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Artemisia’s Revenge?

Pietro Testa, 1612–1650: Prints and Drawings (November–December 1988) by Elizabeth Cropper

catalog of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with essays by Charles Dempsey, by Francesco Solinas, by Anna Nicolò, by Francesca Consagra
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 297 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Artemisia Gentileschi and Pietro Testa were very gifted artists who worked in Italy during the first half of the seventeenth century. Both suffered great misfortune: Artemisia Gentileschi was almost certainly raped (a residue of doubt remains) by a fellow painter, Agostino Tassi, who then failed to marry her, and she was in any case publicly humiliated in the subsequent trial and forced to give her evidence under torture. Pietro Testa was prone to melancholy, failed to win recognition as a painter, and committed suicide at the age of thirty-eight. Though their works were very different in every way, both of them were for a time employed by Cassiano dal Pozzo, the most cultivated art patron in Rome, and now, after some three hundred and thirty years, their destinies have come together once again—this time on the east coast of the United States: Gentileschi is the subject of an extremely long and lavishly produced monograph published by the Princeton University Press and an important exhibition of Testa’s work took place at Philadelphia and Harvard, accompanied by an exemplary catalog.

Although the names of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck, or Claude, Poussin, and Velázquez—to name only a few celebrated painters—are today far more highly esteemed than those of any of their Italian contemporaries, it was in fact Italian art that still dominated Europe during much of the seventeenth century. Interest in that art has been developing again over the last sixty or seventy years after a long period of neglect, but with rare exceptions it was not until after the Second World War that even the major painters began to be exhibited and their achievements recorded in well-illustrated and well-cataloged volumes. The increasing (though not very great) numbers of those who admire Italian Baroque painting have had to expand their bookshelves at quite frequent intervals, but extraordinary gaps in the literature still remain: thus there are (to the best of my knowledge) no serious books—though there have been articles—on such important figures as Francesco Albani, Giovanni Lanfranco, Massimo Stanzione, or Carlo Dolci. So that when Mary D. Garrard claims, in her introduction, that the absence, until now, of any monograph on Artemisia Gentileschi can only be explained by the fact that “she was female,” many readers will surely feel tempted to dismiss out of hand a study that in fact turns out to be much more interesting than this facile comment might lead them to expect. It is, at any rate, a relief that she does not follow up this charge with the further one that Agostino Tassi, the man accused of Gentileschi’s rape, was the subject of one monograph as long ago as 1935—to be followed by a second one (written by a woman) in 1977.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her first known work—a picture of Susanna and the Elders—is dated 1610 and is so accomplished that it was long attributed to her father and teacher, the very well-known painter Orazio Gentileschi, despite the fact that it is signed by her as well as dated. The reason why her authorship had been doubted is that at the rape trial, which took place in 1612, it was claimed by Orazio that she was only fifteen: a lie which was designed to exaggerate the seriousness of Tassi’s crime and which has had the additional effect of confusing art historians until the discovery, twenty years ago, of her birth certificate by Ward Bissell. Even so, Orazio is still credited with the design of Susanna and the Elders. Artemisia worked principally in Florence, Rome, and Naples, and she also spent a year or so in London. Until now about thirty pictures have been attributed to her on grounds of style or for documentary reasons, and there must presumably be many in existence that have not yet been identified. She was well paid and highly thought of as a painter by some of the leading patrons in Europe. What appears to be her last painting was, like her first, a Susanna and the Elders, and it was dated 1652. The only record of her death comes in the form of two satirical epitaphs published in the following year.

The first serious article on Artemisia Gentileschi (and her father) dates back to 1916, and since then a number of important studies have established the main outlines of her career. Dr. Garrard adds some pictures to those that have generally been accepted as being by the artist, and she also proposes some alterations to the chronology of the principal works—alterations that have the effect of increasing their originality. But she has not provided a catalogue raisonné, and this must be considered regrettable, for such a catalog would have enabled us to test much more clearly than is at present possible Dr. Garrard’s defiant claim that “the sow’s ear of sexism has given us at least one silk purse: an art historical tool for distinguishing between male and female artists.”

