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 and Francesco Solinas and Anna Nicolò and 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…

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