The subject here is the heroine Suzanna, the Babylonian wife of an influencial Jew, whose story illustrates the power of virtue over evil. In the narrative, two elders plot to seduce the young woman who was accustomed to bathing in her garden. The elders hid until her attendants had departed and then sprung out on her with threats of slander. Susanna cried out and thwarted the attack. As promised, the wicked elders made true with their threats and Suzanna was hauled before the courts facing a charge of adultery, under penalty of death. In the end, young Daniel came forward to cross-examine the perpetrators and their lies were exposed.
Suzanna as a symbol of purity appeared in various forms in early Christian art and continued through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 19th century, the subject of a nude Suzannah spied upon by the Elders, like the mythological heroine Diana discovered at the bath by Actaeon, and the story of David stumbling upon a bathing Bathsheba, provided a narrative pretext for displaying an image of an irresistible nude. As with the present scene, where Andreoni captures our heroine at the moment of surprise, strains of voyeurism and of lustful, forbidden desire normally attended such images.
Orazio Andreoni exhibited in Turin and Berlin, and carried out many works in the late 19th century which found their way into English and American collections. The present figure of Suzanna follows the popular Romantic theme of the 1870s and 80s of depicting Old Testament heroines. The subject was also treated by two of Andreoni's leading contemporaries, Giovanni Battista Lombardi (d. 1880) and Pasquale Romanelli (d. 1887).
A larger example of this same depiction of Suzanna at the bath, by Ciniselli, working in the studio of Orazio Andreoni, and possibly under the latter's direction, was sold Christie's East, 29 March 2000, lot 294 ($101,500).