Beyond the Biographical: Modern Meaning in Gilje's Susanna and the Elders, Restored

Jennifer Kim

Amongst her many whimsical and oftentimes tongue-in-cheek modern updatings of famous paintings, Kathleen Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored (Fig. 1) stands out as a turbulent portrait of a woman victimized by sexual assault. Based on Artemisia Gentileschi’s seventeenth-century oil on canvas painting, Susanna and the Elders (Fig. 2), Gilje’s double-layered image not only depicts a copy of Gentileschi’s original work on its visible surface, but also reveals through X-ray a more disturbing underpainting of violent sexual assault hidden beneath the seemingly innocuous copy in lead white paint. Critics, scholars, and artists—including, most notably, Gilje herself—have interpreted the darkness of Susanna and the Elders, Restored as portraying a biographical account of Artemisia Gentileschi’s defense against her own rape, similar to the Biblical Susanna’s struggle against sexual harassment by two elders. Indeed, Gilje has explained that she intended the painting to “highlight how closely Gentileschi’s own story mirrors that of her chosen subject.”[1] Surprisingly, however, the critical conversation surrounding Gilje’s work focuses almost exclusively on Gentileschi’s personal experience of rape and fails to expand beyond this biographical world, neglecting the painting’s capacity to address not simply the historical but also the modern woman’s experience of the threat of sexual assault in male-dominated societies. Further, in treating the work as strictly biographical to Gentileschi, scholars have largely ignored how Gilje’s updating serves as a contemporary mode of empowerment for women in patriarchal society. This essay will argue that Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored extends beyond the scope of portraiture by seeking not only to tell Artemisia Gentileschi’s story of sexual assault but also to convey the contemporary woman’s experience of male aggression in patriarchal society. Ultimately, through her work, Gilje empowers women to fight back against the oppressive faculties of the patriarchy.

Gilje’s copy of Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, which occupies the outer surface of the work, depicts the Biblical story of the pious Susanna, who was accosted by two elders at her bath, defamed when she refused to have sex with them, and finally redeemed by the objections of the young Daniel.[2] Gentileschi—and, subsequently, Gilje—portray the men in a dark, imposing band in the upper half of the work, forcing the naked Susanna into a contorted flinch away from their attention. In contrast to the subtle lurking of the elders in the background of this outer work, Gilje’s underpainting depicts them in the midst of an assault, clutching Susanna by the hair. Susanna, in turn, takes part in the violence of the scene. Gripping a knife and screaming, she attempts to defend herself against the preying elders. Perhaps most striking about this startling violence in the underpainting is its similarity to the story of Artemisia Gentileschi herself, who, as art historian John Yau puts it, “had endured such advances, and worse.”[3] At the age of seventeen, she was raped by fellow Baroque painter Agostino Tassi and subsequently underwent a grueling seven-month trial to bring Tassi to justice.[4] In fact, Gilje herself posits in a video lecture that she intended the X-rayed underpainting to depict a portrait of Gentileschi.[5] Drawing from the extensive clerical notes of the trial, Gilje mirrors the specifics of the artist’s assault in several striking facets of the underpainting: Susanna’s defiant head, wrenched back by the leering elders behind her, recalls Tassi’s fierce grip on Gentileschi’s hair in the midst of his attack; her scream echoes the artist’s own; and, most tellingly, the blade clutched in Susanna’s hand parallels Gentileschi’s attempt to wound her violator with a knife.[6]

Gilje’s work seems to relay, at the very least, a faithful rendering of the violence involved in Artemisia Gentileschi’s own sexual assault. Art historian Linda Nochlin in particular takes care to identify the subject of the underpainting with the Renaissance artist, arguing for an even more biographical interpretation of the work; she claims that the viewer wants to believe that the original artist, Gentileschi, created the turbulent underpainting. Nochlin asserts forcefully, “We [the viewers] don’t want to know that Kathleen Gilje, modern ‘restoration’ artist, created a furious and vengeful Susanna beneath the conventional image. We want to believe that the victimized Artemisia did it herself…”[7] From identifying Gentileschi as a victim to framing her as an enraged painter in Gilje’s Susanna, scholars have continuously placed emphasis on the Renaissance artist’s personal story and made Susanna’s historical connection central to its interpretation.

 Yet, the contemporaneity of Gilje’s oeuvre, lauded by art historian Peter Sutton for revisiting old works with “a contemporary, sometimes subversive twist,” seems to point to more modern implications within the work.[8] Indeed, to limit the work to historical portraiture would also limit its possibility of other meanings; in considering the significance of biography to the viewer’s understanding of an artwork, art historian Martin Hammer points out that solely taking into account the personal life of the artist or the subject depicted can serve to detract from our recognition of other messages conveyed through the work.[9] The narrowness of such a biographical interpretation provides little room for the viewer to consider the broader implications a work may offer—and, in the case of Gilje’s painting, a complex image encoded with violence and psychological strife, the choice to ignore these larger themes in favor of Gentileschi’s personal story comes at the cost of the picture’s contemporary significance. By viewing the painting simply as a portrayal of the past, the spectator fails to confront the question of its relevance today.

