Susanna and the Elders 2: Masters and the modern

Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Susanna and the Elders (1856), oil on canvas, 40 x 31.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of this short series, I looked at paintings telling the story of Susanna and the Elders, from the Old Testament book of Daniel. I have focussed on those showing Susanna in her garden with the elders, up to the point where they proposition her with their piece of blackmail.

Painted over the same period as Artemisia Gentileschi’s works telling this story are major works by Rubens, Rembrandt, and Jordaens.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Susanna and the Elders (1609-10), oil on panel, 198 x 218 cm, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens’ first painting from 1609-10 is not far removed from Gentileschi’s earliest version, also of 1610. The elders are now clambering over a balcony wall, touching Susanna’s body, and pulling back the clothes with which she is trying to cover it. The elder at the right looks particularly aggressive, as if he could rape her there and then.

For her part, Susanna is flushed, afraid, and struck with panic, as she tries to defend herself against their attack.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Susanna and the Elders (1636-39), oil on oak, 79 x 109 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Maxvorstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The version which Rubens painted during his retirement, between 1636-39, recasts those same basic elements in a broader view, with some subtle but important shifts in his visual cues. Although the elders are still clambering over a low wall, their expressions have softened, and that of the man in red looks quite unaggressive.

Susanna is seen sat on her clothing, on a low stool, and is trying to pull a dark cloak over her body. Her small lapdog is running towards the men, and its barking may have acted as the alarm to Susanna that she has been seen. Rubens also times this significantly earlier, before the elders put their proposition to Susanna. Indeed at this stage they may not even have formulated their blackmail.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Seated Female Nude (Study for Susanna and the Elders) (c 1647), black chalk and brush on paper, 20.3 x 16.4 cm, Kupferstichkabinett Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Rembrandt’s sketches for his late painting of this story has survived, as Seated Female Nude from about 1647. It shows a curiously thin woman, stripped to the waist, as she washes herself, leaning over and looking up to her left. This is similar to the pose used in his first painting of the story, which he elaborate late in his career, in 1647.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Susanna and the Elders (1647), oil on mahogany panel, 76.6 x 92.8 cm, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t think that Rembrandt’s finished painting from 1647 is one of his best. Susanna has one foot in the water of a large pool, the other still on the step behind, as she appears to be trying to bathe. One of the elders is sat beside her, his left hand pulling at the cloth wrapped around Susanna’s body. He is looking intently into the distance, as if waiting for her answer to his proposition. The other elder stands further back, more detached from events.

Susanna clasps her hands in front of her, as if in prayer, and looks up, slightly afraid, towards the sky. Behind her are richly-jewelled and decorated scarlet clothes, and a pair of matching slippers.

For once, I think that Rembrandt’s psychological treatment is too subtle, and leaves the simple but profound issues unclear.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Susanna and the Elders (1653), oil on canvas, 153.5 x 203 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few years later, Jacob Jordaens’ Susanna of 1653 couldn’t be more different from Rembrandt’s. The grotesquely wizened elders are surely chancing their luck against a woman who appears to have a good future in professional wrestling! Jordaens has, though, picked up on the potential of personal jewellery, combs, and the like, presumably from Tintoretto and Rubens before, and borrowed the lapdog from Rubens too.

My main reason for including this painting are those amazing wrinkled and edentulous elders, shown in the detail below.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Susanna and the Elders (detail) (1653), oil on canvas, 153.5 x 203 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Their appearance, though, opens up one of the more unpleasant issues raised by paintings of this story. Clearly, all four actors – Susanna, the elders, and Daniel – were Israelites, thus Jewish. But with the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe, the elders have been used as figures in its propaganda. Jordaens’ Susanna looks very gentile, but his elders are caricatures of Jews, with hooked noses, and one wearing a Kippah. This is dangerous territory.

The eighteenth century brought many more paintings of Susanna and the elders, but those that I have found bring little new to its development, until we reach the nineteenth century, and what is claimed to be the crisis or even death of such history painting.

Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Susanna at her Bath (1839), oil on canvas, 255 x 196 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

One of his most important early paintings, Théodore Chassériau’s account from 1839 combines a delicate figure study of Susannah, with a condemnatory interpretation of the voyeurs behind. She stands unaware of the unwelcome voyeurs behind her (just as in Tintoretto’s painting), looking dreamily into the distance. Beside her, on the bank of the small pool, are her clothes and jewellery.

Watching her from a bank behind are two younger men, one of whom is staring straight at her back, with wide eyes. The other appears more detached and less obsessed with her figure.

Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Susanna and the Elders (1856), oil on canvas, 40 x 31.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly before Chassériau’s health collapsed and he died in 1856 at the age of only 37, he painted another version, in which the elders are propositioning Susanna. He uses a more traditional composition, with Susanna covering herself, shrinking back from their advances, and defying them. The elders are not quite touching her yet, but edging far too close.

I finish with two German artists who, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, came to paint Susanna and her story repeatedly: Franz von Stuck and Lovis Corinth. In both cases, she was part of their obsession with the femme fatale, which itself is a curious reversal of her story.

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Susanna Bathing (1904), oil on canvas, 134.5 × 98 cm, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

In von Stuck’s Susanna Bathing from 1904, he shows Susanna full-length, naked apart from elaborate ear-rings, with the two elders propositioning her from behind a low wall.

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Susanna and the Elders (Susanna I) (c 1913), oil on cardboard, 54 × 16 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In his 1913 version, sometimes named Susanna I, her face is turned away from the viewer, as she looks at the two elders who are watching her. With her face averted from the viewer, von Stuck weakens his statement of her anguish and embarrassment.

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Susanna and the Two Elders (1913), oil on panel, 56.6 × 17.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This second version from 1913 follows the traditional account more faithfully, but uses a joke to make the elders look even more ridiculous: the small stream of water emerging from the orifice set in the wall of the pool is readily misinterpreted as the urine of the elder dressed in red.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Susanna Bathing (Susanna and the Elders) (1890), oil on canvas, 159 x 111 cm, Museum Folkwang, Essen. Wikimedia Commons.

Corinth started painting this story in 1890, when he made two slightly different versions of what was fundamentally the same work, shown above and below. The only reference to the garden is now a single rose (the flower chosen by Tintoretto for the trellis in front of Susanna) on the floor.

The two elders have followed Susanna back inside after her bathing, and are now spying on her from behind a curtain, where only one of them is prominent. In common with Tintoretto, Corinth chooses a moment before Susanna is aware that she is being watched, and long before the elders force themselves on her.

Both paintings emphasise her nakedness by including her clothes, and add jewellery as in more traditional depictions.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Susanna Bathing (Susanna and the Elders) (1890), oil on canvas, 159 x 111.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Susanna and the Elders (1923), oil on canvas, 150.5 x 111 cm, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, Hanover, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Over thirty years later in 1923, only a couple of years before his death, Corinth painted his last account of Susanna’s story. He still avoids a pastoral or garden setting, but she has now turned to confront the elders as they try to blackmail her. This has the disadvantage that we cannot see her facial expression, only the leering smiles of the men.

There are many other drawings and paintings of this story which I have deliberately kept clear of: obscene satire from Thomas Rowlandson, modern parodies which put the elders in the pool and have Susanna spying on them. Given the underlying story, I felt these incredibly shallow works didn’t deserve to sit alongside those of Artemisia Gentileschi, or Tintoretto, for example.

I am also disappointed that I have not yet found accounts by other great women artists, like Angelica Kauffman, and of course am unable to include paintings by more modern women artists because of copyright. For this is overwhelmingly a story about women and for women – and is all the more exceptional because of that. Hasn’t it retained its relevance, too?