The half-stripped woman picked out against the dark in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia is viewed from above, yet as I stand before this yard-high canvas, she seems to bear down on me. Light, here, is weight: the gleam on shoulder, knee, breasts, arm, and neck presses on my eye and there is no distance from the presented flesh. I have to do with this stout woman as if I were wrestling or embracing her. For whether you interlock with someone in anger or desire, that person will always possess a separate life, will, mind, and narrative, and so it is here. Lucretia tugs not at me but at the dark above, at God. Her prayer, stab-sharp, convulses not only her temples and the hand that clutches a dagger, but the whole rough thrash of limbs, gown, and sheets that fills this single-minded canvas.
It is no surprise, if I turn to the wall text in the gallery, to read that Lucretia was a lady who, having been raped by her husband’s kinsman, resolved on suicide to redeem her own body’s dishonoring and to set other wives an example. (Livy tells the tale in his history of ancient Rome, common reading in early-seventeenth-century Italy.) Let me no more be available, Lucretia’s prayer might read. It is her own hand, not a man’s, that grabs the soft warm mass of breast that must be pierced, her fingers parting around its nipple. But you are available, Lucretia: the paint thrusts you forward, and I gaze on, unsettled.
Lucretia is one of thirty-two oil paintings that have been brought together for the exhibition “Artemisia” at the National Gallery, London. Further wall texts explain that a couple of these are by the painter’s father and teacher, Orazio Gentileschi, and that one, a portrait of her, is by her friend Simon Vouet: manuscript letters and other biographical items add to the display. Lit up within galleries painted deep shades of purple, red ochre, and blue, the assembled canvases, many of them grand in scale and ambition, make a ravishing impression—one, I should add, that has disoriented me in more than one way.
Amplitude, however, is the keynote. Artemisia Gentileschi, who began life in Rome in 1593 and died in Naples some sixty-one years later, was par excellence a painter of “the figure”—the world-centering human body, that is, a presence suffused with dramatic and emotional charge whether or not we know its name. Addressing her work to the civic elites and petty autocracies of Baroque Italy, she brought a rousing new exuberance to this mainstay of the national tradition that had run from Giotto through to Titian.
That somatic loudness blasts out at many a juncture in the National Gallery’s review of Artemisia’s career, not least in Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, Lucretia’s neighbor on the wall. Here (in a canvas similar in size but landscape in format) we encounter another woman in the privacy of the night, in another swooping close-up on bright flesh en déshabille, but God is no longer out there in the dark beyond. Rather, this redeemed sinner is throwing her body backward, surrendering beneath closed eyelids to a transcendent consummation within. With its exclusive focus, the picture seemed to catch at the present viewer and ask him how it would be, to be that woman and to enter such a state.
And this was a form of frisson I experienced repeatedly at the show—more pointedly, perhaps, because I am male. For these figures are predominantly female, and the most sensational paintings here, the two versions of the large-scale night scene Judith Beheading Holofernes, demand that you feel on the one hand for a man whose neck is being sliced open and on the other for the resolute duo—the Hebrew heroine and her accomplice, Abra—who force him down, supine yet flailing on the bed he’d meant Judith to share, causing his lifeblood to soak its sheets. Seeing the strength in Judith’s arms as she assassinates the Hebrews’ enemy in his own tent, I am frightened by her, and at the same time my muscles tauten in sympathy. The frisson twists beyond that, however. Above the low neckline of Judith’s gown, the candlelight emphasizes her cleavage. These images of female force also work the customary transactional tension between the sexes, work it hard and knowingly. That Mary Magdalene possesses, as the exhibition curator Letizia Treves remarks in the catalog, a “powerful eroticism.”
The sexual signals are chiefly transmitted by creamy impastos; refinement of line counts for little in the Lucretia and the Magdalene. For these figures seem more or less directly transcribed, body part by body part, straight from the model, without reference to preparatory drawings. This radically immediate method was launched by Caravaggio in 1590s Rome and taken up, with an energizing effect on his previously cautious practice, by Orazio Gentileschi after he became friends with the famous innovator around the year 1600. The twelve-year-old Artemisia’s mother died in 1605, and Caravaggio fled Rome a year later. Orazio, by then in his forties, acquired a reputation subsequently as a difficult loner, and his work, for all its finesse, made only a modest mark on the competitive Roman art scene. Nonetheless, his eldest child chose—as had several Italian painters’ daughters before her, notably Tintoretto’s child Marietta Robusti and the Bolognese portraitist Lavinia Fontana—to take up her father’s profession, and by her nineteenth year she was showing such a mastery of its Caravaggio-inflected vocabulary that Orazio could boast she had “no equal.”
