Susanna at her Bath by Francesco Hayez

Susanna at her Bath by Francesco Hayez (1850)

For an artist to have two favourite subjects for his paintings, biblical stories and female nudity, one would have thought combining the two would be somewhat difficult, if not risky.  However my featured artist today, the leading Romantic painter and portraitist of his time, Francesco Hayez, has, on a number of occasions, achieved that very thing.

Francesco Hayez was born in Venice in 1791.    He was the youngest of five sons.  His father was a French fisherman originally from Valenciennes and his mother, Chiara Torcella came from island of Murano, situated in the Venetian lagoon.  He was born into an impoverished household but fate took a hand in his life as Francesco was brought up in the household of his mother’s sister whose husband, Giovanni Binasco was a wealthy antiquarian and an avid art dealer and art collector.  It is more than likely that his uncle’s love for art transferred to his nephew, who in his childhood days developed a love of drawing.   Hayez’s uncle further developed Francesco’s love of art by gaining him a position as an apprentice in a studio of an art restorer.  His uncle then arranged for Francesco to study art under the tutelage of the Italian historical and allegorical painter, Francesco Maggiotto where he learnt about the Neo-Classical style of painting.  From the age of eleven to fifteen he studied the use of colour in classes run by the Bergamo painter, Lattanzio Querena, a skilful portraitist and copyist of 16th century Venetian paintings.

At the age of seventeen, Francesco Hayez was able to be enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia where he studied under the historical and portrait painter, Teodoro Matteini.  It was whilst at the Academia that he won a painting competition, the prize being the chance to study for one year at one of the leading art establishments, Academia di San Luca in Rome.  Although his prize was for a one-year study period, Francesco Hayez, remained in the Italian capital for almost five years and spent much time studying the works of Raphael in the four Stanze di Raffaello (“Raphael’s rooms”) in the Vatican Palace.   He then moved on to Naples in order to fulfill a commission he had received from Joachim-Napoléon Murat, who at the time was the King of Naples, and brother-in-law to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Hayez moved to Milan in 1823 when he was thirty two years of age.   He was appointed Professor of Painting at the Accademia di Brera and soon became part of the academic and aristocratic life of the city.  It was around this time that he concentrated his art work on history paintings and portraiture and regularly exhibited his works at the annual Brera exhibitions.  In the mid 1830s he attended the famous Salon, which became known as the Salotto Maffei, as it was hosted by Clara Maffei, a leading Milan society hostess of the time.  Salon was the name given to gatherings of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation.  Clara’s salon was always well attended by well-known writers, artists, scholars, musical composers such as Verdi and people who were pro-Risorgimento (the political and social movement that wanted all the different states of the Italian peninsular united into one single state of Italy).  Hayez received many commissions from the men in the forefront of the fight for Italian independence and unification, one of these was his good friend Teodoro Arese, who in Hayez’s 1828 painting, Count Francesco Teodoro Arese in Prison, he depicted Arese in chains as a reminder of Arese’s imprisonment in 1821, as a result of his struggle against the government.

The paintings of Hayez were often dominated by biblical themes but Hayez had also developed an interest in the history of his country and began to incorporate contemporary political and social figures in historical backgrounds.  The sense of patriotism which he depicted in his portraiture was always well received by his patrons.   In 1850 he was appointed the director of the Academy of Brera and it is the Pinacoteca di Brera (“Brera Art Gallery”) which now houses one of the most famous of Hayez paintings, The Kiss (see My Daily Art Display Jan 6th 2011).

As I stated at the start of this blog, besides his love of historical and  biblical paintings, one of his other favourite themes was that of the semi-clothed, or the naked female. He often incorporated these within oriental themes or scenes from harems, such as his 1867 painting, Odalisque. By doing this he and other artists were able, in some way, to counter any possible negative comments by people offended by naked flesh.

Penitent Mary Magdalene by Francesco Hayez (1825)

What was more controversial was his 1825 portrayal of a naked repenting, Mary Magdalene, entitled Penitent Mary Magdalene, which surprisingly depicted such a well-known religious figure in a full-frontal nude pose.  Hayez’s reasoning behind such a depiction, which was not the normal portrayal of Mary Magdalene recanting her sins, was that it was to remind us of Mary Magdalene’s somewhat erotic and dubious past.

