Hunting an illustration for an essay about my father’s late-life mutation into a skirt-chaser, I googled “lecherous old men painting,” and up popped Susanna and the Elders. There were dozens of versions. The paintings depict a biblical story of lechery, a popular subject in the Renaissance and beyond, and fit my subject only too well.
Despite their antiquated style, the paintings felt uncomfortably charged. I found I was afraid to look at them closely, just as I’d been afraid to look closely at my father’s behavior. Although it had been over a year since I’d uncovered the role that dementia had played, the memory of his metamorphosis still disturbed me. I pushed myself to study the paintings in the hope of getting over it.
The Susanna story, from the Book of Daniel, begins when a beautiful young wife is observed by two lascivious elders as she bathes. They attempt to blackmail her into having sex with them by threatening to claim that she had been meeting a lover. Susanna resists, is denounced and about to be put to death for promiscuity, when Daniel demands that the old men be questioned further. Their accounts collapse under scrutiny; they are put to death; and innocence triumphs.
The story offers several scenes for illustration, yet the only one ever depicted is that of the men propositioning the virtuous Susanna. However chaste, she is always portrayed as voluptuous, with the focus on her partially or fully naked body, which she struggles to cover. Learning that the paintings were commissioned by aristocrats to hang in their palaces made it hard to look at them without seeing a male artist exploiting for a male viewer the erotic possibilities in the scene of a woman stripped and threatened. The paintings presumed no female viewer. They made me feel like an accidental, unwelcome visitor to a men’s club.
Art historians have long proposed a hidden erotic intent in the depiction of the female nude in old master paintings that have classical or biblical themes. Generally, the woman portrayed submits willingly to our gaze, as she admires herself in a mirror or returns our regard impassively or seductively. But the Susanna paintings depict a woman who is mortified to be seen and struggles to cover herself. Why was this theme so popular? There was something sordid going on, and not just in the Susanna story itself.
Obviously, I had a personal reason for finding the paintings unnerving. My father, a man of principle, a feminist, was not himself when, immediately after my mother’s death, he declared his intention of hiring a caretaker with whom he could have sex. There was no reasoning with him. Stunned at the time, I feared that I was seeing something hidden in my father that had emerged and overtaken his character. Like most people, I preferred not to think about my father’s sex life, so, having failed to talk him out of his crazy plan, I changed the subject.
Avoidance was easy. Although he rejected any job applicants he couldn’t pass off as a wife and went behind my back to hire the sketchiest of the candidates, none stayed for long. One by one, they quit or had to be fired or, in one instance, removed to a mental hospital. I never witnessed my father’s sexual advances and heard about them only third-hand from the once-a-week visiting bookkeeper, who issued the salary checks and listened to the companions’ complaints. I had no sympathy for the women; I was delighted to see them go and did my best to laugh off the whole enterprise.
My attitude changed when my father hired Lupe, his excellent and beautiful Mexican companion. With a black belt in karate, she could certainly take care of herself, but all the same I’d attempted to warn her before she took the job. “My father doesn’t respect boundaries,” I’d offered lamely. “He may try to treat you like a wife.” Lupe’s English was not up to my embarrassed subtlety, so she was shocked when he made his first pass. “But he’s like a daddy to me, too!” she’d insisted. Talking and strategizing together made the problem both more real and less funny. I cared about Lupe and worried she might quit under the pressure. Furthermore, my father was besotted with her. “Lupiiiita,” he used to call her, trilling her name, his face lit up from within like a man in the midst of a delightful dream. Now, our problem was his outrage at the many men who called her for dates.
The closest I came to “witnessing” his licentious behavior occurred many months after Lupe took the job. One afternoon, when she was speaking to me on the phone, my father entered the room and tried to grab her—assuming no doubt that she was talking to a suitor. I could hear her fighting him off. “Stop!” she screamed. “NO! NO! Stop, Dr. Roper!” I could clearly make out the scuffle and shared Lupe’s horror. Despite being able only to hear what was going in, I felt I was in the room. My heart pounded, my head spun. I might have been listening to the podcast of an assault, but the predator was my father!
Lupe and I managed my father’s offensive behavior together for the remaining three years of his life, but I never really came to terms with it. In my memoir about my parents’ end-of-life, I put a humorous cast on his sexual forays. Eventually, I discovered the neurological explanation for his loss of inhibition and judgement, but my dismay about the overheard scene persisted.
To look at the Susanna paintings was to see the scene I’d only imagined, in fact, that I’d tried not to imagine. With the demonic old men snatching at the young Susanna, their faces contorted with lust and malice, the paintings seem grotesque. One in particular so disturbs me, I can barely stand to look at it: a 1610 work by Rubens.
In it, the men are ravishing Susanna with their eyes; they ignore her flushed face entirely but stare eagerly at her body, while she recoils from their unwanted touch. The elders’ complete disregard of Susanna as a person is precisely what I dreaded ascribing to my father. I couldn’t bear to think that he had had something similarly monstrous in him.
Meanwhile, my own eyes were also drawn to Susanna’s body by the artist’s highlighting of her pale skin against the red velvet cloak. And her raised arm, rather than helping to cover her, seems designed to display her more fully—to the viewer, who, if you stop to think about it, is the actual, real-life voyeur. All the Susanna paintings are at odds with the moral uplift promised in biblical art. The lascivious elders are portrayed as villains, but the paintings seem explicitly intended to stimulate lascivious feelings.
Everyone, it seems, agreed to ignore this hypocrisy, the only exception I could find being Rembrandt, who confronted it directly in his two Susanna paintings.
He made short shrift of the biblical story—in the first, the elders are barely perceptible, disembodied heads in the shadows—and Susanna looks right at us, accusatorially in one, more passively in the other. In both, the story line and present moment converge, since it is clearly from the viewer that Susanna is struggling to hide herself. The paintings acknowledge the voyeurism they elicit as well as the woman’s discomfort or repressed anger, perhaps even that of the model who was paid to strip.
