A painting from the Royal Collection of England has been reattributed to celebrated female Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi after it was found in “very poor condition” in a storeroom at the Hampton Court Palace. A spokesperson for the Royal Cultural Trust confirmed with Hyperallergic that Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders” (c. 1638–39) had been uncovered in 2018 and has undergone intense conservation efforts during the last five years, during which the attribution to the artist was made.
The painting, formerly attributed to “the French School,” had sat in the storeroom for over a century prior to its rediscovery and restoration, a statement from the Royal Collection Trust notes. The work is believed to have been created when Gentileschi had joined her father, Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi, in London during the 1630s, to assist as a court painter under King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria.
Gentileschi’s painting presents the biblical tale of “Susanna and the Elders” from the Book of Daniel, in which a married Hebrew woman named Susanna is confronted by two spying men who attempt to force her into sexual intercourse while she privately bathed in her outdoor gardens. Susanna refused the Elders, who served as governing judges, and they falsely accused her of adultery with a young man — a crime that warranted a death sentence. Susanna was spared once the noble Jewish youth Daniel questioned the Elders separately and uncovered the discrepancies in their individual recounts. The men were subsequently put to death for lying in Susanna’s name and attempting to put an end to an innocent life.
Gentileschi, who had painted variations of “Susanna and the Elders” throughout her career, was drawn to the story as it pertained to her own experiences of rape at the hands of her father’s friend, Italian painter Agostino Tassi, and subsequent torture-induced testimony during the trial that later led to Tassi’s conviction. Gentileschi, known as one of the most accomplished painters of the Baroque era, was celebrated not only for her technical prowess akin to that of Caravaggio, but also for her woman-focused subject matter portrayed through a feminist lens.
Niko Munz, an art historian and one of the Royal Collection Trust curators who helped uncover the misattributed work, stated that the painting “appears to have been commissioned by Queen Henrietta Maria while her apartments were being redecorated for a royal birth,” highlighting that the work was first hung over a new fireplace emblazoned with the Queen’s personal cipher. “It was very much the Queen’s painting,” Munz said.
The painting underwent intense conservations due to its poor condition, including the careful removal of accumulated dirt, dust, and excessive varnish layers and non-paint elements to reveal the true composition. The team also removed additional canvas strips used to enlarge the painting sometime after its creation, relined the canvas, retouched old damages, and commissioned a new frame. X-radiography and infrared reflectography also revealed the changes Gentileschi made to the composition from the original drawing and underpainting to the final piece.
Now, the newly attributed “Susanna and the Elders” is on display alongside the revered painter’s “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (‘La Pittura’)” (c. 1638–39) and her father’s London-era painting “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” (c. 1632) at the Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom until the end of April 2024.