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The Indecent Proposal: Susanna and the Elders, as seen by Tintoretto, Gentileschi and Benton

Updated: May 7, 2021

The apocryphal story goes like this: Susanna, a young, beautiful, married woman, was bathing in the privacy of her own garden when she was observed by two elder men. They approached her, saying they would accuse her of adultery if she did not have sex with them. She refused, was brought to trial, and almost convicted (death penalty to be applied), when the Prophet Daniel spoke up, saying that the men should be seriously questioned. The two men were separated and gave conflicting testimonies, proving themselves to be liars. Susanna was acquitted. Of course, who knows what shame the court of public opinion heaped upon her for having even been accused. (My suggestion: Move to Egypt and change your name.) Whether anyone ever learned anything by the incident, we do not know to this day; however, it became a popular theme for paintings. It is particularly interesting to see how a trio of painters, two male and one female, treated the subject. I'll start with Tintoretto (see painting above).

Okay, full disclosure, this is my favorite Tintoretto, more for the lush painting than for his representation of the story. In fact, this painting is more involved with the academic debates of the time: the Renaissance Paragon, about which was better, sculpture or painting, and the classic battle between Florentine drawing and Venetian color (disegno/colore paragone). Tintoretto, also known as Il Furioso, even had a sign in his studio saying, "The drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian." Obviously, it was his goal to combine the two. In this painting he does well at both, creating the lush, luminous beauty of the naked Susanna, the gleam of her vanity items (Vanitas representation was also a major concept at the time), the darkened closed feeling of her garden, and the brighter exterior beyond its confines. Tintoretto captures that private moment in which Susanna, her hair very stylishly braided, enjoys her solitary self-reflection (depicted literally by her mirror gazing), surrounded by her jewels, fine silk scarf, velvet bodice (tossed aside), pearls, and a gleaming silver pot, probably containing a perfumed ointment. As she is so consumed with her vanities, what she doesn't see, of course, are the two old men peering at her. I think Tintoretto uses that as the cautionary tale here about being too consumed with the vanities of life when there are more imminently important things to notice. In terms of the old men, the one in the front is a peeping Tom for sure, while the old man at the back has his eyes downcast, perhaps seeing a mother duck and her babies. That can be seen as a clue to what ideas might be in his head. So we leave Susanna in imminent peril, though still at least on her own property, her house nearby.

In Artemisia Gentileschi's version of the story of Susanna and the Elders (1610), we see a very different approach. There is no suggested commentary on the conceptual aspects of art being debated, no paragons, and no moral judgments about vanity. Gentileschi cuts to the chase. The bathing woman clearly does not want anything to do with these two old men. Her head is down and turned dramatically away from them. Both her hands are raised in protest, and the left one has splayed fingers indicating shock at what is being said to her. Sneakily, one guy is whispering to the other what to suggest to Susanna, but not saying it directly to her himself (plausible deniability of guilt?) That raised left hand with fingers spread out also is an indication of fear. Yes, fear, and if you have ever seen Hitchcock's Psycho, you know what I mean. Gentileschi's very direct approach to what is going on doesn't focus on the spying, but on the indecent proposal and potential indecent act, the things that form the center of the trial that was to come.

At this point it is necessary to look at a bit of biographical information on Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). She was the daughter of a famous painter, Orazio Gentileschi, who encouraged his talented daughter, even hiring a colleague, Agostino Tassi, to tutor her. Unfortunately Tassi raped her, then continued to have sex with her under the guise that he would marry her and thereby protect her reputation. When it was discovered that he was already married, Orazio took him to court, where it was found that Tassi had had numerous affairs, planned to murder his wife, and steal some of Orazio's paintings. He was banished from Rome, though the sentence was not carried out. Artemisia, however, had suffered having thumbscrews applied to her fingers to prove she was telling the truth. Can you imagine painting after that?

But she did, and with a direct ferocity when telling tales of women who took their revenge, like in her Judith Slaying Holofernes. So it is understandable that she would deal with the issue of the indecent proposal and not just the peeking.

However, even dealing with the peeking can be done in a way to create a sense of menace. For that we can go to the 20th century and Thomas Hart Benton's version of Susanna and the Elders (1938). This is a Depression Era version, set like many of Benton's works in the middle of nowhere prairie, with the old men being probably two farm hands. Again we see them conspiring with one another, as they stand behind a tree. The focus, however, is on Susanna, here a nicely rendered, young woman with a 1930s hairdo and wedding ring, having undressed in a secluded spot in nature to bathe herself in the water. Unlike in the tale itself, she is not apparently in her own garden, hence not having her house nearby. Given that this is the 1930s, she might probably not even have a fixed address, and finding a secluded place to bathe might have been looked upon as a blessing. The key thing I see is that she has no where to run to should these men do more than just propose something indecent. How would she defend herself against the two of them? The shadowy, and beautifully rendered seclusion of this glen makes the two old men hiding behind the tree much more of a physical threat. Ironically, there is a church in the background, but in the distance. I can remember looking at this painting years ago when I would visit the museum in San Francisco, and I was always "creeped out" by the implication of what might happen.

In looking at these three painted versions of the tale, the storytelling in the paintings varies with the concerns of the times and the lives of the painters. Artemisia goes right for the important act in the story, the indecent proposal and Susanna's reaction to it. She pulls no punches about this being something that Susanna wants no part of. In Thomas Hart Benton's piece, Susanna is as yet unaware of the danger, and in Benton one feels that because of the setting, this could indeed turn out badly for her. A feeling of menace is present. And the Tintoretto? I almost wonder if this robust Venetian lady wouldn't have given these two old guys a piece of her mind, Italian style, before gathering her things, marching into her house, and slamming the door.

One final note: In the Biblical tale, the two old liars, who might have caused Susanna's execution, were themselves put to death for their misdeeds.

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Images are from public domain sources.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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