Although I can’t look at the Susanna figure without thinking of Lupe, and the sympathies of any woman seeing these paintings will be with the victim, such feelings seem to have been beyond almost all the painters. Typically, they give Susanna the inauthentic expression of a bad actress in a role she doesn’t grasp. Besides Rubens and Rembrandt, the only other painter to have gotten under Susanna’s skin may be, not surprisingly, the female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi.
In her 1610 work, painted when she was only 17, Susanna recoils in anguish and revulsion at the men’s suggestion. That someone so young could have intuited these feelings makes sense when you realize that Gentileschi herself had been sexually harassed in her father’s studio by the mentor assigned to her. We know this because a year later she was raped by the same man, and the court records of the ensuing trial survive. There have even been suggestions that the two elders in her painting are stand-ins for the mentor and Gentileschi’s father, for whom she modeled naked. Her painting is an excuse to tell a real story, its emotional truth valid for any era: biblical, Gentileschi’s or the present. Hers is the version that makes Lupe’s ordeal most real to me.
Since my response to the paintings is so personal, I initially wondered if the prurience I sensed was in my own mind, but it seems that the social mores of the 16th and 17th centuries, when women were tightly corseted, were such that the depiction of even a partially naked woman had a sexual charge. It was during this time, in fact, that artists began providing erotic art for the pleasure of the aristocracy, taking inspiration from the newly rediscovered art of ancient Rome, which was often extremely sexually explicit. Scenes of gods raping mortal women were popular, with the victims often appearing to be in the throes of ecstasy. As it happens, many prominent Renaissance painters of religious art had a lucrative sideline in painted and engraved pornography.
The more I looked, the more I wondered about the nature of the titillation for the Renaissance viewer. It could not have been just the show of flesh and the woman’s helplessness that made the subject such a good seller; there were other biblical stories with these components. The Susanna paintings feel uniquely unsavory: in the old mens’ excitement at the thought of having their way with a defenseless young woman; in their superior strength, numbers, and threat of aggression; in the incestuous overtones of the age difference; and in the woman’s distress, all adding to the twisted mix. Eventually, I came to feel that—despite their inclusion in museum collections—many of the works cross the line between erotic and pornographic: what they lack in explicitness, they make up for in sordidness.
Which is not to deny their artistic value. Among the most graphic but beautiful Susanna scenes is this carved ivory by Van Bossuit from 1690.
Here the men look like satyrs and the stripped bare Susanna is almost a martyr on the cross. In fact, the men appear to be offering her up to the viewer. When you consider that the sculpture is fifteen inches high and could be handled by the patron, you may wonder if this quasi-religious article wasn’t simply a piece of exquisite, kinky erotica. These depictions don’t only make visual a scene I’d hated to see; they draw us into a world of salacious, degraded sexuality.
Times do change, and taking sadistic pleasure in the image of a woman humiliated was clearly acceptable in earlier times. Yes, we should be careful about judging the past though a contemporary lens. But, whatever the social norms of those days, whatever men were once entitled to think, Susanna’s feelings of mortification are timeless. Lupe’s horror at my father’s advances would have been the same for any woman in similar circumstances in the past, no matter how distant.
Sadly, no aspect of the story is antiquated: even Susanna’s death sentence for purported promiscuity remains an ongoing threat in some parts of the world. The two elders are hardly alone is seeing the focus of their obsessive desire as no more than a female body to be enjoyed. In the paintings, a woman is reduced to an object that exists to satisfy the lust of two old men who have shriveled down to the sum of their appetites. It is this essentially that was most painful to witness in a father I loved and had always admired, not least for his feminism. In his diminished state, like the elders, he saw any convenient woman as an opportunity.
On the other hand, his resemblance to the elders stops there. The perverse world of the Susanna paintings feels very far from that of my father. He didn’t pursue young women or become sexually obsessed. And he never attempted to extort sex. In fact, he told me at one point that he was building up the bank account of his housekeeper-prospect of the moment, so that “she would have a choice.” About what, he didn’t need to spell out. He wooed his housekeepers; he wined and dined them and swung them around the dance floor. He hoped they would respond; he expected them to! His intentions—and optimism—were unhinged, but his method was usually more courtly than abusive. Lupe, I think, was the exception. His aggression toward her, as in the overheard scene, was, I like to think, driven by his infatuation and run-away jealousy.
It’s amazing to me now that I didn’t recognize my father’s cognitive decline. Nothing could have made his dementia more obvious than the outrageously inappropriate women he pursued before Lupe: charmless, uneducated, drug-addicted in one case and certifiable in another. But then it’s amazing that for several hundred years everyone agreed to ignore the often obvious eroticism in art! Like the Renaissance viewer, I avoided the whole taboo subject of sex. It wasn’t my father’s dementia that I was denying (the diagnosis was a relief) but his lechery. And in turning away from what I was afraid to see I missed the clues to what underlay it.
Looking closely at the Susanna paintings and at the culture that produced them finally makes clear to me the limits of my father’s disturbed thinking. His loss of self-awareness and judgment allowed his lifelong vitality to erupt as licentiousness. But now I can see that his pursuit of his housekeepers was an attempt to escape his grief by replacing my mother in the only way that occurred to him, since he lacked the emotional capacity for a new relationship.
Now, I can see the tragic element in my father’s behavior. To be facing death at the same time that he found himself alone for the very first time must have made the wish for female companionship a matter of desperation. It was upsetting to see his more primitive impulses exposed, but it is a comfort to realize that, in spite of his decline and distress, dementia didn’t entirely strip him of the character and integrity that defined his life.