The story of the beautiful and chaste Susanna is recounted in Daniel 13. Two elders of Babylon lusted for Susanna, the wife of the priest Joachim. They spied upon her as she bathed, then threatened to falsely accuse her of adultery with another man unless she submitted to their advances. Although the subject can be interpreted as a parable of justice—Susanna is ultimately vindicated—artists of the period clearly favored the image of the nude Susanna at the bath for its sensual appeal.
Jacopo Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), painted when the artist was still in his 30s, is justifiably considered one of his greatest works, for its incandescent nude, evocative background, complicated play of pictorial space, and witty juxtaposition of different ways of looking. The Gallery’s Susanna is a much simpler conception, focusing on the nude figure, with only the barest allusion to narrative elements in the two sketchy figures of the elders in the background, and none of the sophisticated intellectual content of the earlier painting.
Tintoretto’s 17th-century biographer Carlo Ridolfi reported that “Senator Lorenzo Delfino [Dolfin] has . . . six scenes from the Old Testament placed above doors; namely . . . Susanna in the garden, and the two old men, emerging in the distance from a pergola.” The Gallery’s Susanna fits this description. The somewhat perfunctory nature of the picture’s composition and execution is consistent with an origin as part of a decorative ensemble rather than as a painting intended to be appreciated on its own.
The Gallery’s Susanna has been accepted as an autograph work by Tintoretto by a number of scholars, among them Bernard Berenson, Rodolfo Pallucchini, and Paola Rossi, and, in early manuscript opinions, Roberto Longhi, Raimond van Marle, F. Mason Perkins, Giuseppe Fiocco, Wilhelm Suida, and Adolfo Venturi. Dissenters, however, include Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, Fern Rusk Shapley, and Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, and the painting can best be deemed a studio work. The nude figure is comparable to those in other paintings that can be identified as Tintoretto studio products of the 1570s and 1580s, such as the Concert (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), Leda and the Swan (two versions, both Uffizi, Florence), and Hercules Ejecting the Faun from the Bed of Omphale (Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest; probably by Jacopo Tintoretto’s son Domenico). These nude figures can be distinguished from those by Jacopo Tintoretto himself, such as those in Tarquin and Lucretia (Art Institute of Chicago); in the allegories painted for the Atrio Quadrato in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice; and in the Origin of the Milky Way (National Gallery, London). All of these show a more convincing sense of the figures’ underlying anatomy and dynamics, as well as more varied and dynamic compositions. Similarly, as noted by Shapley, the shorthand rendering of the two elders under the arbor in the background, while resembling similarly sketchy figures in works by Tintoretto dating back to the Miracle of the Slave of 1548, lacks the virtuoso mastery of Tintoretto’s own hand. The maid seems almost an afterthought, throwing the composition off-balance. Her facial type is one that appears regularly in paintings that can be associated with Domenico, such as the Budapest Hercules and Omphale. The picture can thus provisionally be assigned to Domenico, working in his father’s studio. However, the identification of different hands in the Tintoretto shop remains a challenge. Moreover, this painting was probably produced during Jacopo Tintoretto’s lifetime and, as a product of his studio, would have been accepted as a work “by Tintoretto.”
March 21, 2019