The subject comes from the biblical Apocrypha. Susanna, a young Jewish wife, was secretly desired by two elders of the community, who plotted together to seduce her. They hid in her garden and when she came out to bathe they emerged and threatened that, unless she gave in to their desires, they would publicly accuse her of adultery - the penalty for which was death. Susanna, however, spurned them and they duly made their false accusation. She was charged and condemned to die, but at the last minute the youthful Daniel - the future prophet - cross-examined the elders and established Susanna's innocence.
Lely here shows Susanna in her garden, still clothed. To the left is the stone bowl of a fountain topped with a classically inspired sculpture of a naked, weeping boy reclining on a camel, whose curved neck is seen in profile. The two elders, to the right, lean suggestively towards her.
Lely painted the subject of Susanna and the elders on a number of occasions. As a biblical story, it enabled an artist legitimately to depict a semi-nude female. In one of Lely's other surviving versions, Susanna's left breast is fully exposed (Burghley House, Leicestershire); another version is in Birmingham City Art Gallery and is close in composition to the Tate work, although the latter has been extended at both the top and the bottom, apparently by Lely himself. A seventeenth-century copy is in Dulwich Picture Gallery (see Mr Cartwright's Pictures, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 1987, no.47, pp.58-9, reproduced). A drawing very close to the Tate composition and attributed to Lely is in the Courtauld Gallery (Witt Drawing no. 4184).
Sir Peter Lely was born to a Dutch family in Soest, Westphalia in 1618. He trained in Haarlem and, at the beginning of the 1640s, moved to England, where the Civil War had begun. There, initially, he painted narrative pictures showing figures in a landscape, often on classical subjects, of the kind for which there was a considerable market in the Netherlands. In London, Lely had the opportunity to see many examples of the work of the recently deceased Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) whose portraits had transformed the public image of Charles I's court. The market for art in Britain at this period was almost entirely for portraiture and Lely increasingly concentrated on that field, absorbing the influence of van Dyck and steadily lightening and brightening his own palette. At the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Lely was to become the principal court portrait-painter.
Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618-80, National Portrait Galley, exhibition catalogue, London 1978
Oliver Millar and Diana Dethloff, 'Sir Peter Lely', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 19, pp.119-25