Painting by famed female artist that was owned by King Charles I and thought to have been lost following his execution in 1649 undergoes restoration after being re-discovered in poor condition in the Royal Collection
A ‘lost’ painting by famed female artist Artemisia Gentileschi has been re-discovered in the Royal Collection after being misattributed to an unknown artist two centuries ago.
The Biblical depiction, named Susanna and the Elders, was in the King’s collection and once hung in the private quarters of Queen Henrietta Maria, who is believed to have commissioned the work.
Gentileschi, who is considered Italy’s greatest female artist, spent several years working alongside her father at the court of King Charles I and his wife before his execution in 1649.
The painting was believed to have been among those which were sold off after Charles was executed following his loss in the English Civil War.
But researchers matched the description of Susanna and the Elders to a work that had been in storage at Hampton Court Palace for more than a century.
A painting of Susanna and the Elders by Italy’s most famous female artist Artemisia Gentileschi has been re-discovered in storage at Hampton Court Palace
Artemisia Gentileschi was hailed as the greatest female artist of her generation and spent time at the court of King Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria shortly before the English Civil War
The painting was in very poor condition and had slipped under the radar after being misattributed to an unnamed artist from the ‘French School’ of European painters.
Conservation work to restore the painting to its original condition then uncovered a CR symbol on the back, confirming it was once in the collection of the King.
The painting’s history can be traced in a remarkably unbroken line, with records found in every century since its creation.
It was commissioned by Henrietta Maria, probably around 1638–9, during Gentileschi’s brief time in London when she was likely assisting her elderly father in his work.
The 1639 inventory by Abraham van der Doort, Surveyor of The King’s Pictures to Charles I, shows that the painting originally hung above a fireplace in the Queen’s withdrawing chamber at Whitehall Palace.
The withdrawing chamber was a relatively private room used by Henrietta Maria for receiving small numbers of officials, eating and relaxing.
The painting was returned to Charles II shortly after the Restoration in 1660 and is thought to have hung above a fireplace at Somerset House, home to queens and consorts including Catherine of Braganza and Queen Anne.
Susanna and the Elders, painted in 1638-9 by Artemisia Gentileschi, is now on display at Windsor Castle following the completion of extensive conservation treatment
Conservator Adelaide Izat is pictured carrying out restorative work on the painting of Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi
The left-hand side was obscured by centuries of dirt and the right-hand side had undergone conservation
In the 18th century, as Artemisia’s reputation waned, the painting appears to have lost its attribution.
It was moved to Kensington Palace, where it is depicted in a watercolour of the Queen’s Bedchamber in 1819 leaning against a wall, suggesting it was considered the work of a minor or unknown artist and not worthy of hanging.
It was later transferred to Hampton Court Palace, where at some point it lost its frame, and in 1862 it was described as ‘in a bad state’ and sent for restoration, at which point additional layers of varnish and overpaint were likely applied.
The new conservation work included the painstaking removal of centuries of surface dirt, discoloured varnish and non-original paint layers to reveal the original composition.
Experts also removed canvas strips that were added to enlarge the painting at some point after its creation, relined the canvas, retouched old damages and commissioned a new frame.
Experts previously believed that only a self-portrait of Gentileschi from Charles’s collection still survives today.
Gentileschi became famous across Europe in the 17th-century at a time when few female painters were formally recognised.
Her work fell out of favour in the 18th and 19th centuries but in the last 50 years has come back into fashion.
Susanna and the Elders has now gone on display for visitors to Windsor Castle.
Artemisia Gentileschi was hailed as the greatest female artist of the 17th century. Her story was told in 1997 movie Artemisia, starring Valentina Cervi in the title role
Anna Reynolds, Deputy Surveyor of The King’s Pictures at the Royal Collection Trust, said: ‘We are so excited to announce the rediscovery of this important work by Artemisia Gentileschi.
‘Artemisia was a strong, dynamic and exceptionally talented artist whose female subjects – including Susanna – 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 depicts the Biblical story of Susanna, a wealthy Babylonian Jewish woman who features in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel.
It tells how she is surprised by two men while bathing in her garden.
When she refuses their advances, she is falsely accused of infidelity, which was punishable by death. The story ends with her being proven innocent.
In the painting, Susanna is seen twisting twisting her body away from the unpleasant men whilst her modesty is protected only by a white sheet.
The story is likely to have held particular resonance for Gentileschi, who was raped at the age of just 17 by an artist in her father’s workshop.
Art historian Dr Niko Munz said: ‘One of the most exciting parts of this painting’s story is that it appears to have been commissioned by Queen Henrietta Maria while her apartments were being redecorated for a royal birth.
‘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.’
Adelaide Izat, paintings conservator at the Royal Collection Trust, added: ‘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.’
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