The National Gallery reveals its latest acquisition, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Miriam Al Jamil reflects on its importance in Gentileschi’s oeuvre.
On 19th December 2018, the National Gallery, London, revealed its new acquisition, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, (c.1616). Bought for £3,600,000, the painting is hailed as a welcome addition to the mere twenty-six works by women on show at the Gallery and to only two other easel paintings by the artist in Britain, both of which are in the Royal Collection and at Burghley House. The frequent appearance of the Royal Collection self-portrait in different exhibition contexts has made it a familiar image for art lovers. However, in 2020 the National Gallery will hold the first monographic exhibition of Artemisia’s work in Britain, to be followed by a ‘pop-up tour’ which will begin in the Glasgow Women’s Library to signal the painter’s singular importance for both art and women’s history. Artemisia and her poignant life feel so familiar now that it is a shock to see how neglected she has been, but if the enthusiasm of the Director Dr. Gabriele Finaldi and the curator Letizia Treves are any indication, this will change. They say they have wanted to acquire a work by Artemisia for some time and this was the right one for the National Gallery. Controversial suggestions that it was connected to ‘Nazi loot’ have been swiftly dismissed, since it was owned by the Boudeville family throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. The painting was in a poor state when the Gallery brought it to the conservators. They concluded that a strip of canvas added along the lower edge had been sewn on by Artemisia herself, affecting evidence of her poverty at a time when she was selling furniture to buy materials. Accretions of later paint and years of inattention required careful work.
Artemisia fits the category of ‘follower of Caravaggio’ in both her style and the personal drama of her life, although I do not recall her notable presence in the 2017 exhibition at the National Gallery, Beyond Caravaggio. Her unconventional pursuit of an artistic career, her even more unusual accusation of rape against her teacher the artist Agostino Tassi and appearance at his trial single her out as a brave and determined woman. The late 1990s saw biographies of both Artemisia and Caravaggio which traced their lives through the subjects of their art, and this has made it difficult to see their work through an alternative lens: Alexandra Lapierre’s Artemisia: The story of a Battle for Greatness, (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1998); Peter Robb’s M: The Man who Became Caravaggio (Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998) are just two examples of this. The menacing darkness and revealing light, the turn of the head and intense gaze, the flexed muscles and flash of a blade which seem to embody the perilous life of early seventeenth-century Rome lend rich colour and emotional depth to their work but invariably become elaborated as personal accounts. Eventually, the two artists will share a room in the Gallery, an important development in the inexorable diachrony of male art historical narrative which largely characterises the collection.
The violence and injustice Artemisia underwent are easily identified as tropes in her paintings, not least in the self-portrait now on show. Her hands grasp the attributes of St. Catherine, the martyr’s palm branch and the spiked wheel on which she was tortured which broke at her touch. The saint was eventually beheaded with a sword. Artemisia concentrates on her triumph over suffering, something she knew from the finger-screws applied during her rapist’s trial to determine whether she was telling the truth. It is hard to contemplate this second inflicted violation and the mutilation by the screws which threatened her means of earning a living. The enigmatic expression of the portrait is disconcerting in its accusation and resolve. It directs us to look at the fingers which endured pain as now whole and strong. Artemisia presents the saint’s attributes as those of an artist, the emblems of her craft. The palm might be a brush and the wheelrim a stretcher for her canvas.
Pentimenti (evidence of alterations) added by Artemisia has resulted in the strange feature of her headdress. St. Catherine is customarily depicted with both her royal crown as a princess of Alexandria and her halo of sainthood, but these recede in the painting behind Artemisia’s turban-wrap scarf with tasselled ends. The practical and plain scarf of the artist was what she contemplated in the mirror. The portrait is of the artist first. There are clear parallels with the Self-Portrait as a Lute Player by Artemisia, of c.1615-18 at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The pose is similar, the turban features again but the lute player’s face is less idealised, her jaw and nose more prominent. Artemisia could not afford to pay models. Her self-portraits are therefore experiments in observation and adaptation in the way that Rembrandt charted his own face over the years.
Currently hung opposite and thus arguably interacting with Artemisia in the central hall at the National Gallery is Luca Giordano’s Perseus Turning Phineas and his followers to Stone, 1680s. Perseus brandishes the terrifying Medusa’s head as a weapon. Medusa’s story is another example of injustice. She was made hideous as a punishment by Athena for having been raped by Poseidon in her sanctuary. It is not difficult to find rape victims throughout the National Gallery. Artemisia’s attacker was unusually imprisoned for his crime but she continued to paint successfully, eventually joining her father Orazio in London to help him complete his ceiling commission at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Charles I’s patronage of the Gentileschis means that they join Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens as significant artists within the seventeenth-century English court. It is important that a national collection in England acknowledges Artemisia’s work and talent to correct the imbalance and award her a place. It will be interesting to see other under-represented women artists among their peers in the future. The momentum is already gathering as a hopeful sign for the future.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria is on display (free of charge) at the National Gallery, London, now. See here for more details.