Through the painting’s unique medium, however, we might draw modern meaning from the work by connecting Gilje’s disturbing hidden image of sexual violence to the psychological turmoil that pervades women’s experiences with sexual assault in male-dominated societies, regardless of place or time. Though some scholars have noted Gilje’s complex layering of both Susanna’s and Gentileschi’s narratives as a means of comparing their stories, none have sought to discuss how this dual image also represents the stories of women today, who lead lives limited by the threat of male aggression. As feminist Jennifer Kabat puts it, “rape is a structure that is part of her [a woman’s] life… Rape affects and confines a woman whether or not she is really raped.”[10] The notion that women’s lives are limited by the fear of rape in patriarchal societies serves as a powerful interpretation for the work at hand. In her violent and hidden rendering of sexual assault, Gilje embodies this inevitable fear present in the psyche of every woman. Similarly, feminist Susan Griffin remarks, “The fear of rape keeps women off the streets at night. Keeps women at home. Keeps women passive and modest for fear that they be thought provocative.”[11] The horror of the underlying image, then, serves to explain the work’s outer layer. In the underpainting, the spectator sees the fear of sexual assault itself, while in the external work, the viewer sees the product of this dread; a voluptuous Susanna crouches, confined by the imposing gaze of the elders that fill the top of the frame. The image of sexual assault so vividly portrayed in Gilje’s underpainting is far from foreign to a woman in patriarchal society today, for it is precisely this fear that limits how she may live her life.

Gilje heightens the expression of this fear by employing a stark contrast between the aestheticism of the surface image and the fragmented turmoil of the underlying work. In Gilje’s updating of Gentileschi’s original Susanna and the Elders, the viewer notes a sumptuousness in Susanna’s form that is noticeably absent from the flatness of the underpainting. The rich shadows that curve along Susanna’s belly and the gentle wrinkles at the swells of her flesh highlight her sexual appeal to patriarchal society, represented here in the leering elders behind her—a notion reiterated in the fact that the Biblical Susanna was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.[12] This aestheticism contrasts starkly with the X-ray of the work, where the two images of violated women in the outer layer and underpainting commingle into one, creating ambiguity about where one Susanna ends and the other begins. The outer figure’s neck and head bleed through to the underlying image, giving the illusion that two heads emerge from Susanna’s chest. Her limbs, too, remain as remnants from the external painting, and serve to distract from the plane of her torso or her curved breast. The image’s lack of color limits any sensual pleasure the viewer may seek to take from her form; instead of the lush peach of the figure’s skin in the exterior painting, her form is rendered a ghostly white. Even the sky, a serene blue in the imposed image, becomes a menacing mass of dark clouds in its underpainting. By contrasting the outer work’s aesthetic appeal with the underpainting’s disturbing depiction, Gilje seems to iterate the intensity of the threat of rape, deep-seated in every woman’s mind, which forces her into a compromising position of confinement.

 Gilje further emphasizes both the contemporaneity and the universality of this notion by empathizing, perhaps subconsciously, with the subject she portrays. Though she explicitly identifies the underpainting figure as Artemisia Gentileschi in her video lecture, she also places herself in the position of the violated woman. In describing the thumbscrews to which Gentileschi was subjected during her rape trial as a truth-telling test, Gilje conflates her own identity with that of Gentileschi’s. She explains, “As a painter, I think how frightening it must have been to have these [thumbscrews] squeezed around my fingers, potentially possibly breaking my fingers, and endangering her gift, the gift of her hands.”[13] Gilje’s confusion of pronouns “my” and “her” relays the artist’s personal connection with the violence that Gentileschi endured and seems to communicate the notion that she crafted the underpainting with her own empathies in mind. The artist thus expands the hidden Susanna’s narrative to encompass not only Gentileschi but also herself and, by extension, all other women who have at one time been threatened by male aggression in a patriarchal society.

