Thursday 3 December 2020

Artemisia Gentileschi: An Artist For Our Time

Artemisia Gentileschi's brilliant Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), circa 1638-9, oil on canvas, 98.6 × 75.2 cm
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

An enthralling exhibition of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi's work is now on at London's National Gallery. Simply called Artemisia, many of the show's paintings have never been seen in the United Kingdom. Working in Rome, Florence, Venice, London and Naples, Artemisia was a rare professional woman artist in the 1600s. The launch of this ground-breaking show was delayed due to Covid-19 and then closed due to the pandemic. It has just reopened this week. Story by Jeanne-Marie Cilento

Artemisia Gentileschi 
Self Portrait as a Female Martyr,
Circa 1613-14
Oil on panel 31.8 × 21.8cm
Private collection
©Photo courtesy of the owner

ARTEMISIA Gentileschi's dark, untamed hair is a leitmotif of the Roman artist's paintings, including her self-portraits. She may be wearing luxurious silks but this wild coiffure showed she was not bound by the conventions that held women back in 17th century Italy.  

The Italian artist did not live her life confined to domesticity, nor was she constrained by the fine clothes and elaborate hairstyles of the time. She worked as a sought-after, professional painter for powerful patrons, princes and kings at courts in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and London.

The energy and drama of her large works were celebrated during during her lifetime and she is one of the only successful woman painters of the Baroque age. Her Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting, created in 1638, (see main picture above) shows her vivid expressiveness as an artist. 

She demonstrates the sheer physicality of painting by the dynamic pose and composition, one arm outstretched with brush in hand, her body twisting, while she holds a palette in the other. Unusually, for the period, Artemisia also travelled extensively and this work was painted while she was a guest at the court of Charles I of England in 1638-9.

Today in Rome, a 16th century palazzo houses several of her works plus paintings by her father Orazio Gentileschi. In this context, you can see how the paintings were seen by Artemisia's contemporaries, hung in high-ceilinged rooms above richly-carved, walnut furniture. Her father's work is accomplished but sedate and classical whereas Artemisia painted arresting scenes full of action and with dynamic characters. Her father knew Caravaggio in Rome who lived nearby in Via Divino Amore. Caravaggio's exultant use of brilliantly contrasting light and shade, inspired many 17th century painters, including both Orazio and Artemisia. 

This first exhibition of her work at the National Gallery brings together paintings from public and private collections all over the world. Even in the big, open spaces of the gallery's Sainsbury Wing, Artemisia's paintings command the rooms. Her figures seem to leap from the canvas into contemporary London. Although the atmosphere and intimacy of seeing the paintings in a Baroque Roman palazzo is missing, seeing 30 of her works (there are 57 known paintings) together in one exhibition along with her letters, paints a full picture of this complex woman's life and work. 

Artemisia worked as a sought-after professional painter for princes and kings, at courts in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and London

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait 
as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 
circa 1615–17, oil on canvas, 
71.4 × 69cm ©The National Gallery, London
Two years ago, the National Gallery acquired Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (see at right), the only painting by her held by a British museum, and the inspiration for this new show of her work. The portrait cost $4.7 million and is, astonishingly, one of only 21 paintings by female artists in the gallery’s collection of more than 2,300 works.

“This is the first exhibition devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi in Britain, a country she visited and worked in at the end of the 1630s. It celebrates her astounding artistic achievements with a superb selection of her paintings," says Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, "She was a remarkable and immensely admired artist in her lifetime and she is an inspirational figure in our own time.” 

Artemisia Gentileschi was already creating accomplished paintings by the time she was fifteen and she continued to work for the next 40 years. She was highly regarded by her contemporaries, with work being commissioned by Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine, Philip IV in Madrid, and Charles I in London. She moved in artistic, aristocratic and learned circles, she even met Galileo Galilei in Florence and wrote him a letter in 1635. 

