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The myths and masterpieces of Artemisia Gentileschi

Questions of gender and sexual trauma have long confused Artemisia Gentileschi's status as a major painter  something a new exhibition sets out to correct. 

 

 

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In 1649, Artemisia Gentileschi wrote to the Sicilian politician and collector Don Antonio Ruffo claiming, defiantly: “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” It was a mission statement – a challenge almost – that could stand for her whole career, and one too that  serves for the major exhibition of her work that has finally opened at the National  Gallery: “Artemisia”.

The show was scheduled for April, but the pandemic intervened. If it was, to begin with, a noble effort on the part of the curator Letizia Treves to charm and inveigle institutions and private collectors around the world to give up some 30 paintings by Gentileschi – as well as a selection of works by others in her orbit – it was perhaps even more heroic to persuade them to allow the pictures to stay so that the exhibition could belatedly go ahead. Her faith, and that of the lenders, proves more than justified.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c1654) is simultaneously very well known and very little known – something this, the first monographic exhibition devoted to her in Britain, sets out to correct. Like many 17th-century painters who adopted the frank realism and dramatic effects of Caravaggio, she suffered centuries of relative neglect before being rediscovered in the 20th century. Her wider fame, however, rests less on her paintings than on her status as the most famous rape victim in art. The details of her assault in 1611 by another painter, Agostino Tassi, and her ensuing judicial torture, were recorded during Tassi’s trial, and while they have provided material for novelists, playwrights and television and film scriptwriters, they have also obscured her achievements as a painter. As a result, her often violent subject matter has been interpreted as heavily autobiographical rather than as part of a characteristic strain of baroque painting and, indeed, of early 17th-century life.

Gentileschi was well aware that her gender was her great selling point. In another letter to Ruffo she promised: “With me Your Lordship will not lose and you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.” But her contemporary renown could be gender-blind too. She was a prodigy who worked in Florence, Rome, Venice, London and Naples (where she established a flourishing studio with her daughter Prudenza); her patrons included aristocrats, Iberian and German dignitaries, the Medici, Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England; she had a long friendship with Galileo; other painters made her portrait; verses were written and medallions were struck in her honour; and she was the first woman to be a member of the artists’ academy in Florence. She was also an adroit self-marketer and created an Artemisia Gentileschi brand by signing pictures – which was not standard practice – using her own face in her paintings as a form of advertising, and collaborating with other artists. However she may seem to us, there is nothing about her professional career that bears the imprint of a victim.

One of the travails she was forced to overcome was her relationship with her own father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi. He was a talented artist whose style blossomed under the influence of his friend Caravaggio (they were named together in a lawsuit for libel over some scurrilous poems) but was a malign and unpleasant man, and a controlling father. When her mother died in 1605, the 12-year-old Gentileschi initially took charge of her three brothers but soon became her father’s protégée. Although he boasted of her talent and claimed she had become a fully-fledged painter after just three years of his tutelage, “so skilled that I dare say she has no equal today”, he was also jealous of her talent and both possessive – locking her up at home – and careless in allowing Tassi into his household while the two men worked on a joint project.

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The rape occurred in 1611 when Gentileschi was 17 and had already painted a remarkable work, possibly with her father’s involvement, depicting Susanna and the Elders (1610), in which a naked woman (bearing Gentileschi’s features) is harassed by two leering older men. It is an extraordinary presentiment of what was to come when lust turned into violent coercion. Tassi was 15 years older than her and had already painted for the Pope, Paul V, as well as being tried for incest (he later attempted to shoot his pregnant lover). He was, according to one account, physically unprepossessing, being “small, chubby and with a little beard”. What complicated matters was that, after the assault, he and Gentileschi continued a sexual relationship under the impression, on her part, that he would marry her.

