The National Gallery’s blockbuster exhibition celebrates the professional ingenuity, self-confidence and skilful proto-feminist paintings of one of Italy’s best Early Modern women artists, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Anyone interested in the seventeenth-century Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) has probably read about the rape trial in Rome, during which she underwent judicial torture to confirm her veracity and thus secure the conviction of her rapist Agostino Tassi. He had reneged on his offer of marriage, the ‘solution’ commonly accepted in the case of a rape. The story resonates as one of sexual victimhood, gendered social and political inequalities and unusual personal determination on the part of the artist and her father as they sought recompense through litigation, a singularly risky course of action at the time for a young woman and her reputation. The case provides Alexandra Lapierre with the thread in her fictional biography that seeks to explain the painting subjects chosen by Gentileschi in her early career. However, if biography slips easily into art historical analysis, it has the effect of restricting and distorting the possibilities for interpretation, especially for women artists whose existential struggles required even more tenacity than their male counterparts. Their paintings must be allowed to tell other stories, those of professional ingenuity and development, self confidence and opportunism, shrewd manipulation of the desires and intentions of patrons to name a few. All these stories apply to Gentileschi’s work. The exhibition opens up new ways to appreciate her practice, and indeed by extension that of the few other Early Modern women who made a living through their art.
In her book, Mary Garrard asserts Gentileschi’s feminism: ‘she consistently contradicted and challenged patriarchal values’. These values included those which derived from biblical textual authority. The seventeen-year-old artist chose the subject of Susannah and the Elders (see in her self-titled painting of 1610) from the Book of Daniel. It would have been considered apocryphal by the Protestant Church but was part of the orthodox Catholic Bible. Though it resonates with other images of women as the victims of sexual coercion such as Lucretia (which Gentileschi painted in 1620-5), the narrative unusually concludes with the intervention of Daniel to prove the culpability of Susanna’s assailants and to ensure justice is done and the victim is vindicated. It is hard to avoid the biographical relevance of this for Gentileschi. She revisited the subject in 1622 and again at the end of her career in 1652 when she had a workshop practice in Naples and collaborated with other artists. It was a signature piece for her. The recently refurbished gallery of Italian Baroque art, Room 32, at the National Gallery includes two paintings of the subject by her contemporaries Ludovico Carracci (1616; NG28) and Guido Reni (1620-5; NG196). Comparisons reveal what we would now call more psychological depth in Gentileschi’s interpretation, and a poignant consciousness of naked female vulnerability which has less persuasive impact in the other examples. However, she was clearly responding to contemporary taste so characterising her choice as personal undermines her astute business approach to her work. She was likely to have been aware that the subject had additional resonance when painted by a female artist, one renowned for her attractive looks.
Nina Houle notes that Gentileschi’s works are ‘infused with an intensity and rawness lacking in many of her contemporaries’ work’ and she ‘infused her painting with a deeply personal feel’. Her comments focus on another of Gentileschi’s outstanding subjects in the exhibition, the biblical heroine Judith as a fearless champion of her people. The exhibition wall label also states that the first of the two large compositions which hang side by side, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-13, Naples; 1613-14, Florence) is ‘frequently read as Artemisia taking her revenge in paint’. Once again it seems, Gentileschi is unable to see beyond her own rage and hurt and reifies this in the cathartic horror of an execution scene. The juxtaposed canvases give us the unprecedented opportunity to compare and contrast their visual impact. Certainly, close scrutiny of the grizzly deed reveals the care taken with the vivid crimson red of the blood trickling from the half-severed head down the creases of the bed sheet or the spouts of arterial blood that spot Judith’s dress in the second version. The second composition gives the action more shocking ongoing immediacy. We anticipate the increasing amount of blood that will saturate the bed. The efforts of Judith and her maid are greater. Judith grasps more hair on Holofernes’ head, his eyes express more abject terror and the sword is rendered more cruel in its cold and carefully modelled precision. I am unable to see the painting in the same way since once reading an interpretation of Holofernes’ raised arms as the raised legs of a woman giving birth. Artemisia certainly knew the visceral and dangerous experience of childbirth. She had five children, one of whom survived beyond childhood. It is rare to see a painting of the subject with such a dramatic concentration on the act of beheading itself in progress.