Her presence at court in Florence allowed her to meet patrons and expand her knowledge of literature, music, theatre and fashion. At a time when women would have had very few opportunities to study or work as professional artists, Artemisia was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence. Today, Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most important artists of the Baroque period yet she disappeared from view after the 18th century until she was rediscovered in the 20th century. 

"She was a remarkable and immensely admired artist in her lifetime and she is an inspirational figure in our own time.” 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith beheading Holofernes, 
Circa 1612-13, oil on canvas, 158.8 × 125.5cm.
Napoli, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte. 
©Luciano Romano 

“Artemisia is an inspirational figure of resilience and unbowed creativity in the face of exceptionally challenging odds," says Letizia Treves, the curator of the National Gallery exhibition. "I hope that this exhibition will bring Artemisia’s artistic achievements to the fore, so that visitors can fully appreciate what a talented painter and extraordinary woman she really was.” 

Artemisia's paintings tell stories and she drew on myths and allegories from the Bible and ancient history. Her paintings often depict powerful female heroines. She brings their strength and emotion out especially in famous works like Judith Slaying Holofernes (see at left) which she painted twice, with a cinematic depiction of a violent and bloody scene. 

A highlight of the exhibition, the two paintings are hung together for the first time, showing the harrowing scene of Judith beheading Holofernes. The women are determined, Judith's maidservant holding the Assyrian general Holofernes down, while her mistress has the sword in one hand and his hair clasped in the other, as blood splashes her blue silk gown and streams down the white sheets. "The visceral violence of these paintings has frequently been interpreted as Artemisia taking revenge in paint, translating onto canvas her own experience of physical attack," says Letizia Treves. 

"Artemisia is an inspirational figure of resilience and unbowed creativity in the face of exceptionally challenging odds."

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant,
Circa 1623-5, oil on canvas. 184 × 141.6cm.
©The Detroit Institute of Arts
Ten years later she painted another work on the same theme, one of four all together, Judith and Her Maidservant, considered to be her masterpiece (see at right). Believed to have been painted painted between 1623 and 1625, the biblical story is from the Book of Judith. 

After Judith seduces and murders Holofernes, the maidservant wraps the severed head with Judith keeping watch, sword still in hand, the candlelight playing across the women's faces.

Here Artemisia uses chiaroscuro to put Judith's face into dramatic focus with the single light source. This tenebrism, from the Italian tenebroso meeting dark and mysterious, is a way of painting that was particularly beloved of 17th century artists, using strong contrasts of light and shade to create highly-charged,  atmospheric scenes. Again, Artemisia uses the rich hues of the gowns in gold, deep-blue and purple as well as the dark-red velvet drapery to heighten the conflict, tension and passion. 

Judith was seen as a symbol of righteousness in the 16th and 17th centuries. Catholics saw Judith's conquest of Holofernes as representing victory over Protestantism, truth over heresy, during the Counter-Reformation. More personally, it has been argued that Judith beheading Holofernes, is a representation of her feelings about the attack on her by her father's friend, artist Agostino Tassi, when she was a girl. 

This exhibition shows for the first time in the United Kingdom, the original transcript of the trial in which Tassi is charged with ‘deflowering’ Artemisia Gentileschi. The Latin and Italian transcript is from 1612 and is held at the Archivio di Stato in Rome. The pages are left open at Monday May 14th 1612 at the National Gallery show, when Artemisia faces Tassi at the Tor di Nona prison in Rome. 

The artist uses the rich hues of the gowns in gold, deep-blue and purple and dark-red velvet drapery to heighten the tension. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susannah and the Elders
1622, oil on canvas.161.5 × 123cm
©The Burghley House Collection
In 1611, Orazio Gentileschi was working with Tassi to decorate the vaults of the Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. In May, Tassi visited Artemisia's family home when she was alone and raped her. There was a seven-month trial and this is recorded in the long court transcript exhibited in London. Tassi had the choice of five years’ hard labour or exile from Rome (the latter, which he chose, was not enforced). 

