This work depicts an episode from the Book of Daniel of the Old Testament, a subject that 16th- and 17th-century painters returned to often. The scene shows the attempt of two men to seduce the beautiful Susannah while she bathes in the fountain of her garden. The painting is a product of the late career of the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst; it was purchased by Prince Marcantonio IV Borghese in 1783.
19th-century frame with frieze with lotus leaves and palmettes, 180 x 231 x 8 cm
Collection of Marcantonio IV Borghese, 1783 (purchased from Giovanni de’ Rossi); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 32, no. 2; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
The painting is signed and dated in the lower right hand corner: ‘G. Honthorst 1655’. It is a product of the last phase of the career of the Dutch artist whose penchant for painting night scenes earned him the nickname ‘Gherardo delle Notti’. Executed the year before his death, the canvas depicts Susannah and the Elders, the well-known episode of the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Daniel, in which two elders espy the beautiful wife of Joachim as she bathes in a fountain to take refuge from the intense heat. Here she is portrayed half naked with her feet in the basin as two men with turbans make their advances. One of the men tries to tear away the white sheet that covers her. The background shows another portion of the fountain from which water falls; it is decorated with a putto and covered by the leafy tree branches.
Critics have identified the influence of Bolognese models in the composition, including those of Domenichino (Schneider 1933, p. 30), Ludovico Carracci and Guido Reni (Judson 1999, p. 58). The theme was widely portrayed in 16th- and 17-century painting by artists of various schools; apparently the subject provided painters with the opportunity of exalting the sensuality of a female figure in the context of a sacred representation.
The work in question entered the Borghese Collection in 1783 when it was purchased by Prince Marcantonio IV from Giovanni de’ Rossi. The Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton and the architect Antonio Asprucci mediated the sale; both men were involved in the renovation of Villa Pinciana which the prince was pursuing in that period, with the aim of expanding the family’s prestigious art collection. The acquisition of this Susannah formed part of this project, together with that of a group of other Flemish paintings, which also probably included the Concert by the same artist, still held by the Galleria (inv. no. 31).
This series of purchases is documented in a list of receipts, in which the work in question is described as ‘a bathing Susannah by Honthorst, called Gherardo delle Notti, 7 5/12 spans long, 5 2/3 spans high’ (cited in Della Pergola 1959a, p. 268).
The canvas was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1791; it can be identified as ‘the chaste Susannah, by Honthorst’ mentioned in Mariano Vasi’s description of the works in the second room of the upper apartment in his Itinerario istruttivo di Roma (Vasi 1791, I, p. 289).
Over time the artist’s signature on the canvas became illegible, such that the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario listed it as by an anonymous artist of the Flemish school. Only in 1891 did Giovanni Piancastelli (p. 429) revive the correct attribution.
A drawing by the artist with the same subject was recently found on the antiques market and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of New York. According to Gert Jan van der Sman, the drawing can be dated to between 1625 and 1630, many years before the realisation of the Borghese canvas. The former shows many compositional similarities to the painting as well as several conspicuous variations, including Susannah’s pose: in the drawing she is depicted seated on the edge of the basin, not standing, while both the appearances and garments of the two men are rendered differently. Yet the comparison does not reveal such a large chronological gap between the two works, leading some critics to propose that the Borghese Susannah is a replica of a lost work of the artist’s early career, for which the drawing held in New York may provide evidence (Onali 2015, p. 206).
Pier Ludovico Puddu