I was just on my way out of the National Gallery after spending a lazy Sunday afternoon admiring all the colours, landscapes and textures, when I first laid eyes on Susanna at her Bath. (c.1850)
Occupying a modest 138 by 122 meters worth of wall space in the second to last room of The Wohl Galleries, Susanna sits watching as visitors put on their coats and prepare to face the bitter cold outside. As I was wrapping up, I couldn’t help but become even more aware of Susanna’s nakedness, of this woman’s vulnerability. I thought how humiliating for this subject with her towel barely covering her thigh, to be gawked at by the dressed.
Although I was already familiar with the story of Susanna and the Elders and some of its other classic representations in art, initially I didn’t realise the two were connected, so unusual was this model’s depiction. It was first the eyes which piercingly sought my attention, followed by the dark wave of her hair mimicking the curves of her body. Bundled in the corner of the room, it almost felt as though no one would notice if I slipped into the painting. Slowly I felt myself getting sucked into the black liquid void beneath her – one has the sensation of falling, of really feeling the pull of gravity beckoning closer...
The story itself is an extremely problematic one, and it was in contextualising this piece that I relapsed back to reality -- the safe confinement of the gallery’s four walls. In the bible, Susanna was spotted by two corrupt judges one day as she bathed. Because she refused to sleep with them, the pair falsely accused the woman of adultery for which the punishmentwas death. Although the story has a chillingly ‘happy ending’, as the truth of her innocence is revealed saving the damsel in distress, it always leaves me with a sick feeling.
But then I see this painting. Hayez, master of 19th century romanticism, captures this moment of disturbing voyeurism with such grace that it’s almost easy to forget the biblical narrative and surrender yourself to the painting’s sensuality. Perhaps that just makes it worse? Out of all the depictions of this popular biblical passage (popular since it offered artists the chance to paint nudes, unsurprisingly) I have not come across one in which Susanna is alone and fixes her gaze so intently on us, the viewer. However much we want to remain innocent, her stare forces us to assume the role of the corrupt elders. Hayez plays a mean trick by challenging usto reckon with our own sins in relation to the two lustful men from the narrative just by looking at his work. We watch her watching us and are made to question what is going on behind both gazes.
As I stood there looking, I thought about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing series in which an episode explores the subject of the nude. He argues that the woman’s gaze is one of ‘calculated charm’ directed at the man who she knows is watching, something which I felt was very much present in Susanna’s expression. Her gaze is both alluring and scornful, moody and cocky, innocent yet fully aware. In this way, Hayez adds layers to the gaps between the printed text by conjuring a woman who exists beyond the nondescript character in the bible. His Susanna plays both youthful innocent and conscious seductress all through one fleeting glance.
For all the shame entrenched in the biblical passage, Hayez’s adaptation taps into the pleasures of the male gaze -- or at least how I understand that gaze to operate since I am not male. From the woman’s isolation which hints at her availability, to the flimsy garment used as a tool not to hide the body, but rather to attract attention by slowly teasing viewers, theartist casts a romantic spell over us. The body is not hidden at all. If anything, the prop of the towel helps us see to more of it, or at least to imagine more of it. The experience of looking in this way becomes purely sensual, therefore reaffirming the spirit of the romantic movement.
On returning to the gallery to spend more time analysing the piece, I decided to get on-the- spot reactions to Susanna. It was interesting that the two men out of the three visitors who were social enough to humour me, both riffed off the exact same feeling that her gaze ‘drew in the soul’ of onlookers. One even felt they were ‘intruding’ on her just by looking. Thesense of moral guilt shown by those two male viewers implied they had done something wrong, when really they were just trying to experience some decent art.
For Christians, reason is often characterised as a divine faculty endowed by God and is also frequently symbolised by light. Whilst the time of day is not particularly noted in the bible, the artist decides to stage this moment at sunset. In the background, a small fraction of landscape can be seen as the last glimmers of daylight dwindle, pre-empting the night which is fast approaching. Perhaps this could be the artist’s way of highlighting tensions which result when Christian virtue exercised in the clarity of day is abandoned for a descent into something murkier. Indeed, the darkness of the water depicted in the foreground evokes the dangers of allowing oneself to literally drown in desire and serves as a constant warning for viewers. Nonetheless, the prospect of a sinful encounter remains, since the woman is alone and her attention is on us. Although I daren’t question the two interviewees’ religion, I bet it was exactly this kind moral dilemma which troubled them about the piece.
