I’m Obsessed with This Tiny Detail in Rembrandt’s “Susanna”
Rembrandt van Rijn, Susanna , 1636. Courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Ha.
I’m obsessed with Rembrandt’s Susanna from 1636, on permanent display at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, although his arguably more famous version of the scene, Susanna and the Elders, from 1647, is in the collection of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. It’s partly because the two lecherous old men who have stopped to spy on and leer at the naked Susanna, preparing to bathe in her private outdoor pool, are here barely legible, their faces obscured on the right side of the canvas by hostile, dark green thickets.
In Rembrandt’s interpretation, the heroine—or victim—has just felt their presence. They are whispering their lewd proposition, for the look on her face—directed squarely at us, not the men in the bushes—is one of barely registered surprise; just the beginnings of fear and disgust appear in the corners of her wet, dark eyes.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, ca. 1610. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Peter Paul Rubens, Susanna and the Elders, 1607-1608. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Susanna’s emotions—revulsion and fear and anger—are so plainly expressed on her lovely face that it prevents me from appreciating what is supposed to be an aesthetic enjoyment from her exposed body. She has the presence of mind to shield herself, grabbing the sleeve of the chemise she had just laid on the bench to cover her lap, her left arm protectively around her breasts as she fruitlessly twists from our view.
The apocryphal tale is as old as time. The perverted Babylonian elders proposition the married Susanna for sexual favors, threatening her virtuous reputation by blackmail. She refuses, preferring punishment to rape. Her honor and her life are ultimately saved by divine intervention. The narrative might be read through the lens of #MeToo and long-running themes of female rage, but in art, her loathsome and frightening predicament is almost always treated as pure voyeuristic pleasure.
Detail of Rembrandt van Rijn, Susanna , 1636. Courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Whatever indignation pious viewers might feel on her behalf is meant to be subjugated to the erotic desire her normally idealized nude body inspires. What an incredible ethical contortion. A viewer can understand the actions of the leathery old bags to be wicked yet still be complicit in their game with their unwavering gaze.
Art history is filled with such indignities masqueraded as high-minded porn. Sometimes it can be hard to face. Then again, it’s the little things that count when you can’t change the chauvinist past. There’s one detail in this particular painting of the story that strikes me as redeeming in that it treats Susanna honestly. She is beautiful and damned, but she is authentic.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Susanna and the Elders , 1647. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The intrusion has confused the sense of time in Rembrandt’s narrative. Is Susanna in the middle of slipping her shoes off or is she hurrying to put them back on? It’s all happened so fast—the privacy and diversion of her bath time, of her very life, is ruined in an instant. So fast, in fact, that the impressions from her stockings remain etched into her calves.
There. That’s it. The truth: Those simple shadows in her incandescent, spot-lit, exposed flesh.
Rembrandt, in all his tragic romance, regarded these things. The emotional and physical verity of his work stems from his obsessive observations of his own surroundings as well as his vulnerability with his personal relationships—friends, wives, lovers, and children.
He paid attention to his wife, Saskia, and later, after her death, his common-law wife, Hendrickje. The Dutch artist was, Rijksmuseum curator Jane Turner told me on a recent trip to Amsterdam, the first artist to bring his materials into the bedroom. He sketched his women while they dressed, when they were sick in bed, or pregnant, or relaxing. He wasn’t afraid, uninterested, or above the banalities of their lives, like the garter marks that imprinted themselves into their dimpled calves.
For the artist, these things weren’t studies or curiosities or imperfections but the details that make even biblical women real.
Want to share your art obsession?
Send a 150-word summary of the detail in a work of art that you can’t stop thinking about to [email protected] with the subject line “I’m Obsessed.” We’ll review submissions for potential inclusion in our publication.