Her father was advertising his daughter’s abilities to the grand duchess of his native Tuscany at a point when Artemisia had reason to leave Rome. She had been raped the previous year by Agostino Tassi, a painter colleague of Orazio’s almost twice her age, and the lengthy court process that resulted had exposed all the parties involved to much humiliation—in Artemisia’s case extending to torture by thumbscrews, to test whether she would stick to her testimony. As soon as Tassi was convicted in late 1612 (and given a sentence of exile that he would soon evade), Artemisia was married off to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a conveniently available Florentine citizen by whom she would have several children (only one of whom survived to adulthood) and who seems mainly to have busied himself as his wife’s promoter.
In Florence Artemisia was able to advance her career with outstanding success. The city’s rulers hired her; she was the first woman admitted to its Accademia delle Arti del Disegno; she became friends with Galileo. To my eyes, it makes best sense to suppose that the pictures I’ve mentioned were conceived either before or at the outset of her seven years in Florence, but the evidence is indeterminate, and others argue that some of them postdate her return to Rome in 1620. A celebrity by this stage, she seems soon after to have discarded Stiattesi.
There is consistency to Artemisia’s career—which took her, in her mid-thirties, to Venice for three years, after which Naples became her base—in that she returned repeatedly to female figures who are at once self-willed and sexually charismatic. There is also a stylistic mobility and a diversity of dramatic tone that have been apt to bemuse art historians. (Keith Christiansen of the Met once provocatively dubbed Artemisia a “chameleon.”) Chronologically, the paintings in the National Gallery show begin and end with contrasting large canvases of Susannah and the Elders, that tale from the Apocrypha of a virtuous wife cornered by lecherous intruders while bathing in her garden. The first, which the Roman teenager signed ARTIMITIA GENTILESCHI 1610, is an unforgettably somber variation on Orazio’s own variations on Caravaggio. Under a stark sky and against stern masonry, the two malign males cluster in a human heap that threatens to crush the awkward and acutely palpable young bather seen cowering below.
Forty-two years later, the veteran of the Neapolitan art scene set up another battle of the sexes—but in this one, a half-draped Susannah is seen to be winning. Her cocked chin and raised arm effortlessly rebuke the roués. Her contours now cut a harmonious classical rhythm, and the molesters half-recoil as they clutch a balustrade. It looks to me as if they had for their models two mischievous and obliging friends of the artist. Her high spirits also show in a Naples canvas featuring a wonderfully bleary Lot being plied with wine by his daughters, while the nine-foot-wide history painting Esther Before Ahasuerus pits comedy against pathos: a foppish monarch clutches the armrests of his throne, caught between confusion and compassion as his tragic heroine of a wife faints into the arms of her maids.
Between those early and late Susannahs, there is a third, borrowed from an English country house and dated 1622. It includes a lyrical late-evening sky of the kind that Guercino, Artemisia’s colleague in the Rome of that era, loved to paint. But its highlights fall on a voluptuous naked blond, whose attempt to clutch at a chemise while raising a “Heaven help me!” sigh seems tokenistic at most, effectively inviting the viewer to sympathize with the lustful designs of the elders who lean close behind. The two scholars who have done most to establish an Artemisia for our age have had trouble with this canvas. Puzzling over its style and facture, the late Raymond Ward Bissell (to whom the catalog is dedicated) declared in his catalogue raisonné of 1999 that it “cannot be made to fit” any model of the painter’s development.
That verdict seems less than obvious in the present exhibition. In the studios of 1620s Rome, we sense, the thumping bodily directness of Caravaggio continued to reverberate, but painters were now bending back its brutality into forms of captivating spectacle, a mood swing with which this Susannah surely aligns. It seems next of kin to the exhibition’s high point of optical splendor, a six-foot-tall chiaroscuro composition borrowed from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The figures in this—another Judith and Abra, now seen about to steal from the hostile camp with their severed head—are dressed in sumptuous fabrics, and a thrilling balance is struck between what can’t be seen and what can: between whatever startles them into peering, alarmed, offstage, and the self-sufficient feast of rich color spread out by their tensed and ruckled attire.