My featured Hayez painting today has also religious connotations but is unlike many similar depictions.  The work, which he completed in 1850, is entitled Susanna at her Bath and is housed in the National Gallery, London.  It has allowed the artist to combine his love of biblical stories and the portrayal of a well-endowed female nude.  The story of Susanna and the Elders comes from Chapter 13 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel

The story revolves around a Hebrew wife named Susanna who was falsely accused by two lecherous voyeurs.  Whilst bathing one day in her garden and having dispensed of the services of her attendants, two lustful elders secretly observe her.  On making her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them.  She is horrified at their suggestion and refuses to be blackmailed.  The two lechers carry out their threat and inform the authorities about her affair with an illicit lover.  She is arrested and about to be put to death by stoning for promiscuity when a young man named Daniel interrupts the proceedings, shouting that the two elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent. The two men are questioned separately and their stories do not agree. The court then realises that the two elders have made false accusations against Susanna.   The false accusers are put to death and virtue triumphs.

The Susanna in Hayez’s painting is the same Susanna but unlike other depictions of the event we do not see the two elders and accordingly Hayez has not included the words “the Elders” in the title of his work.  Hayez has preferred to concentrate all his artistic ability in his depiction of the nubile and beautiful young woman.  Although the two men are not seen by us we notice the accusatory expression on Susanna’s face as she looks over her shoulder and catches a glimpse of her voyeurs.  It is a truly beautiful painting and Hayez’s portrayal of the voluptuous Susanna with her pale skin and pursed lips is remarkable.  Look into her eyes.  It is as if she is looking straight through us.  We ourselves feel accused of staring at her naked flesh.  We can just imagine her unwavering stare as she browbeats the two old lechers.  The background to the right is dark and contrasts with the pale white skin of her leg and this chiaroscuro effect adds to the painting.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi (1610)

This painting depicting the biblical scene portrays Susanna’s character as being quite hard, determined and dare I say slightly brazen.  If you want to see a slightly different depiction of Susanna, in which she is shown as being vulnerable, frightened and devastated by the overtures of the two lechers then you must look at the painting Susanna and the Elders by my favourite female artist, Artemisia Gentilesschi.  She completed the work in 1610 and rather than showing Susanna as a coy or flirtatious person as often depicted by male artists, including Hayez, Artemisia looks on the event from the female perspective and deftly portrays the vulnerability of Susanna, showing her as being both scared and repulsed by the demands of the two men who menacingly loom over her.  It is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the sexual assault by the two Elders as a traumatic event. Artemisia Gentileschi at the time of her painting was having a torrid time with her boyfriend who two years later would rape her and Artemisia had then to endure the trauma and mortification of the rape trial.

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

 

Lot and His Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi (C.1640)

The other day I was asked a question about a painting and the painting within that painting and it was whilst researching into the answer I came across My Daily Art Display’s featured painting of today.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi.  I had previously featured a painting with the same title by Lucas Cranach the Elder back on August 20th and there are numerous similar works by other Renaissance artists who have depicted the biblical scene including Orazio Gentileschi, the father of today’s featured painter.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593 in her parents’ home on Via Ripetta, near S. Giacomo degli Incurabili, a church dedicated to St James the Great, in the Corso near Piazza del Popolo. She was the first born of five children of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, then 30, and Prudentia Montone Gentileschi, who was then just 18 years old.   The Gentileschi family always lived in the artists’ quarter between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna, in the Campo Marzio, Latin for the Field of Mars and the nearby church of Sta. Maria del Popolo, which was built in 1520 and contains works by Raphael, Bernini and Caravaggio.  Artemisia’s mother died in childbirth aged 30 when Artemisia was just twelve years of age and she was brought up by her father.  Artemisia studied painting in her father’s workshop and accounts of her early life tell of how she was a far better student than her brothers who were also being trained as artists by their father.  Her father introduced her to the Roman artists of the time including the great Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Much of Orazio Gentileschi’s work was influenced by Caravaggio and in turn Artemisia’s style of painting in her early artistic days was also inspired by him.  The one main difference between the painting styles of father and daughter was that Orazio’s works were idealized, her paintings were more naturalistic in nature.  Artemisia was indebted to her father in the way he supported her artistic ambitions as at that time women were not considered to be intelligent enough to be an artist and her artistic talent, which was plain to see even in those early days, was heavily criticised by her male counterparts who were jealous of her artistic gift.  Artemisia was not to be put down and fought for her right to become an artist and her determined and unwavering attitude eventually gained her the respect she deserved and ultimately it gained her justifiable credit for her work.

