A Find Like This Comes 'Once in a Generation'

Long-lost work by old master Artemisia Gentileschi rediscovered in palace storage
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 27, 2023 12:24 PM CDT
Updated Oct 1, 2023 7:00 AM CDT
A Find Like This Comes 'Once in a Generation'
The restored version of Artemisia Gentileschi's "Susanna and the Elders."   (Royal Collection Trust)

England's King Charles I owned seven paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th-century Italian artist born to a father who associated with the famous realist painter Caravaggio. She is now considered "one of the finest artists of her era, up there with Caravaggio," per ARTNews, but unfortunately for the Royal Collection Trust, only one of the seven paintings was thought to have survived the centuries—until curators made a startling discovery during a recent inventory. They noticed a frameless, murky painting, stored for more than a century at Hampton Court Palace, matched the description of Gentileschi's lost Susanna and the Elders.

It's a painting commissioned by Charles I's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, in the late 1630s that depicted the biblical story of two men who lust for a bathing woman, then have her arrested when she refuses to have sex with them. "It's once in a generation that we might come across something of this importance that we haven't registered," Anna Reynolds, deputy surveyor of the King's Pictures, tells the Telegraph. Gentileschi, who was raped at 17 and then tortured during the trial of her attacker, was known to depict women as "central characters in dramatic narratives," which was "a bold move for a female artist of the era," per NPR. She painted the figure of Susanna numerous times, per Smithsonian.

Still, curators say it's no wonder Susanna and the Elders was overlooked. Misattributed to "French School," it was "the most heavily overpainted canvas I had ever seen, its surface almost completely obscured," conservator Adelaide Izat tells NPR. Layers of dirt, varnish, and overpaint were painstakingly removed over five years. The restoration revealed a mark on the back of the painting reading "CR," a reference to "Carolus Rex," or King Charles. The mark, the style, inventory descriptions, and provenance records make the attribution to Gentileschi "unassailable," art historian Sheila Barker tells the Art Newspaper.

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"We are so excited to announce the rediscovery of this important work," adds Reynolds, noting the artist's female subjects "look at you from their canvases with the same determination to make their voices heard that Artemisia showed in the male-dominated art world of the 17th century." The painting hung in the queen's "withdrawing chamber" at Whitehall Palace, according to a 1639 inventory. It will now hang in the Queen's Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, alongside a self-portrait by Gentileschi and a painting by her father, per NPR. (More discoveries stories.)

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