That country-house Susannah has faced an alternative resistance from Mary Garrard, a rather different style of scholar from Bissell. The title of Garrard’s groundbreaking 1989 book, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, may be enough to suggest why she deemed that image, with its sentimental sexiness, “sharply out of character.” Garrard, while examining the historical evidence as intently as Bissell, has also focused on art history’s purposes, asking what political import the past might have for the present.
Her new publication bears an equally stirring title: Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe. That coupling of themes addresses a question that may occur to us after viewing the National Gallery exhibition. Here is one of the very few seventeenth-century women to paint large-scale narrative canvases and by far the most professionally successful of them; moreover, her pictures are broadly celebratory of female self-confidence and agency. There is a natural wish to hail her for her exceptionality and, for that matter, to be outraged by it, as an indicator of a long history of gender inequality. But then we might wonder: How did this isolated phenomenon actually arise? Does the modern term “feminism” help account for it, or are we in danger of historical mistranslation?
Garrard points out that there was a great deal of seventeenth-century discourse to which that label would adhere. For instance, early drafts of Arcangela Tarabotti’s radical tract Paternal Tyranny were “already circulating” in Venice—the most free-thinking of Italian cities—when Artemisia arrived there in 1627, and the brother-in-law of this controversialist was a client of the painter’s. If Artemisia’s fame predated her arrival in Venice, this was partly thanks to the patronage of the gynocracy—the mother of the ailing Duke of Tuscany, together with his wife—that effectively governed Florence during her years there. There were further contemporary models of female empowerment, notably Marie de’ Medici, the queen of France, to whom, according to Garrard, the majestic Detroit Judith alludes.
Was it, then, an open door at which Artemisia was pushing when she offered clients the novelty of a history painter who happened to be a woman? It is true that her patrons remained mostly private rather than institutional, even if during her Neapolitan years she delivered some altarpieces of rather stuttering conviction. But from her twenties onward, resistance to her renown seems to have been marginal. We merely hear her rival Giovanni Lanfranco sniping in 1637 that however bad a woman’s painting might be, it would fetch a price three times as high as a man’s.1
It is unlikely that Lanfranco had anyone else in mind. Artemisia was effectively unique in the circles in which she operated. To ask why is to wonder what kind of a person she was. Can we look to her self-portraiture for answers? The exhibition includes a twelve-inch-high panel in which the young Artemisia—holding the palm leaf that traditionally identifies Christian martyrs—examines herself soberly while demonstrating the delicacy of her brushwork. (While her easel performances are typically large, bold, and vigorous, she could also downsize, painting intimately and tenderly.) On an adjacent canvas, the same three-quarter-view physiognomy appears, but now it belongs to a sassy lutenist flaunting her curves and satins to the Florentine court. On two canvases beyond, that face returns again, assigned—since its bearer puts her hand to a wheel—to Saint Catherine.
Where does Artemisia “herself” start and stop? That threatens to become an unending conundrum, the more you read commentaries on the work. At a later stage in her career, on a visit to the English court of Charles I, the middle-aged artist painted an overhead view of a young woman vigorously applying a brush to a bare canvas. By her gold chain and pendant we know this figure to be La Pittura: she is an allegory of “Painting,” that is, but one who is uniquely corporeal and assertive of female agency. It seems to me impossible, both for reasons of age and of feasible angles of vision, that Artemisia was employing her own likeness in this powerful feminist icon, yet the London exhibition follows most authorities in treating it as a self-portrait. Many go further and claim that by some prestidigitation or other with mirrors, rather than by the use of models she elsewhere refers to, Artemisia was presenting her own naked body in the 1610 Susannah and even in that Lucretia from Milan. On every gallery wall, then, we will find that it is Artemisia who confronts us.
In a catalog essay, the art historian Elizabeth Cropper gives this approach a theoretical gloss, explaining that in an age when “the embodied passions, their expression and their representation, were the very substance of life and art,” Artemisia was able to achieve a “special consubstantiality of her art and her person.” Cropper’s eloquence half pulls me along. Yes, much of what we see here is a woman painting pictures about the texture of being a woman. And yes, I am made to feel how precarious is the tenet on which I myself as a male painter grew up: that the work ought to speak for itself, irrespective of its maker. Nonetheless, common sense fights back. Is it certain that we always know whose art we are looking at? By no means. It is not simply that in Naples, Artemisia was often collaborating with male colleagues, to an extent that remains uncertain, or that, as already noted, Garrard has cast doubt on canvases that seem out of character for a painter of “the female hero.” It is that the most “heroic” works are themselves under contest.
