On ViewThe National Gallery
October 3, 2020 – January 24, 2021
Just as some books and films about Vincent van Gogh call him “Vincent,” responding in a very personal way to his art, so the title of this show devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) identifies her as a feminist hero by using just her first name. As the catalogue exhibition essay by Francesco Solinas says, she was a famously “strong and combative” woman whose “unbridled ambition for success, wealth and higher social standing” made her famous and successful during her lifetime.1 But reaching that goal took heroic struggle and for a long time, Baroque painting and art by women was marginalized.
Rudolf Wittkower’s canonical survey, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 – 1750 (1958), an important pioneering account of the Italian Baroque, called Gentileschi “an artist of high caliber and fierce temperament” but reproduces just one of her paintings.2 In the catalogue for a 1971 Cleveland Museum of Art show, Caravaggio and His Followers, Richard Spear states that a painter “was accused of ‘raping’ Artemisia—‘many, many times!’”3 Today, no scholar would dare describe her rape so casually or refuse to take her seriously by using such dismissive terms.
Life was often dangerous for women in pre-modern times. When Gentileschi was 12, her mother died in childbirth and so the artist had to raise her three younger brothers. As her father was an artist, she was able to apprentice, but only able to study in the workshop, never about contemporary public art like her male contemporaries. Later, her father’s colleague raped her. Gentileschi continued the relationship with her rapist under the false impression that he would marry her. But then, without consulting her, her father pressed charges; it turned out that her rapist already had a wife. Her father then had her married off to another man. Later, when Gentileschi found that husband disappointing, she took a lover, becoming both emotionally assertive and financially independent as her career flourished.
This display of 36 paintings, works on paper, and letters by Gentileschi includes many images of empowered women. There are six paintings of Judith and Holofernes, two of Susannah and the Elders, two each of Cleopatra and St. Catherine, and one each of Danaï, a female martyr, and Lucretia. These subjects and her treatment of them are often personal. Given the obvious autobiographical significance of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith, it’s unsurprising that Gentileschi’s version is more realistic than Caravaggio’s earlier image. His Judith is a dainty-looking girl, while hers is a feisty butcher. As for her Susannah, she’s presented as a humiliated victim of the male voyeurs. It’s marvelous that her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c. 1638–39) depicts her in a self-referential picture, for that work comments on her double role as artist and artist’s subject.
Gentileschi’s larger narrative paintings are more uneven than these works focused on one female actor. In Esther before Ahasuerus (c. 1622–30) Esther pleads that her husband Ahasuerus not massacre the Persian Jews. This painting, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has always puzzled me. My problem, perhaps, is that Esther, who earlier has acted heroically, here un-assertedly faints away, supported by two ladies-in-waiting. And if Lot and his Daughters (c. 1636–38) is also strange, that’s surely because this story in which the women seduce their father is genuinely strange. But Annunciation (c. 1630), an effective, unconventional version of a familiar scene, and The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1635), a striking and original composition, are masterpieces.
If your model of a Baroque Italian painter is someone who paints vast ceilings—like Pietro da Cortona or Luca Giordano—or who does altarpieces with many figures—like Bernardo Cavallino or Mattia Preti—then Gentileschi’s choice of subjects will seem surprisingly limited. In that way, she is akin to Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, whose joint Madrid exhibition I reviewed recently for the Rail. In the 17th century it was apparently impossible for even the most talented female painters to access the training and resources needed to pursue such large-scale narrative works. And, no doubt, it was much harder for women to win such commissions and study from live models. In any event, Gentileschi never learned to fresco and most of her strongest paintings only feature a couple of figures.
Despite her access to certain opportunities, along with Caravaggio (1571–1610), Gentileschi is a Baroque painter who speaks to the present. Queer scholarship has supported his recent apotheosis, while feminist studies have elevated her life and art. Like Carvaggio, Genileschi has been the subject of numerous films and novels, as well as a vast body of art historical literature. It is impossible to understand Gentileschi’s heroic life or the present-day relevance of her art without awareness of this recent commentary, which has focused attention on both her life and her art.
I planned to visit this exhibition, whose opening has been postponed. Now, since such travel is impossible, I rely upon the reasonably priced, fully illustrated catalogue and memories of the Metropolitan Museum of Art show of Gentileschi and her father Orazio Gentileschi, held in spring 2002. All of the catalogue essays are excellent, but having six closely focused on her career inevitably leads to narrative overlaps. Since many of her works reproduced alongside the essays are not in the show, a summary of her oeuvre would be helpful. To what extent, I wonder, does this selection of paintings bias this interpretation of her oeuvre? Since her letters are discussed, a translation of some would have been interesting. And, finally, for the general reader, more information about the social history would be useful. Artemisia Gentileschi is an important artist and so she deserves the support needed to make her exemplary art and life as accessible as possible.
- Francesco Solinas, “‘Bella, pulita, e sensa macchia’: Artemisia and her letters,” Artemisia, exhibition catalogue (London: National Gallery, 2020), 54, 59.
- Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 – 1750 (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1973), 357.
- Richard E. Spear, Caravaggio and His Followers (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 96.