She produced her first major work at the age of seventeen.  It was Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susan and the Elders) which she completed in 1610.  This biblical subject was another which had been, and was to be painted many times over.  However Artemisia’s painting shows how she incorporated the realism of Caravaggio into the work and is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the actual sexual assault of the two Elders as a traumatic event.

Two years later an incident occurred which was to change the course of Artemisia’s life.  Her father was working on a commission for Pope Paul V inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace along with fellow painters, one of whom was the Florentine artist,  Agostino Tassi.  Orazio got on well with his fellow worker and contracted him to tutor his daughter privately. It was during this tutelage that Tassi raped Artemisia. At the time she was nineteen years of age.  Instead of reporting the incident to her father she said nothing and continued to have sexual relations with her mentor, as Tassi had managed to placate her by promising her marriage.   Tassi however, had other ideas and broke off the liaison citing her unfaithfulness with another lover as the reason for the end of the relationship.   It was at this point that Artemisia’s father pressed rape charges and Tassi was arrested and put on trial for rape and for the theft of a painting from Orazio’s workshop.

The trial lasted several months and is well documented and the transcripts of the trial still exist.   The case followed a similar pattern that is familiar nowadays with the defendant maintaining that his victim had not been a virgin but was a willing lover and in fact had had many lovers and was an insatiable “whore”.  The assertion that Artemisia was not a virgin was the crucial issue and it has to be remembered that the fact that Artemisia had maintained that she had been a virgin prior to the rape was the only reason the courts would countenance a trial.  However she had to undergo the embarrassment of a number of  thorough gynaecological examinations by midwives to determine whether she had been “deflowered” recently or a long time ago and she even underwent intense questioning sometimes being tortured using a sibille, a type of thumbscrews, for the officials to come to a decision about the charges she had laid against Tassi.  Tassi denied ever having had sexual relations with the virginal Artemisia and brought many witnesses to testify that she was “an insatiable whore.”   During the court case, it came to light that Tassi had previously been imprisoned for having an affair with his sister-in-law and had planned to kill his wife.   Unfortunately for Tassi, a witness was produced who recounted how he had heard Tassi boasting about raping Artemisia.  Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.

A month after the trial ended, her father arranged for Artemisia to marry a Florentine artist, Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi and soon after the couple moved home to Florence.  Soon after the trial, Artemisia Gentileschi painted Judith Slaying Holofernes .  The painting is remarkable not only for its technical proficiency, but for the original way in which Gentileschi portrays Judith, who had long been a popular subject for art.  A year after moving to Florence, Artemisia gave birth to their daughter Prudentia.  In all they had four sons and the one daughter but it was only Prudentia who survived childhood.  She and her husband worked at the Academy of Design, and Artemisia became an official member there in 1616.  This was an extraordinary tribute to be paid to a woman of her day and this almost certainly came through the good auspices of her Florentine patron, the Grand Duke Cosimo II of the powerful Medici family.   It was during her time in Florence, that he commissioned a number of  paintings from her and soon betters her husband’s reputation.  Artemisia Gentileschi remained in Florence producing works for Cosimo II until his death in 1621 at which time she returned to Rome.

The following year her husband is charged with assaulting one of a group of Spaniards, who were outside their home serenading Artemisia. By 1623, her husband is no longer listed as being a household member and it appears that they have separated permanently. Artemisia continued to live in Rome until about 1627,when she moved to Venice.  A year later she was in Naples, living with her daughters and servants.  Always in search of new patrons she finally found one, King Charles I of England who was an art-collecting monarch and who surrounded himself with many continental artists including Artemisia’s father Orazio.  Her patronage ended suddenly with the outbreak of the English Civil War and the execution of her patron Charles.  Artemisia returned to Naples where she spent the rest of her life.  She died in there in 1654, aged 61.