Whilst Susanna’s body becomes a site to marvel, her ‘soul-sucking’ gaze remains a mystery to me. How can Berger’s argument about the nude as a ‘site to be looked at’ be applied to this woman whose stare leaves me and countless others feeling so disarmed? True, Berger’s argument is much more complex than framing the nude solely as male fantasy, as in some cases he argues that the spectator ‘cannot turn [the woman] into a nude’ so long as ‘the painter has included her will’ in his depiction. And yet, Berger doesn’t go further than giving the concept of the subject’s ‘will’ a light patting down.
I wondered whether Hayez had included Susanna’s ‘will’, and if so, what exactly would it be? Discussing the piece with a couple of friends, I found that all of them were able to notice the model’s sense of intention too. One even felt that her gaze encapsulated the power of being a woman. Instead of viewing Hayez’s nude depiction as a way to bind the female to her physical form, my friend explained that this Susanna seemed all too aware of how she displayed her body.
‘But who is she displaying it for?’ I asked.
‘For the artist, the viewer, herself. I don’t know...’.
I had to have a think. If Berger’s Ways of Seeing expands on the difference between being nude and being naked, as one is commercialised and the other a chance to be recognised as oneself, where did that situate his point about the subject’s ‘will’ which the painter (and it’s interesting that Berger chooses to characterise them always as male) ultimately decides to include. There was definitely something here to consider.
On writing a chapter about the art of one of Hayez’s romantic contemporaries, Delacroix, James H. Ruben coins ‘early uses of the word Romantic [as describing moments] that evoked adventure or romance, as in wild places’. It could be said from this then that romanticism articulates a ‘Way of Feeling’ contingent on the ways in which we look at reproduced dramas, such as Susanna at her Bath.
So, what happens to the earlier act of looking ‘sensually’ and feeling its effects as a result when considering the rest of the painting itself? Dislodging one’s gaze from the main subject, the eye may be disappointed to find the surroundings rather bare and blocky, nothing remotely romantic there (apart from the brief natural landscape, if you wanted to be really picky). It is almost as though the piece were separated into four logical parts: Susanna, the tan marble stone, the dark water and the natural snippet. The division is almost invertedly symmetrical as the light shining on the woman and her garb mimics the light from the sunset in the distance. However, the stone boundaries cut Susanna off from any escape beyond the garden walls. ‘An image is a sight which has been’ outlines Berger in chapter 4 of his essay Ways of Seeing (acting as an accompaniment to his series), ‘detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance’.
No doubt there is division and detachment here, not just visually but also contextually for Susanna since she has been cornered by the men with nowhere to go. ‘Line versus colour’ (and I would also argue beauty championed by romantics versus the bleakness of realism) ‘– these stylistic oppositions add up to a confrontation of authority versus freedom’ notesRuben. In this largely predatory moment, Susanna as the subject of the gaze glares back in defiance: she ‘confronts the authority’ of worldly sin encapsulated by the older men in the bible who took advantage of their superior position as judges.
Female nudes’ ‘confrontation of authority’ in art is something which fascinates feminist art critic Emma Wilson. Their work The Reclining Nude explores multiple aspects of how women artists look at female, cisgender, and trans bodies as they depict ‘images of ... naked [reclining] woman that are seen in the world’. That is to say, Wilson hones in on theotherwise ordinary everyday, from the woman sprawled out reading during a hot summer, to the girl after her bath, all of which are inherently female and inherently political in their mundanity. By illustrating the ordinary, Wilson argues that female artists dispel the fantasy of female flesh cultivated in the mind of the European Renaissance, because it liberates anunspoken, more intimately truthful perspective of womanhood. ‘The reclining nude is an image variously of ... autoeroticism, of curiously inactive, indolent forms of resistance, and anarchy.’ Reading this line, I was immediately struck with an image of the foundations which had previous trapped Susanna suddenly being obliterated as the woman became free remaining fabulously languid.
