For the past century, the 17th-century painting “Susanna and the Elders,” a moving composition depicting the biblical narrative of Susanna being falsely accused of sleeping with a man by two elders and being rescued at her trial by divine intervention, was kept at England’s Hampton Court Royal Collection and attributed to a French painter.
The painting was in bad condition and marked with a “CR,” signaling that it once belonged to the art collection of King Charles I (who ruled England from 1625 to 1649).
When a team of art historians led by Royal Collection former staff member Niko Munz started to study artworks from Charles I’s collection, they looked at this painting and started to see a pattern. The style of the painting and archival records suggested it could have been painted by female Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi.
The team started to compare inventories, descriptions of provenance records, and the collector’s mark, as well as carrying out material analysis of the painting. To their surprise, they confirmed that the work is indeed the brainchild of Artemisia Gentileschi, as confirmed by use of her signature pigments (lead tin antimony yellow).
“We are so excited to announce the rediscovery of this important work by Artemisia Gentileschi,” said Anna Reynolds, Deputy Surveyor of The King’s Pictures. “Artemisia was a strong, dynamic, and exceptionally talented artist whose female subjects – including Susanna – look at you from their canvases with the same determination to make their voices heard that Artemisia showed in the male-dominated art world of the 17th century.”
Researchers were able to trace the painting’s history from the moment it was commissioned. Records show that “Susanna and the Elders” was commissioned by Queen Henrietta Maria during the artist’s stay in London in 1638-1639 while she was assisting her father Orazio. An inventory from 1639 shows that the piece was hung above a fireplace in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall Palace.
“One of the most exciting parts of this painting’s story is that it appears to have been commissioned by Queen Henrietta Maria while her apartments were being redecorated for a royal birth,” said Dr. Niko Munz, “Susanna first hung above a new fireplace – probably installed at the same time as the painting – emblazoned with Henrietta Maria’s personal cipher ‘HMR’ (‘Henrietta Maria Regina’). It was very much the Queen’s painting.”
The painting was later transferred to different locations and during the 18th century, when Artemisia’s reputation started to wane, the attribution was lost. The re-attribution comes at a time when the art world is increasingly interested in highlighting the role that Gentileschi, one of the greatest female artists of all time, had in Baroque art.
The newly rediscovered painting will be on display at the Queen’s Drawing Room in Windsor Castle, shown alongside other works by the artist and her father, such as “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (‘La Pittura’),” considered one of Artemisia’s masterpieces, and “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” by her father Orazio Gentileschi.