Yet, Gilje’s work accomplishes more than simply stressing woman’s universal struggle against a male-dominated society that seeks at equal measures to violate, silence, and limit her. Though columnist Martha Schwendener criticizes the artist as being “good at identifying problems but not so great at offering solutions,” Gilje’s updating ultimately delivers an empowering message to women who live in a world of male antagonism.[14] In the same way that we observe Gilje’s sympathy with Gentileschi’s suffering, we also note her personal identification with Susanna’s defense against her violators, perhaps communicating that though a woman’s struggles within patriarchal society are universal, so too are her strength and agency. As Schwendener notes, the subject’s wielded knife not only recalls Gentileschi’s assault but also alludes to “one of the old tools of the conservator’s trade.”[15] Most likely referring to the conservator’s commonly-used palette knife, Schwendener hits on another of Gilje’s personal connections to the victim in the underpainting: Gilje, an art conservator herself, seems to emphasize her contemporary contribution to the work not only through her reference to the modern conservator’s role in analyzing works of old but also through her own symbolic presence in the painting itself. By identifying with the weapon with which the subject defends herself, Gilje imbues the work with a personal connection to the victim’s strength. In a similar updating of Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (Figs. 3 and 4), Gilje inserts her own self-portrait in the position of Judith, who decapitates a sarcastic symbol of male aggression—a giant rooster—with a large dagger. In both updatings of Gentileschi works, Gilje seems to take particular care to identify with the subject’s physical defense against male dominance. Similarly to the way she places herself within Gentileschi’s Judith, Gilje seems to inhabit the body she creates in the underpainting of Susanna and the Elders, Restored, reiterating that both the struggles and the strength of the women depicted are not removed from the contemporary female experience in patriarchal societies; rather, these women are to be empathized with and viewed as allies in woman’s resistance against male antagonism.

 This message is perhaps most evident in Susanna’s physicality in the underpainting; though victimized by violent aggressors, she also serves as an unconventional representation of femininity. Instead of lying passively under the male gaze, she is angry, strong, defensive. The fist that clenches her knife reveals this notion particularly forcefully—as art historian Mary Garrard notes, in observing the portrayals of hands throughout art history, “a fist is masculine, an open hand feminine.”[16] Unconventional, too, is the musculature we observe in her tense arms as she defends herself. Though the underpainting’s subject, unlike Gentileschi’s modest Susanna, thrusts her limbs outward and opens her posture to the viewer’s gaze, her body and breasts are obscured from us by traces of the outer work; we instead observe a muscled shoulder in the place where her right breast should be. Her active pose broadens her shoulders and stretches out her figure to dominate most of the frame. Further, we observe a subversion of symbolic male aggression in the knife Susanna wields against her attackers. Traditionally a source of male power, the victim brandishes it as a weapon and defends herself from her violators.

Though this defensive Susanna is only visible through X-ray, Gilje seems to communicate that the empowerment of her form can be communicated to the external world as well. In her video lecture, the artist points out spots of pentimento in the outer work, where the underlying paint has absorbed the outer layer and subtly reveals the shapes underneath.[17] Most visible from the underlying work in the external painting are the outlines of the subject’s open-mouthed scream in the upper third of the work, near the fingers of the dark-haired elder, and the knife she brandishes on the lower right.[18] The two strongest representations of empowerment—the broken silence and the defensive weapon—thus bleed through to the external. This use of pentimento seems to illustrate the notion that the two worlds of the visible and the invisible, the projected and the silent, are inexorably tied. By subtly hinting at woman’s ability to speak out and fight back against male-dominated society, Gilje seems to communicate the notion that women possess the capability to break through the oppressive layer of masculinity, excuses, and intimidation.

Perhaps most significant in understanding the empowerment Gilje imbues within her “restored” scene of Susanna and the Elders, however, is the female perspective and control over representational means that both Gentileschi and Gilje exercise in their depictions of sexual assault. While many scholars have emphasized the similarities between the stories of Susanna and Gentileschi—both of whom were sexually violated and eventually redeemed by trial—they have ignored the patriarchal circumstances of these situations; that is, though the injustices against Susanna and Artemisia Gentileschi were perpetrated by men, the justice enacted was equally within the masculine sphere. It was not Susanna’s own defense of her actions that saved her from defamation; it was Daniel’s objections to the elders’ words.[19] Similarly, Gentileschi’s own trial and Tassi’s conviction would not have been brought about if not for her father, Orazio, who brought the case to court—and who, according to art historian Mary O’Neill, would most likely have dismissed the assault had Tassi followed through on his promises to marry her.[20] Thus, we see that even these seemingly defiant narratives are themselves set within patriarchal realities that fail to empower women against male aggression. It is instead the choice of the female artists, Gentileschi and Gilje, to represent these scenes of assault and violation through their own perspective that lends the works their strength.

