“We had the description and we had other references in inventories, but the painting that was in store really didn’t look like an Artemisia Gentileschi because it was so heavily overpainted and the varnish was so discolored,” Anna Reynolds, deputy surveyor of the King’s Pictures, tells the Telegraph’s India McTaggart.
Misattributed at least two centuries ago, first to a male artist and later to the “French School,” the forgotten painting was only rediscovered after experts matched it to a description in an inventory of Charles I’s art collection, according to a statement from the Royal Collection Trust (RCT). The English king owned seven Gentileschi paintings, but only one, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), was previously thought to survive. A team led by art historian Niko Munz identified the newly reattributed painting while researching what happened to Charles’ collection following his execution in 1649.
“It’s once in a generation that we might come across something of this importance that we haven’t registered,” Reynolds tells the Telegraph.
It took five years of extensive conservation work, including removing dirt, overpainting and previously added canvas strips, but Gentileschi’s remarkable depiction of Susanna and the Elders has finally re-emerged. Conservation also revealed Charles’ “CR,” or “Carolus Rex,” brand on the back of the canvas, further confirming the painting’s provenance.
“The attribution is unassailable,” art historian Sheila Barker tells the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris. The researchers “cross-checked a number of different kinds of evidence, including inventory descriptions, provenance records, and the collector’s mark on the painting, in addition to making stylistic comparisons. They even carried out a material analysis that detected the presence of one of Artemisia’s preferred pigments: lead tin antimony yellow.”
Examinations of the rediscovered artwork yielded new insights into the artist’s practices. Experts believe Gentileschi traveled with tracings or drawings she used to create compositions; at least four parts of the painting, including the elders’ heads and Susanna’s face, were used in previous works. Similarly, the artist reused elements of Susanna’s appearance in a later painting of Bathsheba. Additional analysis showed that the painting once featured a large fountain that Gentileschi later painted out.
“You just could not see the quality of the painting beneath the grime until now, but absolutely it is true, and this find has come about as a result of Artemisia’s recently restored reputation,” Reynolds tells the Observer’s Vanessa Thorpe.
To celebrate the headline-making find, Susanna and the Elders is on view temporarily at Windsor Castle. Featured alongside it are Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting and Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, an early 1630s painting by Gentileschi’s father, Orazio Gentileschi.
Commissioned by Charles’ wife, Henrietta Maria, around 1638 or 1639, the newly discovered painting depicts the biblical story of Susanna, who is surprised by two men while bathing. She refuses their advances, so they falsely accuse her of infidelity, a crime punishable by death. Ultimately, Susanna is proven innocent.
“While male artists of the period often presented an idealized or sexualized view of the scene, Artemisia gives great emphasis to Susanna’s vulnerability and discomfort as she twists her body away from the lecherous men,” the statement notes.
In this respect, the painting mirrors Gentileschi’s earlier depiction of the same scene. That work, dated to 1610, “represents an art historical innovation: It is the first time in which sexual predation is depicted from the point of view of the predated,” wrote the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead in 2020. “With this painting, and with many other works that followed, Artemisia claimed women’s resistance of sexual oppression as a legitimate subject of art.” (Gentileschi likely drew on personal experience when depicting such scenes: In 1612, an Italian court found fellow artist Agostino Tassi guilty of raping her, but he was never punished.)
Gentileschi learned to paint as a teenager in her father’s studio in Rome. She went on to work for aristocratic and royal patrons in Florence, Naples, Venice and London, becoming internationally successful in an era when few women artists received recognition.
But Gentileschi’s reputation “languished after her death,” per the New Yorker, partly because her “naturalistic” style of painting fell out of fashion. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that Gentileschi’s work garnered renewed acclaim for her skill and storytelling.
As Reynolds says in the statement, “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.”