Artemisia had to confirm her statement about the rape under what was called ‘judicial torture’. During the 17th century, testimonies were established by using this appalling method. Artemisia had to agree to go through with it: ‘Yes sir I am ready to confirm my testimony again under torture and wherever necessary,’ she is recorded as having said during the trial. 

This method was called sibille, where cords were looped around the fingers and tightened. Since she was a painter and used her hands for her work, this must have been torturous mentally as well as physically. 

The description of the case includes Artemisia's words after her description of the attack by Tassi: ‘È vero è vero è vero’ (‘It is true, it is true, it is true'). After the trial, Artemisia's father quickly married her off to a Florentine painter, Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi and the couple left Rome for Florence. The trial not only effected Artemisia’s life but her reputation and gave her a notoriety in her own time and in the centuries to follow. 

Four years after her marriage, she took a wealthy aristocratic Florentine lover, called Francesco Maria Maringhi. We know about the affair today, because 36 letters she wrote between 1616 and 1620 were discovered by Francesco Solinas in 2011. They are held at the Archivio Storico Frescobaldi in Florence. The National Gallery included them in the show as they depict Artemisia's quotidian life in Florence. This is the the first time they have been seen outside of Italy. 

Artemisia was subjected to a type of torture called sibille where cords are looped around the fingers and tightened.

Artemisia Gentileschi Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, circa1620-25.  
Oil on canvas, 80 × 106cm. Private European collection
© Photo: Dominique Provost Art Photography - Bruges
Artemisia's husband, Pierantonio Stiattesi, apparently knew of the relationship between his wife and her lover. The letters show that he corresponded with Maringhi, writing on the back of Artemisia's passionate missives.

Maringhi provided financial support to the couple and was a wealthy patron. However, by 1620, news had reached the Florentine court about the affair and husband and wife returned to Rome. 

Artemisia, born in Rome in 1594, began her training as an artist when she was teenager, working with her father at his studio and workshop. Her earliest known painting is dated to 1610, entitled Susannah and the Elders (see image above) and shows a woman as an unwilling victim of two lascivious men. This was a theme she painted at least twice in her career and this first one is the most dramatic and emotive, even though she was only sixteen years old. 

The scene shows a distressed Susannah with two men looming above her while she is bathing. Although this was a well-known theme painted during the Baroque period, Artemisia paints it with a great depth of feeling, showing the woman's real anguish, unlike other versions of the subject painted by men, which portray Susannah as flirtatious rather than fearful.

Artemisia began her training as an artist when she was teenager, working with her father at his studio and workshop.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Danaë, circa 1612.
Oil on copper, 41.3 × 52.7cm.
©Saint Louis Art Museum
The National Gallery exhibition is arranged chronologically, starting with Artemisia’s studies in Rome under the guidance of her father Orazio. 

Along with the painting of Susannah, the first room includes her painting of Cleopatra (about 1611-12) and Danaë (see at right).  

Danaë was created when Artemisia was only 19 years old and yet her painting is masterly. Both the reclining figure and the rich fabrics are depicted with a sure hand. 

The skin is luminous, the deep red of the bedcover, the blue of the dress and the falling glint of gold all make a strong counterpoint in tone and texture. The painting is based on the the ancient Greek story of Danaë who is impregnated by Zeus, king of the gods, who transforms himself into a golden rain. 

Artemisia often used herself as a model in paintings and this was also useful as a way to promote herself and her work. The section of the National Gallery exhibition that covers the Florentine period includes three works based on herself. These all date from the mid-1610s: Self Portrait as a Female MartyrSelf Portrait as a Lute Player and Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. There are strong autobiographical themes in her paintings and this can be seen especially in the work she did in Florence where lived for eight years, until 1612. 

The artist often used herself as a model in paintings and this was also useful as a way to promote herself and her work. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player 
1615-18, oil on canvas, 77.5 × 71.8cm
©Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut 
The painting, Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (see at right) is thought to have been painted for Grand Duke Cosimo II de'Medici. It was originally held in the Medici Collection. 

