I came across this picture today while I was trying to find the painting of Susannah and the Elders Diderot describes in his Salon reports. Jacopo Tintoretto’s version of events is the painting in this photo – it isn’t the one I was looking for, but the photo illustrates very happily my interest in the painting’s surface as a kind of pivot for the beholder’s gaze.


(photo credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

A short commentary text I wrote this week expands:

Finding herself observed Susannah conceals herself from the elders with her veils,

“with the result that in order to escape the elders’ gaze she exposes herself entirely to the eyes of the beholder. This composition is very free and no one is offended by her. It is because the obvious intention saves everything and because the beholder is never part of the subject.” (Fried, M. quoting Denis Diderot’s Salon Report in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the age of Diderot; Michael Fried, U Cal Press 1980, p. 97)

The self-contained gaze, which is both cast and sated within the plane of the painting, seals off the image from the beholder standing before the artwork and strips her unclothed state of the currency it had in the depicted world. “L’art n’y est plus”14: the painting excludes the operation of the beholder and completes itself within the depicted plane.

But a reversal takes place, which pivots about the plane of representation. Specifically because the real-world beholder is never part of the subject, the erotic currency of the figure’s nakedness is replenished in the real world as her intentions are sealed within the depiction.