A painting in the Royal Collection that was one of the brownest and most heavily overpainted curators had ever seen has been identified as a lost work by Artemisia Gentileschi — considered the greatest female artist of her generation.
After a five-year process of conservation and technical analysis, the rediscovered painting, Susanna and the Elders, has gone on display at Windsor Castle. Curators believe that it was commissioned by Henrietta Maria, queen consort of Charles I, around 1638–9, during Artemisia’s brief time in London when she was likely assisting her elderly father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi.
The rediscovery resulted from the efforts of Royal Collection Trust curators — notably former staff member and art historian Dr Niko Munz — to trace the paintings sold after Charles I’s execution. Seven paintings by Artemisia were recorded in the monarch’s inventories but only the Self-Portrait was known to survive, with the others thought lost.
New research allowed Munz and colleagues to match the description of Susanna to a painting that had been in store at Hampton Court Palace for over 100 years, attributed to “French School” and in very poor condition. A “CR” (Carolus Rex) brand was found on the back of the canvas during conservation treatment, confirming that the painting was once in the Stuart king’s collection.
Anna Reynolds, Deputy Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, said: “The real aha moment, the definitive moment, was when the lining canvas that had been applied a long time ago was removed from the back for relining and it revealed the Charles I brand. That was a very exciting moment.”
“We only had one work by Artemisia Gentileschi in the collection — the self-portrait that is one of our most famous paintings and is regularly requested for loan and sent on loan. So this doubles our holding of works by the artist in one fell swoop. It is a very unusual thing — a once in a generation experience — to have something that has been overlooked for centuries and is then definitively proven to be by as important an artist as Artemisia.”
The painter, born in 1593, gained fame across Europe in the 17th century when few women artists were formally recognised. She trained with her father in Rome and subsequently worked in Florence, Naples and Venice for aristocratic and royal patrons. When she finally visited England in the late 1630s, after numerous invitations, she was reunited with her father who was an artist at the Stuart court from 1626-39.
Although her work fell out of favour during the 18th and 19th centuries, she is now widely celebrated for her powerful and empathetic depictions of women from history. Reynolds said: “She is a fascinating figure who was so modern in her outlook and who really resonates today. She approached a very difficult working life, in this very male-dominated art world, in an amazing, professional way. She fought for high prices, just as high prices as the men. And she wrote, not bragging but emphasising, that she was just as good as a man at painting things.”
The Royal Collection’s Susanna is unusual for the multiple ways in which women are central to its story. In an article that will be published in the October issue of The Burlington Magazine, Munz and painting conservator Adelaide Izat write: “A painting of a female protagonist for an early modern female patron, painted by one of the most revered artists of the era, also female, is of clear historical significance. Susanna was probably commissioned by Henrietta Maria and adorned the walls of subsequent queens and queen consorts, a detail that enriches our understanding of the significant female aspects of Artemisia’s patronage and the early display of her works.”
The rediscovered painting depicts the Biblical story of Susanna, a married Jewish woman in Babylon who is surprised by two old men while bathing in her garden. When she refuses their advances, she is faced with a false accusation of infidelity, punishable by death, before she is proven innocent. It is a story Artemisia returned to many times over her 40-year career — at least six compositions are known today.
The tale may have held particular resonance given her own experience of sexual assault, having been raped at age 17 by an artist in her father’s workshop and subjected to gruelling questioning and torture at his trial.
Significantly, the story of Susanna appears in the Old Testament Book of Daniel in Roman Catholic editions of the Bible but was moved to the Apocrypha in Protestant editions including the 1611 King James Version used by Anglicans. As such, Munz argues that it held special significance for Catholics such as Henrietta Maria during the period of the Counter-Reformation.
A 1639 inventory by Abraham Van der Doort, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures to Charles I, shows that the large canvas originally hung above a fireplace in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall Palace — a relatively private room used by Henrietta Maria for receiving officials, eating and relaxing. Curators believe it was commissioned as part of redecoration ahead of the birth of Henrietta Maria and Charles’ daughter Catherine, who only survived for a few hours. It was probably installed at the same time as the fireplace that was emblazoned with the queen’s personal cipher, HMR (Henrietta Maria Regina).
