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Susannah and the Elders

Honthorst Gerrit van called Gherardo delle notti

(Utrecht 1592 - 1656)

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.


Object details

Inventory
027
Location
Date
1655
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 157 x 213
Frame

19th-century frame with frieze with lotus leaves and palmettes, 180 x 231 x 8 cm

Provenance

Collection of Marcantonio IV Borghese, 1783 (purchased from Giovanni de’ Rossi); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 32, no. 2; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 1989 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage Museum 
  • 1995-1996 Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum; Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum 
  • 2008-2009 Düsseldorf, Museum Kunstpalast
  • 2009-2010 Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art; Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum
  • 2015 Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1915 Tito Venturini Papari
  • 1946 Carlo Matteucci (cleaning)
  • 1993 Marcone/Sannucci (conservation report)
  • 2009 Cecilia Bernardini

Commentary

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




Bibliography
  • M. Vasi, Itinerario istruttivo di Roma, Roma 1791, I, p. 289.
  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 364.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 429.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 45.
  • G.J. Hoogewerff, in U. Thieme, F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, XVII, Leipzig 1924, p. 447.
  • G.J. Hoogewerff, Gherardo delle Notti, Roma 1924, p. 11.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 178.
  • A. von Schneider, Caravaggio und die Niederländer, Marburg-Lahn 1933, pp. 30, 135.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, (“Itinerari dei musei e monumenti d’Italia”, XLIII), Roma 1935, p. 16. 
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (“Itinerari dei musei e monumenti d’Italia”, XLIII), Roma 1951, p. 22.
  • K. Bauch, Aus Caravaggio’s Umkreis, in “Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz”, VII, 1956, p. 236.
  • A. Pigler, Barockthemen. Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Budapest 1956, I, p. 224.
  • P. Della Pergola, Un acquisto di opere fiamminghe per la Galleria Borghese, in “Mededelingen van het Nederlands Historisch Instituut te Rome”, X, 1959, p. 268 [Della Pergola 1959a].
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 165-166, n. 239 [Della Pergola 1959b].
  • P. Polman, De aprilstorm van 1732 tegen toelating van een apostolisch vicaris in de hollandse zending, in “Mededelingen van het Nederlands Historisch Instituut te Rome”, X, 1959, pl. I.
  • J.R. Judson, Gerrit van Honthorst, a discussion of his position in Dutch Art, (“Utrechtse bijdragen tot de kunstgeschiedenis”), Den Haag 1959, p. 149.
  • B. Baumgärtel, scheda in Die Galerie der Starken Frauen. Regentinnen, Amazonen, Salondamen, catalogo della mostra (Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum 1995; Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum 1995-1996), a cura di B. Baumgärtel, S. Neysters, R. Baader, München 1995, pp. 338-339, n. 175. 
  • J.R. Judson, in J.R. Judson, R.E.O. Ekkart, Gerrit Van Honthorst 1592-1656, (“Aetas aurea”, XIV), Doornspijk 1999, p. 58, n. 18.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 15.
  • N. Roth, Der Verboten Blick in der Christlichen Kunst, in Der Verbotene Blick auf die Nacktheit. Diana und Actaeon, catalogo della mostra (Düsseldorf, Museum Kunstpalast, 2008-2009), a cura di B. Wismer, Ostfildern, 2008, pp.98, 102. 
  • L. Bartoni, scheda in Galleria Borghese. The splendid collection of a noble family, catalogo della mostra (Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art 2009; Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum 2010), a cura di R. Vodret Adamo, Kyoto 2009, pp. 168-169, n. 46.
  • M. Onali, in Gherardo delle Notti. Quadri bizzarissimi e cene allegre, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Uffizi, 2015), a cura di G. Papi, L. Lorizzo, Firenze 2015, pp.206-207, n. 39.