John Westbrooke admires the long-forgotten work of a powerful painter at the National Gallery
Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the great artistic rediscoveries of modern times. She was famous in the early 1600s, commissioned by the crowned heads of Europe; then, for more than three centuries, she just vanished. And now, 427 years after she was born in Rome, she has her first solo show at the National Gallery.
Her father Orazio was an artist himself and, after refusing his offers to send her to a nunnery, she was apprenticed to him. Her first signed painting, Susannah and the Elders, must have been done when she was barely 17. It comes from a creepy biblical story about two old men spying on a virtuous wife and demanding that she have sex with them or they’ll accuse her of adultery. Fortunately, the holy man Daniel saves the day.
Plenty of male artists have tackled the subject, and many of them have made Susannah look unaware or perturbed (a few have her smiling). Artemisia’s Susannah, though, is horrified and contorted, her torso twisted, her arms up to protect her, as the two men leer at her, almost touching her. It’s in the baroque style associated with Caravaggio, a friend of her father (and possibly of hers too): dramatic light and shade depicting often violent moments. But Artemisia is unusual in her fierce concentration on Susannah’s anguish.
In the 1970s she started to be noticed by feminist writers like Germaine Greer, exasperated at the way art history seemed to contain almost no women at all. She proved an ideal subject: Artemisia, it turned out, wasn’t just a fine woman painter, she was an angry one, with much to be angry about, because in 1611 she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a man employed by Orazio to teach her.
When the matter came to court (the charge wasn’t rape but defloration), it was Artemisia who was tortured to test the truth of her allegation. Remarkably, the original transcript of the trial is on display in the exhibition. Cords were looped around her fingers and tightened, which could well have destroyed her ability to paint, and still she insisted “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true!” But she won, and Tassi was half-heartedly banished from Rome.
Historians are reluctant to read too much biography into her work, but it’s hard not to: she painted a lot of tough women dealing with men. In one of her most powerful paintings, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1613 – she was still only 20 or so), an Israelite woman saves her people by decapitating an Assyrian general who’s fallen asleep drunk.
Even Caravaggio, who was a killer himself, has Judith standing back as she does it. Not Artemisia. Her Judith – a self-portrait, by the look of it – is fully involved in hacking, while her maidservant holds the victim down and blood pours down his pillow. She treated the same subject again a few years later, with only minor changes, but this time the blood is spraying out towards her.
Her personal fortunes took an upward turn. She married another painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, and moved to Florence with him. Soon, she was painting for the Medici grand dukes – often under the surname Lomi, which sounded more Tuscan – and was accepted into the local art academy. She got to know Galileo, learnt to read and write, and had five children, most of whom died young.
Several self-portraits are on display from this period. They weren’t necessarily intended as self-analysis; rather, she bridled at the expense of hiring models. So she’s St Catherine, with the wheel on which she was tortured; a lute player (she may actually have played it in court); and an all-purpose female martyr .
Around 1616 she took a lover, with her husband’s knowledge. Unexpectedly, a cache of 35 letters, from both of them to Francesco Maria Maringhi, was found and published in 2011, and five of them are here. She yearns to see him again, rues putting on weight, is distraught over the death of her son, worries that he’s seeing someone else while she’s away (“Your lordship tells me that you know no other woman besides your right hand”), alludes to Ovid and Plutarch, and writes “I am yours as long as I still draw breath.” It’s rare to have such access to somebody’s voice and handwriting at this distance, compared with how little we have in her contemporary Shakespeare’s own hand.
She moved back to Rome in 1620, Venice in 1626 and Naples in 1630, and letters record her commissions from King Philip of Spain, as well as his sister the Infanta, among others. A pamphlet was published containing poems praising her works. She appears on a medallion. Another artist drew her right hand holding a brush.
By now separated from her husband, she left Naples in 1636 for a couple of years in London. Her father was working on the ceiling of the Queen’s House at Greenwich, in which Peace was painted surrounded by 12 representations of the arts. As all of them are female, it’s tempting to suppose Artemisia helped him, but there’s no evidence. The one signed work we do have from this interlude is Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, apparently painted for King Charles I (and listed in the sale catalogue drawn up after his execution at £10), and now in the Royal Collection.
It’s a striking picture, a woman seen from above her left shoulder, leaning forward and to one side to look past the blank canvas at herself in a mirror. No male could have painted it, arts were always represented by women. Oddly, though, nobody’s sure it really is a self-portrait; it doesn’t look like her others, or like any woman in her 40s, and some think it might be her daughter Prudenzia, also a painter.
Following this, she returned to Naples, painting her last Susannah in 1652, writing that she was bankrupt (she wasn’t lucky with money). and appearing in the 1654 tax records. She may have died in the plague that year, nobody knows.
It’s appropriate that she was painting women to the end, though the final Susannah is less anguished than the first. Those on display include a David and Bathsheba (another woman spied on as she bathes); a reclining nude Cleopatra with an asp in her clasp, awaiting death – and an identical Danaë being visited by Zeus as a shower of gold coins; and a Mary Magdalene, usually shown penitent but, in Artemisia’s more positive view, ecstatic.
There’s surely more to be discovered of Artemisia’s work – only one painting from two years in London? – so even after all these centuries, she’s still a work in progress. “I’ll show your most illustrious lordship what a woman can do,” she wrote to one doubtful patron, and it’s clear what she could do. We don’t know other women who’ve produced art like hers – yet.
Also at the National Gallery is a free exhibition on Sin. It’s too small to deal with the subject in much depth, but women play a major part in it, whether it’s Cranach’s nudes – his Eve looks much like his Venus – or Bronzino’s Venus sticking her tongue in Cupid’s mouth, or Steen’s woman lolling drunk while her kids get up to mischief. Want to escape its consequences? Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat is sent away into the wilderness with the tribe’s sins on its shoulders; Charlemagne in The Mass of Saint Giles, despite having done something so bad he can’t even confess it, is let off by God’s mercy, and Andy Warhol, unusual among modern artists in being devoutly Roman Catholic, advises us to repent and sin no more.
Artemisia is at the National Gallery until 24 January 2021. Tickets are £20 (concessions available) and must be booked in advance. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/artemisia
Sin runs at the gallery until 3 January 2021: free but must be booked