When Tassi dragged his feet, it was Orazio who eventually brought the case to court, not his daughter. He hoped either to force the rapist’s hand or win a financial settlement. What neither of them knew was that Tassi was already married. Witnesses for Tassi made claims of sexual looseness in the Gentileschi household while Artemisia herself volunteered to undergo torture (a cord was threaded through her fingers and progressively tightened) to prove her probity: “E vero, e vero, e vero” (“It is true”) she repeated over and over again as her fingers were crushed. The court found in her favour and Tassi was exiled from Rome (a sentence that, thanks to his connections, he didn’t serve). The day after the case ended, Gentileschi married a painter and pigment dealer named Pierantonio Stiattesi, whom Orazio had been tempting with the promise of a generous dowry. All of which makes a reading of Gentileschi’s pictures of violence as expressions of sublimated revenge far too reductive.

It is nevertheless impossible entirely to subtract biography from the paintings. What set Gentileschi apart from talented Italian-based contemporaries and fellow Caravaggisti such as Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin de Boulogne and Bartolomeo Manfredi was the focus in her art on the female figure – and often on the heroic female. She claimed that “never has anyone found in my pictures any repetition of invention, not even of one hand”, but this was bluster: the exhibition has two versions of Susanna and the Elders (the theme was the subject of her last dated painting, in 1652, as well as her first), two spectacularly violent scenes of Judith Beheading Holofernes, two more showing Judith and her maidservant with his severed head, a pair of identical nudes – one as Cleopatra the other as Danaë (the faces might be hers but the body isn’t), and a series of self-portraits as saints or martyrs that follow the same basic composition.

In all, regardless of whether as actor or acted on, a woman is at the heart of things. And these are no wilters, but women with heft and muscles. What the exhibition brings home is the insistent physicality of her work, heightened by the close-cropping of the scenes. When Jael prepares to drive a tent peg into the skull of the sleeping Canaanite general Sisera in a painting of 1620, her raised arm is poised to deliver a real whack, not a dainty tap; when Judith cuts off the head of the Assyrian commander Holofernes it is no elegant decapitation, she has to grab his hair and brace her arm to saw through his neck, while it takes all her maidservant Abra’s weight to hold him down. This is not a quick operation but a slow and brutal one; his eyes register shock as the blood spurts (everywhere in the painting of 1613-14 from the Uffizi, rather more neatly in the 1612-13 version from Naples). Sinews are stretched tight and muscles pumped – his in a vain effort to save his life, the women’s in an effort to take it. The paintings are hung side by side in a show-stopper pairing.

Gentileschi may, indeed, have imagined Tassi as she painted these grisly biblical murders – both of which were carried out to save a nation rather than to revenge personal honour – but the Holofernes story alone had been sculpted by Donatello, and painted by, among others, Guariento di Arpo in the mid-14th century, then Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, Lucas Cranach, Caravaggio, and, at much the same time, Rubens and Gentileschi’s friend and godfather to her second son, Cristofano Allori. The story was an  artists’ staple and not personal to her.

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One of the other gifts the exhibition highlights is Gentileschi’s sheer facility with paint. In the Uffizi painting, Judith is sumptuously arrayed in a gold brocade gown and wears a bracelet of cameos, while the general is draped in red velvet with a gold trim, the different materials and sheen immaculately rendered. The textures and colours are in bravura contrast to the brutality: it is as if Judith has taken a break from sitting for her portrait in her finest frock to indulge in a spot of slaughter before returning to her posing.

Gentileschi’s gifts as a storyteller are also clearly evident. In an astute touch, she has imagined what went through the women’s minds before the butchery started, and they have rolled up their sleeves in a fruitless attempt to protect their dresses from the inevitable geyser of blood. The same feel for narrative is more subtly but just as effectively on display in a painting of 1623-25 from Detroit showing the aftermath of the murder as the two women try to escape undetected from the dead commander’s tent. They are equal partners in the enterprise and when they hear a noise, Judith throws up her hand to stop Abra in her task of stuffing the severed head in a bag; in doing so, she blocks out the light from the single candle, throwing her face in shade. It is a beautiful passage of painting that may not be realistic, since a single candle could not light the scene, but is entirely coherent in terms of the drama. The action itself is quieter than the moments that preceded it, but the tension and anxiety are palpable. This is the sisters-in-crime own heart-stopping moment.

