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Bridget O'Bernstein


When Susanna looks vulnerable in a Baroque painting, it's because two older men are spying on her from behind a yellow rose bush, and one of them is touching her.

They peer out from behind it, gnawing on the vision of her silkiness—her blonde body. Their faces say what golden hair! What a future undoing!

The art history teacher, Mr. Pulver, looked pleased when he projected the slide into our high school classroom.

He said, the light and the dark. He said, the yellows. He said, look at it. He never said, look at the terror in her eyes. He never said, look at the men, look at their longing.

How do any women learn to trust men enough to love them?

If a woman looks unsafe in a Baroque painting, it is not just a feeling. It is because two men are spying on her from behind some bushes.

It is because her yellow shawl is never large enough to cover her whole body, which glows, exposed, under the lightless sky.

It is because one of the men has a finger to his lips, and he says, Susanna, that feeling you're having, it's hardly worth naming. The smallest feeling, it's hardly a feeling at all.

And the look on her face—it isn't vulnerability because it isn't coming from her. It's something else. It's coming from the men.






Instead of siblings, I had paintings in the home. [This Susanna and the Elders] was painted by Guido Reni and hangs in the National Gallery in London.