By holding command over the manner in which the stories and fears of women are communicated, the two artists remove the power to define woman’s experience from the male sphere and repossess it themselves. According to Gilje, Gentileschi’s depiction of Susanna in Susanna and the Elders proves to be “an unusually sympathetic portrayal of a young woman defensive before her aggressors,” which “contrasts with treatments of the subject by male artists of the time.”[21] This uniquely empathetic depiction of Susanna by a female artist strips the story of its traditionally patriarchal renderings—especially those, such as the works of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Tintoretto, that depict Susanna solely as an object of lust or desire—and reworks woman’s experience of sexual assault from a female perspective. Gilje further intensifies the psychological trauma behind this image of assault through her own striking underpainting, which articulates both violence and torment in a manner that disturbs, not titillates. As Nochlin puts it, Gilje seems to enact a “retribution in pictorial form against the man who raped her [Gentileschi]”; the underpainting’s image serves to repossess the experience of sexual assault by depicting the victimized Susanna’s psychological turmoil and her own strength to defend herself.[22] From X-ray to pentimento, Gilje’s deliberate and complex usages of medium evince her control over the pictorial means through which she depicts sexual assault. In combining Gentileschi’s sympathetic rendering of Susanna with her own perspective, Gilje thus seems to communicate that the ultimate mode of female empowerment lies within woman’s capacity to define her own experiences.

 At first glance, Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored seems to portray the very specific story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman violated and exploited by the male-dominated artistic world of the Renaissance. However, by expanding the work’s scope to the contemporary, the viewer is able to understand its modern applicability and to notice parallels between the story of Gentileschi and the story of women everywhere who live under the threat or lived experience of rape—a woman trapped in between layers of paint, conforming to the societal expectations of masculinity, and unable to claim her experiences as her own. Yet, by portraying woman not as powerless under the authoritative control of man but capable of changing her situation, Gilje offers not a message of hopelessness or entrapment but instead one of empowerment. The power in the works of both female artists, Gentileschi and Gilje, suggests that a woman is not silent; given a paintbrush, she can give form to both her violation and her strength.











Figure List

Fig. 1 – Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593 – 1656). Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Oil on canvas; 1.70 x 1.21 m.; Pommersfelden; Graf von Schonborn Kunstsammlungen.


Fig. 2 – Kathleen Gilje (American, 1945 – present). Susanna and the Elders, Restored, 1998. Oil on canvas, x-ray; 67 x 47 in.; New York; Private Collection.


Fig. 3 – Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593 – 1656). Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1611-12. Oil on canvas; 62.5 x 49.4 in.; Naples; National Museum of Capodimonte.


Fig. 4 – Kathleen Gilje (American, 1945 – present). Self Portrait Slaying a Rooster after Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, 2012. Oil on panel; 61 ¼  x 42 ½ in.; New York; Private Collection.


Works Cited

Garrard, Mary. “Artemisia’s Hand.” In The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Gilje, Kathleen. “Susanna and the Elders, Restored.” (Accessed May 8, 2014).

Gilje, Kathleen. "Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje." Lecture video, New York, October 2, 2011,

Griffin, Susan. “Rape: the All-American Crime.” Ramparts, September 1971.

Hammer, Martin. “What’s in a Name?” In The Naked Portrait: 1900 -2007. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2007.

Kabat, Jennifer. “Entrapment.” In The Subject of Rape (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 67.

Nochlin, Linda. “Seeing Beneath the Surface.” Art in America, March 2002.

O’Neill. Mary. “Artemisia’s Moment.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2002. (accessed May 8, 2014).

Schwendener, Martha. "Masterpieces, Revised by a Playful Restorer." The New York Times, June 28. 2013. (accessed April 20, 2014).

Sutton, Peter C. “Dialogues with the Past.” In Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje. Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013.

Yau, John. “Kathleen Gilje’s Bold Challenge.” In Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje. Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013.


[1] Kathleen Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored,” accessed May 8, 2014,

[2] Kathleen Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” online lecture video, 1:38, October 2011,

[3] John Yau,  “Kathleen Gilje’s Bold Challenge.” Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje, (Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013), 59.

[4] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored.”

[5] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 8:00.

[6] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 8:07.

[7] Linda Nochlin, “Seeing Beneath the Surface.” (Art in America March 2002), 120.

[8] Peter Sutton. “Dialogues with the Past.” Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje, (Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013), 10.

[9] Martin Hammer, The Naked Portrait: 1900-2007. (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2007), 22.

[10] Jennifer Kabat, “Entrapment.” The Subject of Rape (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 67.

[11] Susan Griffin, “Rape: the All-American Crime.” (Ramparts September 1971), 35.

[12] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 1:44.

[13] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 5:55.

[14] Martha Schwendener, “Masterpieces, Revised by a Playful Restorer.” New York Times, June 28, 2013.

[15] Schwendener, “Masterpieces, Revised by a Playful Restorer.”

[16] Mary Garrard, “Artemisia’s Hand.” The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005), 18.

[17] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 8:40.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 2:25.

[20] Mary O’Neill, “Artemisia’s Moment.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2002.

[21] Kathleen Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored.”

[22] Linda Nochlin, “Seeing Beneath the Surface.” (Art in America March 2002), 120.