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In This Case: Godly Susan
March 3, 2009

Medearis painting

Godly Susan by Roger Medearis

Many art history students are taught to look closely at portraits to derive meaning from the subject’s body language, the other objects the artist includes, and even they way these objects are arranged. The Luce Foundation Center has a wonderful portrait, Godly Susan, which is a perfect subject for this kind of close reading. Susan sits in the foreground in a wooden chair among flowers and plants. A white church is just over her shoulder in the background. One of the most interesting details in the painting is the lemon that Susan holds in her left hand. So what are we to make of Godly Susan? Who is she and what is the artist, Roger Medearis, trying to tell us about her? What does the lemon mean?

The bright yellow fruit always elicits questions from visitors—its bright color pulls their eyes into the painting as they pass the case. Medearis skillfully directs our attention to it with the way he positions it in Susan's left hand. Her right hand even points to it. Lemons were frequently included in seventeenth-century Dutch still life paintings among other foods, rich fabrics, and fine gold and silver vessels. The variety of objects allowed artists to show their ability to depict different textures. Another reading is provided by Patrick De Rynck who writes in his book How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters, "Lemons were said to be an antidote to the poisons lurking in a variety of places, not least the gold and silver of expensive serving dishes." In this interpretation, lemons, which were believed to have certain medicinal qualities, could protect someone from poisons, both real and spiritual.

In fact, the woman in the painting is the artist’s grandmother. He titled the painting Godly Susan because she was the granddaughter, daughter, and mother of Baptist ministers, including the artist’s father. Medearis painted this portrait on the sun porch of his father’s church; he added the church to the background later. He includes the lemon for two reasons: lemons were one of Susan’s favorite fruits—she enjoyed the sour taste. And several years before Medearis painted this portrait, Susan had suffered a stroke that left the right side of her body paralyzed. She holds the lemon in her left hand, which provides a strong contrast to her right hand resting limply on her chair.

The choices artists make about what to include in their work and how to do it are very interesting, whether they are part of a larger, moral message or something more personal. You can make a close reading of a painting by simply looking, but there are some things that cannot be uncovered without doing a little more research. Maybe you'll need to pull out an old art history textbook, or do some reading on the artist. Everything is intentional!

Posted by Bridget on March 3, 2009 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center


I like your next-to-last paragraph. I am an artist so that colors my views.

Artists make choices about what we want to put in our work, yes, of course. It is fascinating to know that the artist's grandmother was the model, and the information about her/him. I like to leave interpretation to the viewer, although in some of my work, I want the viewer to know (such as in political art multiples). As a sculptor, I may move the viewer's attention/eye, but leave the interpretation. When I look at art, I look at the things in the art, the way the art "works", but I do not interpret.

What an engaging portrait. Great post; I will share it with my preservice teachers this week.

"Everything is intentional!" This is a specific phrase I look forward to discussing with future teachers.

Thank you for introducing me to the work of Roger Medearis through the "Eye Level" e-newsletter discussion of "Godly Susan". You've found an ideal way to build audience. I'm eager to assemble my "scrapbook".

Thanks, everyone! You may be interested to hear that another painting by Roger Medearis will be coming to the Luce Foundation Center soon. This painting was chosen by a citizen curator as part of our Fill the Gap project. Georgina will be writing a post on Fill the Gap, but in the meantime, check out the flickr set at

There's nothing wrong with interpreting a painting. I interpret this one to mean sour puss. Literally (if you get my drift). The lemon's right on top of it probably because they weren't allowed to be too graphic in those days.

She's sour to the core as would any entrenched baptist be. Sour, judgmental, hypocritical. It's in the expression on her face and the lemon on her "lap." It illustrates what the life of the baptist religion has bestowed upon her.

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