There is no evidence to exclude and much to allow the possibility that a teenager still living at home with her father would have had some help from him in executing the five-and-a-half-foot-high Susannah of 1610. There seems no sure way of telling whether a large nude Cleopatra attributed in London to Artemisia should not be assigned to Orazio, as it was when the two painters were exhibited together at the Met in 2001. The uncertainty deepens if we listen to the seicento expert Gianni Papi, who also gives to Orazio the previously discussed Lucretia. Still more so, if—as Bissell finally decided, after a lifetime of looking—the earlier version of the famous Judith Beheading Holofernes (the canvas that is currently on loan from Naples) was not, as has been commonly assumed, the cathartic imaginative revenge of a rape victim, but rather a creation of her father’s.2
In the light of such skepticisms, a robustly physical exhibition takes on the shimmer of a mirage, as if a personality effect dubbed “Artemisia” had been conjured up by curatorial legerdemain. Groping for a reliable handrail, the present reviewer finds himself probing the relevant arguments and noting that, as often in art history, there is not quite enough hard evidence to prove any case conclusively, meaning that the advocacy has to proceed by more or less moral means—both by the author forging a personal rhetoric and narrative, and by the ascription of a distinctive character to the artists discussed.
On these lines, Treves introduces two indubitable Orazios for the sake of comparison: the wall text encourages us to note that the daughter had stronger dramatic instincts than her father, who delivered remarkable surface effects but whose figures “remain curiously impassive.” (That ignores what is humane and lovable in the art of the prickly Orazio, but then this is not his exhibition.) More revealingly, the information that we fail to obtain from the expedient recycling of the picture-maker’s own features—namely, what kind of person we might hope to meet, were we to encounter her socially—emerges when we turn to a set of exhibited autograph letters.
The addressee was Francesco Maria Maringhi, a rich young heir with sway at the Tuscan court. “Mio carisimo core,” writes the wife of Pierantonio Stiattesi from somewhere across Florence, “my dearest heart,” I need you so much, come now, I can’t wait! A later, equally swift-driven scrawl thanks Maringhi for assuring her that since they parted, there has been no woman in his life except his right hand: yet she badly envies that hand (since “it possesses that which I cannot possess myself”) and urges him not to use it while gazing at her portrait, for that would be “a great sin,” and she cares for his soul no less than for his body. But the correspondence also makes it clear that all the while, she needs—no less urgently—Maringhi’s money and his influence, because she and Pierantonio have run up debts by their high living and gained enemies at court; and, furthermore, that all the while the distinctly unambitious Pierantonio knows about and is complicit in the resulting tangle of needs.
The joy of these letters, which were only discovered in 2012, is the way they counteract the hitherto dominant formula for the story of Artemisia, one that was fixated on the atrocious experiences of her rape and the subsequent trial. In their chutzpah and bold greed for life, her appeals to Maringhi make a fine verbal analogue for the visual personality that seems to spring from the National Gallery’s walls—a devil-may-care self-reinventor, rather than a traumatized victim. Talking to another Florentine courtier, this young go-getter spun a yarn about her early days in Rome. (He would write it up in a book of women’s lives.) I lodged in a convent where the nuns gave me Caravaggios to copy, she told Cristofano Bronzini; that’s how I became an artist, even though Dad would have none of it.3 This persiflage had purpose. Measure me against the great renovator who was the hero of my childhood, Artemisia was proposing, because I’m not the sort who asks for pity. Accept that yardstick, and you may find as you leave this exhibition that painter to painter, Artemisia has stood up more than well.
This telling remark is quoted (but only in paraphrase) in Artemisia Gentileschi in a Changing Light, edited by Sheila Barker (Harvey Miller, 2017), p. 23. ↩
See Raymond Ward Bissell, “Orazio e non Artemisia? Lo studio dei Gentileschi verso il 1610,” in Caravaggismo e naturalismo nella Toscana del seicento, edited by Pierluigi Carofano (Banecchi and Vivaldi, 2009), pp. 13–31. I am grateful to Jacob Willer for alerting me to this article. ↩
See Sheila Barker, “The First Biography of Artemisia Gentileschi: Self-Fashioning and Proto-Feminist Art History in Cristofano Bronzini’s Notes on Women Artists,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Vol. 60, No. 3 (2018). ↩