REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

Susanna and the Elders

Oil on mahogany panel, 77 x 93 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Catalogue number: Bredius 516.

The subject is taken from the Apocryphal History of Susanna. Two Jewish Elders, hidden in the garden, threaten Susanna that they will publicly accuse her of committing adultery with a young man unless she gives herself to them. She is eventually exonerated by the wise judge, Daniel, and the Elders are punished.

The subject, like that of Bathsheba, clearly had a considerable fascination for Rembrandt and is evidence (of which there is plenty more elsewhere in his work) that he was a man of strong sensuality. He made numerous drawings of Susanna and at least one other painting, now in The Hague. That picture executed in 1636 was, in fact, used as the starting point for the present one, which appears to have been begun shortly afterwards, i.e. ten years before it was completed in the form we see it now. As X-rays show, the Berlin painting consists of three layers, the first of which reveals the agitated type of composition characteristic of Rembrandt's style of the 1630s. When he re-painted the picture in 1647, he revised the design throughout, changing it into something much calmer. It is now the handling which is lively, not the composition. The figure style, the lighting, the colour and even the relationship of the figures to the landscape setting are all typical of the mid-1640s. For the composition, Rembrandt used a painting of the same subject by Lastman, also now in Berlin, which he copied in a drawing. For all the lack of movement, the narrative and psychological elements of the story are conveyed with the utmost clarity. Rembrandt no longer needed the heightened dramatic language of the Baroque to express emotion at this period of his life.

The painting was once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was among Rembrandt's greatest admirers.

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