Although the story about Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God by looking back at the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is very well known and told to children who receive bible studies or religious education, the follow-up biblical tale about Lot being plied with wine until he was drunk by his daughters, who then seduce him, and have a sexual relationship with him in order to have children is for obvious reasons often left off the religious curriculum in schools, or at least I can say, with hand on heart, it wasn’t mentioned during my religious lessons.

The Bible passage Genesis (19: 30-38) sets the scene:

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi ; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted the subject in the 1640’s at the height of the Baroque era.  In the painting she elected to portray the scene of wining and dining prior to the first seduction.  Lot sits between his two daughters at the entrance to their cave.   In the left background, far behind them, the city burns, and in the middle distance Lot’s wife is frozen into a Baroque statue, her arms outstretched in terror. The three main figures are intricately interlocked by a system of rhyming arms and legs.   Three prominent arms take us across the painting from left to right in a slowly falling rhythm: the daughter’s arm on the wine jug rhymes strongly with Lot’s lower arm which in turn intersects with a third arm that curves gently down to the tabletop. This strong physical  linking, with its relationship to the wine jug, wine glass and bread, has set the scene and in some ways incriminates the father and daughters in the incest which follows.  In this portrayal of the scene unlike others the artist has not depicted Lot as somebody who is so drunk that he is incapable of knowing what is happening and thus unable to thwart the incest.  He is not shown as a passive victim of the affair.  Artemisia has portrayed all three members of the family as having an active role of what is about to happen.  The girls are virgins, a state which will soon change.

The daughter to the right of the painting is well highlighted and one must suppose that she is the elder daughter and the first to seduce her father.   Look at the colours of the girls’ clothing; blue, white and gold.  We have the rich blue which is the colour often used in the portrayal of the Virgin Mary.  We have the white which symbolises virginal innocence and we have gold which is symbolic of purity and preciousness.  The elder daughter twists round, almost contorted, to look at her father.  One end of the rich blue fabric snakes between her thighs whilst the other end lies close to the thighs of her father.  Is that just coincidental or are we to believe that maybe Artemisia has placed the sash between the daughter’s thighs as an indication that this is exactly where her father will position himself during their sexual act?  Again, are we reading too much into the painting if we compare the bread which is on the table as having had its outer skin violently broken and its fresh interior exposed to the light with the act of the virgin being deflowered?  Another strange departure from the biblical tale is the action of the father.  In the Bible we are told that the daughters plied their father with drink so he became drunk and did not know what was about to happen, but look closely at the picture.  The daughter with the wine is on the left and the father is passing his wine glass to the daughter on the right as if he is plying her with wine and not the other way around.  Look at his facial expression.  What do you read into it?  Is it a look of a man who is becoming befuddled and not in control of the situation or is this the look of a man who is beginning to enjoy himself and is encouraging his elder daughter to imbibe and  take pleasure in what is happening?  Is this another way in which Artemisia is implicating him in the sexual acts which were to follow?  Is Artemisia trying to tell us that the man is not without guilt?  So the question you must ask yourself as you look at this painting is whether the artist is portraying Lot as almost a lecherous old man or one that is being hoodwinked by the daughters?  If you believe the former, as a lot of feminists do, why did Artemisia portray him that way?  Had her being raped altered her view of men and thus she would not have us believe Lot was just an old man being hoodwinked by his daughters?  Remember also that her artistic career and her eventual fame did not come easily as she was thwarted throughout her life – by whom?  Men !!!!

Many questions and some controversial answers.   I will let you form your own conclusions.

Just a little addition to the original blog:

The sibille was a long cord which was wound round the base of each finger then the palms of two hands were tied together, palm to palm, at the wrists.   Then the cord was threaded around each pair of fingers.  A large wooden screw is then attached and turned so the cord tightens digging into the flesh, cutting it and eventually it would cut down to the bone.  The pain would have been excruciating.