The painting is very engaging, Artemisia gazes out directly at the viewer, unsmiling but wistful as her hands pluck at the beautifully-painted lute. Her intransigent hair is wrapped in a white and gold turban. 

A blue, silk gown with voluminous sleeves drapes from her arms and the low bodice shows her decolletage. This work demonstrates her painterly skill and shows how she had developed her own particular style by this stage in her career. 

The painting passed through a number of private collections over the centuries. But by 1998, it was rediscovered in a European collection and acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut in 2014. 

Artemisia spent the last 25 years of her life in Southern Italy, in the capital of Campania. She established a studio in Naples with her artist daughter Prudenza, the only surviving child of her five children. Artemisia also began to paint and collaborate with other leading artists, working on large-scale altarpieces. There are two present in the exhibition, the Annunciation (1630)  and Saint Januarius in the Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (1635)  from the Cathedral Basilica San Procolo in Pozzuoli, a seaside suburb of the city. 

Artemisia's 'Self-Portrait as a Lute Player' was painted for Grand Duke Cosimo II de'Medici

Artemisia Gentileschi, Corisca and the Satyr. 
Circa 1635-7, oil on canvas155 × 210cm
Private collection, Italy.
©Photo courtesy of the owner
Another key work she created in Naples, between 1635 and 1637, is the large painting Corisca and the Satyr, that depicts a riveting scene of escape, once more with a woman as the central character in the drama. 

Inspired by writer Giovanni Battista Guarini's 16th century play called Il Pastor Fido, Artemisia paints Corsica as a nymph who is given a beautiful gown and sandals by a satyr who is trying to seduce her. But when he reaches out to grasp her hair he is only left clutching a wig as she runs away. 

This was another of Artemisia's paintings that has only recently been discovered, in 1989. It was originally believed to be by another female artist called Annella de Rosa. However, when the work was cleaned, the signature of Artemisia Gentileschi could be seen clearly on the trunk of the tree in the background, behind the satyr. 

The painting shows Artemisia's virtuosity in capturing movement and emotion and her ability to render the gold of the dress and the rose-red silk cloak in scintillating naturalism along with the stylish, blue ribbons of the laced sandals. The picture is a brilliant evocation of fashion in 1630s Italy. 

Her large painting 'Corisca and the Satyr' depicts another dramatic scene with a woman as the central character

Artemisia Gentileschi Esther before Ahasuereus, circa 1628-30
Oil on canvas. 208.3 × 273.3 cm
©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
An interesting major work that has also survived from her Naples period is the large-scale work, Esther before Ahasuerus, painted between 1628-30.  By this time Artemisia was the most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century, after she her stints in Rome, Florence and Venice. 

The painting is complex and ambitious in composition and story-telling. The scene shows the biblical heroine Esther, fainting before her husband King Ahasuerus of Persia, as she begs him to stop a Jewish massacre. 

Artemisia creates the drama of the scene with the interaction between the king and his wife. The king leans keenly forward, gazing at Esther as she is supported by two maidservants. The painting is given a contemporary edge as all of the characters are wearing fashionable 17th century dress. Ahasuereus wears a striped, velvet doublet in green and white with matching hose and Esther is dressed in an elaborate gold gown with an embroidered bodice, enormous puffed sleeves and a blue sash. It is not known who originally commissioned the painting in Naples. Today, it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after it was acquired by donation in 1969.

The National Gallery show ends with Artemisia's travels to London where she meets her father. While she is at the court of Charles I of England, she paints her superb Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting in 1638-9 (see main picture). Today the picture hangs in the Royal Collection in London and is considered one of her best works. The painting evinces the vigorous passion Artemisia brought to her work and her life as a female artist in a man's world. Reaching across four centuries, her superlative work is still compelling and she has become an icon of struggle and success for all women artists.

Artemisia is at London's National Gallery until January 24th 2021

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