Demonstrating brilliant technique and interpretative insight, Artemisia Gentileschi was just 17 when she first painted on a theme she would return to repeatedly. The biblical Apocrypha recounts the tale of Susanna, the beautiful wife of Joachim. She is bathing in their garden when she is surprised by two elders. The men threaten her with sexual violence and tell her that they will both accuse her of adultery if she does not submit to them. She resists and they carry out their threat.
Susanna is brought to trial for the capital offence of adultery. She pleads her innocence, which is finally ascertained when the young Daniel interrogates the accusers separately. Their accounts differ wildly, are wholly contradictory and, as a result, Susanna walks free, virtue intact.
Artemisia portrays the moment when the two men bear down on her from behind the stone wall where they have been spying. They are oppressively entwined in conspiracy – one whispers in the ear of the other, who places a forefinger on his lips. There is a stark contrast between the heavily robed, shadowy men and the near-naked figure of Susanna. Unlike many other paintings of this scene by male artists, which portray her as passive, Susanna violently resists their approaches, twisting her torso away from them, making clear her deep and instinctive anger at their actions.
It is an astonishingly mature work for one so young, revealing a mastery of the techniques handed down to her by her father Orazio – a man of ‘utterly savage temperament’ – who kept his daughter in a state of near-confinement.
In the year after she painted Susanna and the Elders, Artemisia faced her own ordeal when her father accused his fellow painter Agostino Tassi of having ‘deflowered’ his daughter, damaging the family’s reputation. Though Tassi employed false witnesses in his defence, in 1612 he was exiled from Rome for five years. Subsequently, Artemisia was married to another painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, the younger brother of her father’s lawyer. They moved to Florence, where Artemisia would mature into a major figure of the Renaissance, defying all prejudice.