In fact some of the attributions suggested in this book seem to depend on conventional methods of investigation, while others are the result of psychological assumptions that often lead thereafter to a series of circular arguments. Nonetheless, Dr. Garrard’s is a serious and scholarly monograph, even if it does not aim to satisfy all the expectations usually aroused by that genre. She wishes to demonstrate not only that Gentileschi’s stature as a painter is much greater than has generally been acknowledged (at any rate by male art historians) but also that the nature of her art was deeply affected by—indeed determined by—the fact that she was a woman, even though it certainly does not correspond to any notion of “womanly art,” and was a woman who had been brutally wronged. These are matters of considerable interest and fascination—but the problem of how to tackle them is a daunting one.

A glance at Dr. Garrard’s formidable and erudite bibliography will confirm an impression likely to be derived from even the most casual observation of much current art-historical writing: issues of this kind have been extensively debated on a theoretical as much as an empirical level. Anyone who has not followed these debates with some care runs the risk of missing significant nuances in the text and of being charged with culpable naiveté. But because this book is quite free of jargon and is not addressed to embattled specialists, it can be approached for the most part without preconceptions.

When faced with pictures from the pre-Romantic era it is, of course, even more difficult to deduce the sex, the psychology, or the attitude to subject matter of those who painted them than it is to speculate about such matters when reading the books of poets, essayists, or novelists. It is true that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries certain techniques and certain types of painting encouraged the making of certain assumptions: thus it would have been impossible to suppose that a fresco cycle could have been painted by a woman, whereas flower pictures came to be thought of as being especially suitable for female artists (I am, however, puzzled by Dr. Garrard’s apparent claim that this assumption applied also to portraits and to pictures of the Madonna). But beyond this the ground becomes very treacherous. The repertoire of acceptable themes available to the ambitious artist—religious, allegorical, literary, or historical—was a comparatively restricted one, and as often as not it was the patron rather than the painter who chose what was to be depicted, and sometimes even how it was to be depicted.

Much more important is the fact that there is little evidence to suggest that artists actually wanted to express their personalities or even their feelings (as distinct from their skills) through the medium of their works, except perhaps in the form of self-portraiture. It is true, as Dr. Garrard emphasizes, that expressive self-portraiture could in a few cases obtrude into even the most ambitious and public of public commissions. Thus in his Last Judgment on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michelangelo depicted his own features in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (though he does not seem to have told this even to his closest friends), and Caravaggio used his own head as a model for the bleeding head of Goliath held up by a victorious but meditative David—a fact that was noted not very long after his death. But such cases are rare.

Dearth of evidence has, however, not proved discouraging for biographers, for they have long been convinced by the theory (which can ultimately be traced back to late antiquity) that all artists necessarily reveal themselves in their works, whether or not they wish to do so: “le style c’est l’homme même,” in Buffon’s famous phrase. The essential clues therefore are to be found not in what was painted but in the style in which it was painted. But stylistic analysis poses difficulties which can be almost as great as those raised by an examination of subject matter, for only a thorough familiarity with the techniques and formal conventions that are prevalent in a particular milieu can enable us to gauge the individuality of an artist working within it. One has only to think of the reckless assumptions once made about El Greco’s mental stability (leaving aside the lesser problems posed by his eyesight) by writers unfamiliar with the anatomical distortions popular with other artists of the late sixteenth century to realize how complex are the issues at stake.

Nonetheless, it would be unreasonable (or at any rate unnatural) to expect art historians to refrain altogether from trying to understand just what elements in a painter’s psychology may have affected the nature of his or her talent. Thus as early as the seventeenth century the violence, or the vulgarity, of Caravaggio’s pictures was related to the irregularities of his behavior, while his more recent biographers have shown little hesitation in implying that his treatment of the male nude indicates that he himself (as well as some of his patrons) had homosexual tendencies—despite the fact that there is almost nothing in the extensive documentation concerning his scandalous way of life to encourage such a hypothesis.

The case of Caravaggio’s follower Artemisia Gentileschi is, of course, rather different. We know that she was a woman and we know enough about the fierce and competitive society of seventeenth-century Italy to realize that the fate of any woman painter who did not confine herself to the most trivial or pleasing commissions cannot usually have been an easy one; and we also know that this particular woman suffered great humiliation, intimidation, and brutality. It is true that her own career was as smooth and successful as that of any of her male contemporaries but it is nonetheless easy enough to sympathize with Dr. Garrard’s claim that the artist must surely have wished to make use of her considerable gifts to express in her principal pictures at least something of her unique experiences of life. And since Dr. Garrard shows herself acutely aware of all the general concerns about method that have so far been raised (and of many more as well) it may be worth considering her approach in the light of them.

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