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Color and Materiality in Venetian Painting Essay

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Updated: May 20th, 2020

Tintoretto’s Susannah and the Elders takes as its topic the Apocryphal tale of an honorable young Jewish matron sexually blackmailed by elderly public servants and saved from execution by Daniel’s literally divinely inspired interrogation . Tintoretto chooses the moment when Susannah’s lustful admirers try to spy on her while bathing, to encapsulate the longer story and showcase a stunning nude in a private moment.1

With a cramped focus and high contrast in brightness, it is superbly effective at riveting the eye on the gleaming skin of the heroine and providing a sense of impending doom for the dutiful woman.

The picture thus succeeds admirably at capturing the materiality of glowing fleshskin, water, silver, mirror, and greenery, while still being very clearly much an artificial construct of the studio and paintbrush, because the artist’s most urgent purpose is to explore and represent a magnificent woman’s figure.

Although probably originally much brighter, the colors nonetheless seem muted. The natural items pictured; for example, vines, trees, and duck pond, exhibit the same color intensity and range as the bodies and bald head of the dirty-old-men magistrates.

The only exceptions seem to be the glowing body of Susannah, and her “ornaments of display”2. This is a clear signal of the artifice of the artist, but it does not detract from the picture, because these elements of the setting merely set off and highlight the nude’s serene self-absorption.

These muted background colors, combined with the nude’s brilliant paleness, focus attention on her. The lurking perverts are almost a second thought, concealed behind the fragile-seeming espaliered wall, and blending in, as they do, with the underbrush3. For the artist, they are less interesting than the central figure, and their lack of obtrusiveness both fits the narrative and helps attention to concentrate on Susannah.

The clothing of the left-hand elder forms a pumpkin-colored mass, with a fungus-like bare pate thrusting out towards the viewer. This figure appears to be the ground to the left of the espaliered wall .4 The figures and objects in the landscape are clearly delineated with both line and hue.

The most striking example of this, apart from Susannah, is this mushroom-like elder’s cranium, outlined perhaps with a brush, to distinguish it from the background.

Figuring out this background takes effort. Unlike in a Da Vinci, such as La Gioconda (or Mona Lisa) wherein the landscape, although not always strictly realistic, is at least plausible, the background seems almost irrelevant.

Susannah’s setting evokes, for modern viewers, simplified theatre-in-the-round sets: the vining plants espaliered onto the (notably skinny5) wall are the only explic. It reference to an orchard sweltering in the full heat of summer, as the Biblical story indicates.

However, her small supposedly private space is beautifully detailed, and this draws the eye to admire her body and to the intimate personal objects next to her feet. This is not the way space presents itself to the eye in the natural world, and is clearly showing the imprint of the artist, but it works to create a sort of tunnel vision on the naked beauty.

The space in the painting seems very shallow, in spite of the vistas of garden and pond visible to the rear. The attention of the painter and of the viewer is funneled dramatically in on the constricted bathtub-sized area where Susannah is bathing.6

This cramping really leaves Susannah with nothing to do but give herself a sponge bath and admire herself7 Since the artist is not as concerned with the action of the narrative as he is with exploring the pleasure of a lovely woman revealed, the claustrophobic space is not a detriment.

The light is uniform and nearly directionless. The body of Susannah is bright but without any indication of the source of illumination. From the artist’s perspective, since his goal is the elevation of her form, this otherworldly illumination is not a drawback.

It is in the use of reflective surfaces that the Venetian touch is perhaps most evident. The mirror could enhance beauty, reveal something not otherwise visible to the viewer, or tell some moral truth8 Susannah’s mirror reflects only her toiletries and towel, not her nakedness.9

This habit of the Venetian painters of titillating expectations using mirrors and then disappointing them or fulfilling them in unexpected ways is described by Cranston. The light reflects from the shiny pate of her Peeping Tom, too.

The water reflects her thigh as well as the rocks or hummocks on which Susannah is sitting. It is clear, lucid, clean-looking, and still. Tintoretto uses a very thin line of blue-tintedish white to delineate where the water surface is broken.

The actual water of Venice would have been darker10, and opaque.11 A and additionally, as Hills points out, the tidal waters would have been moving.12

All this play with reflection is a tour-de-force, a demonstration of the artist’s mastery of the medium. It also fits into the pattern set by other Venetian painters such as Titian, of using reflections to send a variety of messages about reality, truth, identity, age, beauty, purity and deity, as detailed by Cranston. The subtext of the mirror, which is a very artificial element in the painting, would not be missed; the nude at the center of the picture is self-sufficient

Although neither artist’s brushwork nor the canvas substrate is obtrusive in this, painting, the use of canvas rather than board represents a new direction for Venetian artists . It was appropriate to the locale. It is not a fresco, which would be appropriate for the dry mountainous area of Florence, and the canvas was apparently a better match with the wet environment of Venice.

Tintoretto’s use of oil-based paint was also part of a growing trend away from tempura at the time. This medium may explain the fact that most of the scene appears to be viewed through smoked glass.13

The tea-dipped atmosphere, everywhere but the figure of Susannah, endows the scene with antiquity and unreality. It is yet another way to focus the eye on her beauty, or what Tintoretto presents as her beauty. Her muscular appearance seems to reflect his lack of female nude models.14 As a result, although magnificent, she suggests a man with breasts added.

This problem does not apply to her lovely face and elaborately braided hair, however, and the overall effect is one of sensuality.15 Here again, whether we notice that the lighting and color seem like artifacts of the studio, or ignore it, Susannah as an almost sculptural nude is the central point of the picture, not the realism of her setting or female secondary sexual characteristics.

