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Louvre: Paolo Veronese – Susannah and the Elders

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Paolo Veronese - Susannah and the EldersDenon wing – 1st floor – Mona Lisa Room – Room 6

Few subjects, in the anecdotal genre, have been so often treated by painters of all times and all countries. It is not up to our contemporary artists who have not tried to translate the charm of this young nymph surprised in its intimate modesty by the lecherous curiosity of two old men hidden in the foliage. One could make a complete study of the different schools, with their analogies or their oppositions, their own qualities, by the only comparison of the numerous Susannah baths with which the painting is teeming.

Among these countless compositions, that of Paolo Veronese is recommended by this scale of execution, this extraordinary fantasy, this miraculous colors that make the great Venetian master one of the kings of universal painting. To appreciate to its measure the wonderful genius of Veronese, genius made of invention, originality, spontaneity, it would have been necessary to put under the eyes of the reader the incomparable canvas of the Noces de Cana, but its vast proportions forbade us from the reproduce otherwise than in a reduced format where all the charm of the detail would have been lost. Whatever the work treated by Veronese, he is always superior. In the easel paintings as in the immense compositions executed for the convents and churches of Venice, the same qualities are found, to an equal degree of perfection.

In his Susannah and the Elders, most of the elements dear to the artist were lacking. There are neither sumptuous brocades nor accessories of gold or silver, ewers, amphora dangling, but simply a half-naked woman in an agreste landscape. Nevertheless, Veronese’s fantasy immediately seizes the subject to make a personal work that will not resemble anything that has been done before him. His pretty bather does not plunge his body into the water of a stream common and likely. Veronese worries little likelihood, he treats it with some contempt: “I paint my works,” he said, “without taking these things into consideration, and I give myself the license that poets and fools allow themselves.” And he makes as he says. The cauldron where Susannah bathes is not rural: a semicircular balustrade shelters it, but this balustrade is made of marble and one would think that the beautiful young woman made the wager to display her charms in a fountain from St. Mark’s Square.

It has been said of Veronese that he was the most absurd and the most adorable painter. In its paradoxical form, this judgment is of perfect truth. Absurd, Veronese was really so by his contempt for logic and reason, by his complete indifference to the historical truth or the rules of the school, by his anachronistic manner of dressing the antique tinsel of his time. And it is precisely this overflowing fantasy, this naive self-confidence, this unparalleled understanding of mythology and religion that made him the adorable artist whose admiration of centuries has consecrated glory.

By a rare privilege of his genius, the most daring improbabilities disappear under the magic adornment of which he covers them, and it is scarcely we perceive the glaring errors of history or the superficiality of his pictorial conceptions in the continuous rapture provoked by the intense life of his characters, the splendor of his color, the shimmer of his draperies, the clarity of his skies and the impression of youth and joy radiating from his work. Veronese was neither a thinker, nor a historian, nor a moralist; he was simply a painter, but a great painter. His work was always the exaltation of the joy of living, the apology of the external amenities that make life pleasant and easy: beautiful homes, flowers, hearty meals, precious fabrics, luxuriously dressed women.

Look at his bather. She is undressed, but the clothes thrown in disorder on the edge of the basin have silk reflections which betray in their owner of the tastes of luxury and coquetry. If we could see the full dress of the young woman, we would surely see some elegant Venetian patrician, with a full skirt, covered with jewels. His half-naked body, moreover, of the race, the line is noble; Veronese would not consent to paint a ribald. And the two old men, who grimace with covetousness in their hiding place, are probably rich merchants, perhaps even august senators of the Serenissima.

The main thing to admire in this painting is the ease of execution, the naturalness of the characters and especially Susannah, neither too modest nor too daring, but simply in the frightened attitude of a naked bather who perceive that one looks at it.

It is almost useless to point out the beauty of the color, shimmering on the bare flesh like a caress, deep and luminous in the landscape.

Susannah and the Elders belonged to the collection of Louis XIV, of which he was one of the most beautiful paintings.

Height: 1.98 – Width 1.98 – Life-size figure.

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