I was curious to find out whether Susanna’s gaze of ‘indolent ... resistance’ was typical of Hayez. I figured it would also be important to ground myself in the historical framework of the artist’s time to better understand what the subject might have been ‘willingly’ resisting. Aesthetically, the model with raven hair and a pale complexion was favoured by Hayez. From Pensiero Malinconico “Melancholy Thoughts” (1842) to La Meditazione “The Meditation” (1851), many of his models are startlingly similar, not only in their looks but in their presence.
In her book Italian Painting in the Age of Unification, Laura Watts comments on how the effect of Italy’s turbulent politics during the 19th century coloured Hayez’s own artistic imagination. Passionately advocating for the unification of Italy, Francesco Hayez’s work assumes ‘an expression of local, regional interests’ which began to relate to ‘a larger unified national narrative’. At the time Susanna at her Bath was completed in 1850, the Italian unification movement was looking pretty bleak since Austria still occupied a large portion of the north, including Hayez’s home-city Milan which suffered particularly bloody defeats. It would be another twenty-two years before the Risorgimento (“Rising Again”) establishing the Kingdom of Rome would emerge victorious in 1861.
The girl in La Meditazione echoes this expressive power which my friends and I encountered in Susanna at her Bath. Her stern, angry gaze with the crucifix, a symbol of hope and salvation for Italy gripped tightly in her left hand is captivating. This piece interweaves aspects of womanhood and nationhood, and compels viewers to recognise both as a source of strength. This woman becomes an emblem of Italy’s resolve not to be defeated at a time when the reality of national independence proved almost impossible. ‘To the victors belongs epic [and] to the losers belongs romance’ states David Quint in Epic and Empire, and this is just what I believe Hayez took pride in, or at least dedicated enough skill to explore. La Meditazione is only one example which confirms the artists’ belief that there can still be things worth salvaging, delighting in, and fighting for even in the midst of loss and devastation.
With this in mind, I view Susanna in a totally different light. On the surface level, it is obvious that her form appeals to male desire and fantasy as have countless other nudes. But this is merely superficial because it is her stare which ultimately makes this piece so memorable. I have come to acknowledge her stare as a projection of the subject’s ‘will’ ofself-preservation despite her state of naked vulnerability. We get a glimpse of the woman’s truth. From both Berger and Wilson’s observations on the nude, the more I wonder, the more I begin to realise that as viewers we can only respond to what we see before us, and that it’s really the painting which speaks to us first.
‘O eternal God who dost discern what is secret who art aware of all things before they came to be, thou knowest that these men have borne false witness against me’. These are Susanna’s words in Chapter Thirteen in The Book Daniel. Truly, it is no coincidence Hayez picked the biblical narrative of a woman resisting an outrageous breaching of boundaries at a time when his own national boarders were crossed. It seems that the woman and the state act as one homogenous group here.
If this is case, then viewers have a choice to make: to stay complacent to invasion or to take up arms, to give in to temptation or hold on to virtue. Just as Susanna resisted, Hayez may have hoped viewers will too, perhaps both to politics as well as to sin. The artist therefore boldly reminds us of our duty in carefully choosing what we see and in what narratives we decide to invest.
Haunting marble. The air stopped cold at your discovery. You were there before we thought of turning you to stone. Shadows brushed beneath the eyes, sockets carved out and hollow, dark like a vacuum. I wondered what was missing. Cream exposure on which the light dances, and curved tresses that frame a way of feeling. Perhaps you would yell -- what could have been were it possible to sketch a voice? Silence, yours in particular sounds like gauze veil draped over an opening. But you might just turn right back around, feeding the narrative tastes of its own medicine. It would leave stains on the pureness of the sheets, of paper, of cloth, of stories ripped apart.
- Francesco Hayez, Susanna at her Bath (1850),
- Hayez, Pensiero Malinconico (1842), Collection at Brera Pinacoteca has open access for purposes of study and cultural promotion https://pinacotecabrera.org/en/image-requests/
- Hayez, La Meditazione (1851),
- John Berger Ways of Seeing, Episode 2 (1972)
- James H. Ruben, The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix (2001)