There are a number of objects clamoring for tactile appreciation: beads, delicate linen cloth, and silver containers all suggest the merchant wealth of Venice. The water looks deliciously cool and clean to touch or drink. However, in general, it is Susannah’s own flawless, and uniformly- colored, flesh that appeals most strongly to the sense of touch.

How the picture balances the challenge on the one hand; representing material things, people, and places and on the other hand; being a made, material item is, as for all paintings of that era – and perhaps all paintings of all times – a work in progress; a continual striving. Although the scene is, overall, not very naturalistic, and seems to reflect some sort of studio set, this does not detract from the impact of the picture.

Susannah almost floats above the hummocks, and only her submerged leg seems to actually touch the surface of the planet. It seems likely that her figure was sketched and perhaps pre-painted from a model in a studio, not in any sort of outdoor setting. The physical location of her observers also seems uncertain and uncommitted. They are part of the substance of her landscape rather than actors in her surrounding setting.

However, none of this diminishes how the composition involves the viewer in the heroine’s quiet moment of comfort and relief from the heat. In a more modern painting, with no need to justify a nude, no surroundings would even be needed. Her observers could appreciate her beauty16 without backstory or moral lesson.

As a painting, in an era when artists attempted to portray the material world with maximum fidelity, while also conveying multiple layers of deliberate meaning and spiritual truths, this painting it shows its craft; its materiality. The cues to the fact that this is a painting include the vagueness of the perspective, the loose relationship between the figures and gravity, the mysteriously source-less lighting, and the masculine proportions of the studio nude.

However, Tintoretto captures with loving accuracy her peaceful, contented expression, her gleaming trinkets, their peekaboo in her mirror, the fragility of her towel, the subtle feel of still water on skin, and water reflecting skin.

The result of the artist’s artifice is a frankly erotic glimpse into the private toilette of a lovely woman possessing enviably beautiful (or desirable, depending on one’s gender) skin, hair, and easy acceptance of self, in an all-too-fleeting moment, in a setting that is almost irrelevant in its admittedly loose connection to nature or reality.

Works Cited

Cranston, Jodi. The Muddied Mirror: Materiality and Figuration in Titian’s Later Paintings. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Print.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. Mona Lisa. The Louvre, Paris. Oil on Wood. 2012.

De Young Family Foundation. “” 2012. De Young Family Foundation. Web.

Hills, Paul. Venetian colour:marble, mosaic, painting and glass, 1250-1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. Print.

Knickerbocker, Amy. ““: Image vs. Text, Part II.” 2012. Artist in an A-Frame. Web.

Larmann, Ralph. . 2012. Web.

Raffety, Michael. “” 2011. Mountain Democrat Newspaper. Web.

Reisch, Bruce I. and Philip Stewart. . 2001. Web.

The Holy Bible. “The Book of Susannah Chapter 1.” King James Version. Vol. Apocrypha. University of Virginia, 2012. Web.

Tintoretto. Susannah and the Elders. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Oil on canvas.

Titian. Venus with a Mirror. Natonal Gallery of Art, Washington. Oil on Canvas. 2012. Web.

Women’s Health Information & Resource Center. Our Bodies, Ourselves. 2012. Web.


1 This piece may have been meant to be a sort of private erotica for one of the wildly successful Venetian traders.

2 Bath linens, cosmetics, and jewelry; all those conspicuous consumption trifles scattered on the ground.

3 Perhaps Tintoretto is making the point that a beautiful woman’s personal landscape is going to inevitably include the lustful gaze of men.

4 These are vines of uncertain species, with a flower that is not unambiguously that of a grape. In fact there is little to suggest an orchard, but perhaps the translation should be ‘garden’, or even ‘’arboretum’, since there were both mastic and holm trees mentioned in the Biblical storyon the property.

5 This insubstantial wall may reflect the Venetian tendency to build thin-walled, light filled structures that did not weigh heavily on the human-created real estate.

6 This space actually seems small by comparison to many modern spa-style bathtubs designed for use in private homes.

7 The mirror is set up in such a fashion that it could have captured aspects of Susannah which are normally not seen by oneself, This sort of potential for self-scrutiny eerily foreshadows the sort of female auto-examination made popular by that perennial 1970s classic “Our Bodies, Ourselves”. It is appealing to wonder whether the artist was hinting at such a thing for the prurient benefit of his wealthy patron/customer.

8 Cranston notes the possibility that Venus is reflected at a more advanced age in the mirror, in Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, also known as the Mellon Venus

9 It is interesting to wonder whether this innocent image tells us that Susannah is entirely virtuous and free of any forbidden desires

10 It would reflect the dark bottom,

11 It would carry the centuries-old load of human waste and detritus.

12 The winds, tides, or activity of boats would generate ripples, even waves, on the surface of the sea.

13 Well conserved Florentine tempura paintings or frescos have an almost Crayola-like brightness, with jewel tones and a brightness of color that seems absent from this Tintoretto

14 This was a common problem at the time, due to prohibitions against a man seeing a woman other than his wife undressed. There is another layer of potential meaning, however, suggested by the inclusion in Cranston of the words of Ghiberti regarding his erotic response to a hermaphroditic statue. Is it possible that this sort of cross-gender appeal was embedded in this and other nudes of ambiguous gender?

15 In fact, in the context of today’s world, with female athletes and body builders advocating strongly for a more inclusive perspective on womanly attractiveness, her appearance of physical strength is rather appealing. She would make a valuable addition to the rowing team of any college.

16 Of her face and hair (the body would be a true woman’s body in a more contemporary treatment).

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