Between 1613 and 1626-27, Gentileschi was living first in Florence – where she was attached to the Medici court – and then in Rome. Although she was establishing her career, the years were also marked by money troubles and the deaths of four of her five children. Consolation came in the form of a love affair with Francesco Maringhi, a wealthy factotum for the Frescobaldi family. The relationship was sanctioned by Gentileschi’s husband, who carried on an independent correspondence with him.

A series of 36 letters from Gentileschi and Maringhi came to light in 2011 and some are included in the exhibition. They reveal not just her distress at the breakdown of her relationship with her father over unpaid dowry instalments and the death of her son (she described herself as “dying from pain”) but her wholehearted physical passion for Maringhi mixed with bouts of jealousy (“Just two lines you wrote, which if you loved me would have gone on forever”), demands for money, and insights into her painting life.

Gentileschi had no formal education and did not learn to read and write until she was in her twenties, but what her letters lack in terms of style they make up for in plain-spoken expression. The couple used “Fortunio” and “Fortuni” as code-names and she spattered the letters with expressions of affection (“Comfort of my life”, “My dearest heart”, “Completely wholly yours”), often signing them Artemisia Lomi, the family’s original name. In one of them she instructs Maringhi not to masturbate in front of her portrait, teasingly reminding him that: “Your lordship tells me that you know no other woman besides your right hand, envied by me so much, for it possesses that which I cannot possess myself.” Physicality was not the sole preserve of her paintings.

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Maringhi’s use of her self-portrait may have been unique, but he was not the only man to own one. In another letter to Don Antonio Ruffo she wrote: “If Your Lordship likes my work, I will also send you my portrait, so that you may keep it in your gallery as all the other Princes do.” She was then assiduous in disseminating her own image to ensure her renown. Because of this, and because of her female subject matter, fully half of all her pictures have at some point been identified as containing a self-portrait – including her nudes. In later life she complained of the cost of hiring models and of their poor quality, so including her own features in her paintings made sense. This does not, however, make them self-portraits in a psychological sense; indeed some patrons may have specifically wanted her image in the subject paintings they commissioned.

The women in works such as the Allegory of Inclination, painted in 1615-16 for Michelangelo’s great-nephew, in which Inclination is depicted as a naked woman, and Lucretia of 1620-25, showing a rape victim from  antiquity – who, like Gentileschi, threatened her assailant with a knife – may bear the artist’s features. But she is in them as an actress playing a role, albeit one who may be in instinctive sympathy with the characters she portrays.

The exhibition contains two pictures in particular that show up this ambivalence: the National Gallery’s own Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-17, and Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), 1638-39, in the Royal Collection. The former is an orthodox, half-length self-portrait to which Gentileschi then added a martyr’s crown and palm and the saint’s attribute, the broken wheel on which she was killed. It is these transformative inclusions that turn a straightforward representation into a subject piece. There was clearly a market for such works since she also painted a Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr and a Self-Portrait as a Lute Player traced from the same original. La Pittura shows the allegorical figure of a painter at work but at an angle from which, without a complicated system of mirrors, it would have been almost impossible for Gentileschi to paint herself. In which case, the fact that the figure bears her own features can be read as an act of identification. Gentileschi’s full chin, fleshy lips and less-than-straight nose are everywhere to be found in the exhibition, and it is seeing the many Gentileschis together and in quick succession that the real image of her as a woman, a businesswoman, painter and multifarious character, is to be found.

Although this wonderful exhibition is a thorough examination of the role of gender in 17th-century art and the way Gentileschi both used her sex and was defined by it, its primary aim is to place her not as the most significant female artist of her generation (as the works of, say, Clara Peeters and Judith Leyster attest, she was not the only woman around who had talent with a brush) or as a figure made fascinating by virtue of her biography, but simply as a significant artist per se. And it makes a compelling case: not only, as a good professional, was she alive to and learned from the work of peers such as Guido Reni and Simon Vouet, but at her best she could paint pictures that are both thrilling and profound. Writing again to Ruffo, Gentileschi herself put it another way: “I shall not bother you any longer with this womanly chatter, for the works will speak for themselves.”

“Artemisia” runs at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 24 January 2021

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 09 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid