alive, there was no standardized spelling.[6] These paintings were attributed to Gentileschi because of a letter that she wrote [6] Art historians were able to match her signature to a letter that she wrote to confirm a similar handwriting.[6] However, some art historians like R. Ward Bissell questioned if she was the one actually signing her paintings because of the letters that she wrote. In four of her letters that are still on display today, her name is not spelled out "Gentileschi" as it would today, in some of those signatures the letter "e" was an "i". [6]

Gentileschi painting style[edit]

Gentileschi did not include a landscape or background in many of her paintings.[2] As shown in this painting, the only thing in the background is a blue sky. [2] It was not until the mid-1630s that Gentileschi started adding in background or landscape.[2]



The questioning of the date of this painting started with the Joesph Heller's guidebook for the Pommersfelden collection in 1845. Art historian Rave said that the last digit looks like a 6 or a 9 so the date could be 1616 or 1619. On the other hand, art historians like Rose-Marie Hagen said that it is a 0 and the date was correct at 1610.[1] This painting was x-rayed in 1970 by Susanna P. Sack and it was confirmed that the date on this painting says 1610.[1] This information was then later published by Mary. D Garrard in 1982 and most scholars have accepted this information as the correct date.[1] The date of this painting is important because if it was done in 1616 or 1619 it would put it into the Florentine period, but since the painting was done in 1610 this painting was created in the Roman period.[1] Even Gentileschi's birth year was questioned by two art historians, Roberto Longhi, and Andrea Emiliani; this was because there was an incorrect identification on her birth date.[1] This information was corrected by art historian R. Ward Bissell in the year 1968 when she found a public record for Gentileschi's birth year.[1]

Father's guidance[edit]

Gentileschi's father, Orazio Gentileschi, was one of the first people in Italy to paint in the style of Caravaggio.[5][4] With Gentileschi's father being her first teacher, it was not surprising that Gentileschi painted in a similar style.[4][5] Art historians have different opinions about this version of Susanna and the Elders.[3] One opinion comes from Marry D. Garrard who thinks that Gentileschi is representing a rare visual of a female who has been victimized.[3] This is because Garrard believes that the painting could be related to Gentileschi's resistance to the sexual harassment that she received from men in her community before she was raped by Agostino Tassi.[3] On the other hand, Gianni Papi stated that the two elders were meant to represent her father and her second teacher, Tassi, because it is thought that his harassment of her was going on in the years prior to the rape and trial.[1] If she was being harassed by Tassi in years leading up to the trial, Gentileschi could have been portraying her feelings of the harassment in this painting. However, there is no evidence confirming either opinion.[1]


Artist Kathleen Gilje created a work of art based Gentileschi's painting in which she made one, more violent version of Gentileschi's painting in lead paint, then painted a copy of Gentileschi's original over top. An x-ray of Gilje's painting shows Gentileschi's version of Susanna overlaying a version that depicts the rage and pain of a rape victim. Gilje titled this piece Susanna and the Elders Restored (x-ray, 1998).[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Christiansen, Keith; Mann, Judith (2001). Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  2. ^ a b c d Garrard, Mary R. (2001). Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622 The shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity. Los Angeles, California: Regents of the University of California. pp. 77–113. ISBN 978-0-520-22841-2.
  3. ^ a b c d e Grace, Sherrill (January 2004). "Life Without Instruction: Artemisia, and the Lesson of Perspective". Life Without Instruction: Artemisia, and the Lesson of Perspective. 25 (1).
  4. ^ a b c Slatkin, Wendy (1997). Women Artists in History. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Simon & Schuster. pp. 73–75. ISBN 978-0-13-432873-7.
  5. ^ a b c Locker, Jesse M. (2015). Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting. London. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-300-18511-9.
  6. ^ a b c d e Mann, Judith W. (2009). "Identity signs: meanings and methods in Artemisia Gentileschi's signatures". Wiley. 23 (1): 71–107. JSTOR 24417558.


  • Christiansen, Keith; Mann, Judith, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001) pp. 296-299
  • Garrard, Mary R, Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622 The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity (Regents of the University of California 2001) pp. 77-113
  • Grace, Sherrill, Life without Instruction: Artemisia, and the Lesson of Perspective (University of British Columbia 2004) pp. 116-135
  • Locker, Jesse M., Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting (London 2015) pp. 48
  • Mann, Judith W., Identity Signs: Meaning and Methods in Artemisia Gentileschi Signatures (Wiley) pp. 71-107
  • Slatkin, Wendy, Women Artists in History (Upper Saddle River 1997) pp. 73-75