In the painting, Susanna advances down some steps as if moving off the canvas, away from the lechers and into the room. The ledge of the queen’s mantelpiece would have appeared as another step. Reynolds said: “Compositionally, the painting is fascinating and different from other examples of this story. We get a real sense of Susanna feeling threatened. It is very claustrophobic and you sense her discomfort. That is quite distinct from, particularly, the way many male artists represented it as an opportunity for showing off the female figure with a beautiful nude. This is a real, fleshy female body, rather than an idealised goddess.
“Susanna is in this uncomfortable, scrunched position, covered by her fabric [shawl]. And what is really interesting and has really been revealed by the conservation treatment is how she is stepping out into our space. It would have hung over the fireplace, high up so we have a very low viewpoint. The closest thing to the viewer is Susanna’s foot, which is beautifully painted and is coming out towards you.”
Reynolds said that, while the role of Charles I as a patron of the arts and the quality of his collection had long been recognised, the reattribution highlighted the contribution of his wife. “This is something that is only just now receiving the attention it deserves. Henrietta Maria was an important patron. She came from a hugely important family, after all — Marie de Médicis [Henrietta Maria’s mother and queen consort of France] had patronised Rubens and had an amazing, huge collection. So she had grown up surrounded by art and we are just beginning to tease out exactly what in the collection was hers and what was Charles’.”
It is remarkable that the painting, commissioned on the eve of the Civil War, survived in the royal family’s hands at all. After the beheading of Charles I outside Whitehall Palace, it was sold to brewer Robert Houghton “and others” in the dispersal of the king’s collection. It later appears in lists of paintings owned by Ralph Bankes, a royalist lawyer and landowner who returned it to Charles II after the Restoration. It is subsequently thought to have hung above a fireplace in Somerset House, home to queens and consorts including Catherine of Braganza and Queen Anne.
The painting seems to have lost its attribution in the 18th century, as Artemisia’s reputation waned. It was moved to Kensington Palace, where it is depicted in a watercolour of the Queen’s Bedchamber in 1819, leaning against a wall — suggesting that it was not considered worthy of hanging. It was later transferred to Hampton Court Palace, where it lost its frame. In 1862 it was described as “in a bad state” and sent for restoration, when additional layers of varnish and overpaint were probably applied.
It has now undergone significant treatment by Royal Collection Trust conservators. Their work included the painstaking removal of centuries of surface dirt, discoloured varnish and non-original paint layers to reveal the original composition.
Reynolds said: “It looks like a different painting. You [previously] couldn’t make out any of the quality of what has been revealed by the conservation treatment. It was one of the brownest pictures we have ever seen and one of the most heavily overpainted. The colours have come out, although, obviously, some have changed over time. Artemisia used a pigment called smalt, which becomes more grey, so the colour of one of the elders’ clothes would have been a much richer purple and the sky would have been bluer. But what has come out so clearly is this beautiful observation of the figure and the steps in particular.
“The proportions have changed as well, because we have removed additional pieces of canvas that were added later. They were dark, they were done by a completely different hand and were making up space. So the composition now makes a lot more sense.”
Technical analysis of the painting during conservation not only confirmed the reattribution but has also given new insights into Artemisia’s working practices. She is thought to have travelled with a stock of tracings or drawings that she used to create new compositions, and conservators found that at least four parts of the painting were also used in previous works, including the elders’ heads and Susanna’s face.
Interestingly, Susanna’s stance echoes that of David in a painting of David and Goliath by Orazio Gentileschi dated to circa 1610-12. Munz suggests that Artemisia may, at the start of her English visit, have been reminded of the formative period almost 30 years earlier when father and daughter worked side-by-side as teacher and pupil in Rome.
Artemisia appears to have considered this Susanna particularly accomplished as she reused elements of the figure in at least three versions of her later painting Bathsheba. Imaging technology that shows underdrawing and other elements invisible to the naked eye has revealed changes she made, including uncovering a large fountain that she later painted out with trees.
The painting is now part of a temporary display in the Queen’s Drawing Room at Windsor. Hanging alongside it are Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (“La Pittura”), and Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by her father Orazio, painted during his time in London.
The image at the top of the article shows conservator Adelaide Izat working on Susanna and the Elders. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2023.