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Painting by ‘greatest female artist of 17th century’ rediscovered in Royal Collection

A rare surviving painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, the greatest female artist of the 17th century, has been rediscovered in the Royal Collection after being misattributed at least two centuries ago. The rediscovered painting, Susanna and the Elders
Curators dust down Artemisia Gentileschi’s rediscovered Susanna and the Elders - Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

A “once in a generation” painting rediscovery by the most celebrated female artist of the 17th century has been made in the King’s Royal Collection Trust (RCT).

The rare surviving work by Artemisia Gentileschi had been lost some 200 years ago after it was misattributed to a male artist and later, more broadly, to the “French school” of work.

It was stored for over a century in very poor condition in Hampton Court Palace, before being matched to a description of the Italian artist’s work from inventories dating back to King Charles I.

“It’s once in a generation that we might come across something of this importance that we haven’t registered,” said Anna Reynolds, deputy surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

Royal Collection curators made the discovery, in part, because of the unique way Artemisia depicted the famous biblical scene of Susanna and the Elders, a subject she painted six times over the course of her career.

Conservator Adelaide Izat works on the Susanna and the Elders painting
Conservator Adelaide Izat works on the Susanna and the Elders painting - Royal Collection Trust

The painting depicts a cowering Susanna, turning away from the men, which contrasts to how her male contemporaries painted the scene in a more sexualised and idealised way.

“It’s hard not to read into that subject,” Ms Reynolds said, adding: “It’s about a woman being spied on and effectively blackmailed if she doesn’t agree to their advances.

“She’ll be accused of adultery, which in itself would lead to the death penalty, but she is ultimately proven innocent, and becomes a symbol of truth and innocence.”

Reynolds suggests that Artemisia may have been drawn to depicting the biblical scene in this way because she was raped by another artist working in her father’s studio when she was 17.

She was later forced to be a witness at the trial of the man – Agostino Tassi – and she was “tortured” to prove that she was telling the truth.

Since being rediscovered, Artemisia’s painting has undergone five years of conservation work with the RCT to restore it back to her original work.

“We had the description and we had other references in inventories, but the painting that was in store really didn’t look like an Artemisia Gentileschi because it was so heavily overpainted and the varnish was so discoloured,” Ms Reynolds told The Telegraph.

Susanna and the Elders painting
The painting has undergone five years of conservation work with the RCT

She said the overpainting might have been done by any number of historical conservators through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in an attempt to “improve” it, adding that it is very rare for conservation work at the RCT to take half a decade.

“It’s not really surprising that it was overlooked because it was so dark, heavily discoloured and it was a completely different school,” said Ms Reynolds.

The painting was commissioned by Queen Henrietta Maria, estimated around 1638–9, during Artemisia’s brief time in London, and originally hung above a fireplace in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall Palace.

Dr Niko Munz, an art historian who played an integral role in the rediscovery, said: “Susanna first hung above a new fireplace – probably installed at the same time as the painting – emblazoned with Henrietta Maria’s personal cipher ‘HMR’ (‘Henrietta Maria Regina’). It was very much the Queen’s painting.”

Other lost art
Other lost art

A “CR” (Carolus Rex) was subsequently found on the back of the canvas during conservation, confirming that the painting was once part of the monarch’s collection.

However, in the 18th century, Artemisia’s reputation waned after having “star status” the century before, and it is during this period that the painting lost its attribution.

The painting orginally hung in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall Palace
The painting orginally hung in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber at Whitehall Palace - Royal Collection Trust

“This complete rediscovery of an artist as important as Artemisia having been lost is really quite unusual,” Ms Reynolds said, adding: “I think it’s linked to the fact that her reputation in the 18th century declined.

“She really was a trailblazer, she was very unique, partly because the opportunities for training women artists just weren’t the same as they were for men.”

Artemisia’s Susanna has now gone on public display for the first time at Windsor Castle, joining her famous Self-Portrait as well as artworks by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, who she trained under.

Adelaide Izat, paintings conservator for the Royal Collection, said: “When it came into the studio, Susanna was the most heavily overpainted canvas I had ever seen, its surface almost completely obscured.

“It has been incredible to be involved in returning the painting to its rightful place in the Royal Collection, allowing viewers to appreciate Artemisia’s artistry again for the first time in centuries.”