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The Judgement of Susannah

François Boucher
The Judgement of Susannah, c. 1720-21
Oil on canvas, 82.5 x 145.2 cm
Purchased 1997

The Judgement of Susannah is one of Boucher's earliest history paintings, and by far the most impressive canvas he produced in the 1720s. Until very recently it was known solely from a reference in his obituary (published anonymously in 1771), and since its discovery in 1985 the painting has been reproduced only once. A work of vigour and ambition, The Judgement is a prodigious debut for an artist no older than 17. His technical proficiency is little short of breathtaking in a work of such complexity, but his intellectual ambitions in this multifigured narrative are no less impressive. Many of the pictorial experiments and solutions first adumbrated in this composition establish models or motifs that Boucher drew upon and refined in the ensuing decades.

A myriad of details suggest Boucher's familiarity with the textual source, a biblical subject quite rare in French painting. Other representations of Susannah in the European collection, by Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510-1592) and Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562-1638), depict the more popular and earlier episodes in the story, where Susannah, at her bath, is confronted by two Elders who threaten to accuse her of adultery if she refuses to lie with them. In Boucher's work, Susannah, now judged, is about to be led off to her execution when she is saved by the young prophet Daniel, who invokes God's mercy.

The Judgement of Susannah brings to the European collection an important and early work by the leading French painter of the 18th century. Boucher's work advances from Rigaud's portrait of the Jean Ie Juge and his Family family and Restout's Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas, and anticipates later developments in the century represented by Chardin, David and Drouais.