A small selection of letters by Artemisia and her husband is one of the most significant strengths of the exhibition. It demonstrates her passionate temperament through her letters to her lover Francesco Maria Maringhi, and bears witness to her despair on the death of her son and the sale of her paintings which had been seized to cover her debts. It also shows her deeper engagement with classical texts than has been realised, given that she was an autodidact. The intimate love letters reveal a nervous energy and provocative physicality which intensifies the powerful impression we gain of her as a woman from her painted portraits.
Gentileschi exploited the power of her own image. As Letizia Treves notes, she knew how to use it for her own advantage as her fame increased. Furthermore, ‘Exploiting the existing convention of personifications being represented as female, Artemisia managed successfully to merge different visual traditions’. The established emblematic figure of a woman to signify virtue, hope or justice does not necessarily imply individual identity in a work of art. A recognisable self portrait enabled Gentileschi to play with the notion of verisimilitude and to leave us guessing, unlike Rembrandt for example, whose self portraits are always only of him.
The final room of the exhibition includes the well-known Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-9) which is still the subject of debate. Even with mirrors, how could she achieve the pose? Her canvas and easel are outside the picture frame on the left and we assume she peers round them to examine her face, concentrating intensely on what she sees. Unlike many artists’ portraits of themselves at work, we cannot view both the painted individual and the painted representation she is constructing. Her right sleeve is rolled up and she leans on a bench, not dressed in protective work clothes but not in the fine lace and frills chosen for many paintings of women artists either. Elsewhere in the National Gallery, the much later portrait by Édouard Manet of his pupil Eva Gonzales (1870; NG3259) at her easel in her pure white dress is an example of the complex artifice seen as necessary in portraits of female artists. The smell of turpentine and litter of the studio could not be allowed to undermine essential feminine refinement.
Earlier in the Artemisia exhibition, we can see a male artist’s version of Gentileschi at work. The contrast is clear. Simon Vouet‘s Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi (1623-6) conforms to the ideal. Gentileschi’s unashamed voluptuous breasts have been tamed, indeed removed; her strong arms are covered up and her right hand is depicted with a delicate and feeble grip on the brush. She poses self-consciously and without conviction. She lacks the energy we expect in both her self portraits and her biblical heroines. Here, she is much closer to the passive emblematic female muse of the arts and does not appear ready to sully her white sleeves at all. However, we also sense that she is fully aware of the illusion and the cultural capital she is set to gain by the sitting. Pierre Dumonstier II’s drawing The Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush (1625) evokes Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands (1508) or Michelangelo’s studies for the hands of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512) but the gathered cuff signals the femininity of the subject. Like Vouet’s hand, this one is not accustomed to manipulating pigments and stretchers. The drawing fetishizes Gentileschi’s fame in the artist’s desembodied hand and an inscription on the reverse makes a comparison between her and the goddess Aurora, ‘The hands of Aurora are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this one is a thousand times more worthy for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture’ (Artemisia Catalogue, no.17, p.160). If destined for a collector, the fine drawing indulges his ‘rapture’ and desire to possess the most crucial part of the artist’s body, the sign of her success and the instrument of her creativity.
This exhibition is not to be missed. The overview of Gentileschi’s career is carefully presented, with revealing juxtapositions of related paintings. The National Gallery excels in its technical investigations, and this fundamental approach gives us the opportunity to understand the painter’s techniques and methods, the practical and painstaking labour of her art. We are invited to see her subjects and compositions in their cultural context and as successful works by a professional artist, so much more than the expressions of personal revenge which once shaped Gentileschi’s critical reception.
Artemisia is showing at the National Gallery until 24 January 2021. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Feature image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, about 1620-25. Private European Collection, © Photo: Dominique Provost Art Photography – Bruges.