Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) a baroque artist, has been rediscovered in recent years. Lorraine Huddle looks at her art.
Old Mistresses’, Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, 1981, highlighted how women artists had been erased from art history in the 20th century. As the title of the book suggests, the female version of an ‘Old Master’ has a very different connotation. Female artists, if mentioned at all by art historians, were treated as aberrations of femininity and never as able as men to make serious art. It was a revelation to many of us just how many amazing women artists there had been: ‘Old Mistresses’— hidden from art history and hidden from view. Chief among them was Artemisia Gentilischi. It took several decades of argument, debate and demands by the women’s movement before women artists were taken more seriously and began to enter the major art museums and galleries. Over that time Gentilischi has been reassessed. Her self-portrait was quite recently discovered in the Queen’s collection, probably acquired by Charles 1, and lost for centuries.
She now has a major exhibition of her work, gathered from collections across the world at the National Gallery, London. The scale, the beauty and the energy of her work still vibrates down the centuries. I want to look at two of the paintings featured in the show illustrate the power of her work. Gentilischi’s father was an artist and was very influenced by Carravagio, whose dramatic baroque style he taught to his young daughter. By the age of 15, she was producing professional work. Her father boasted in a letter, “This girl, as it pleases God, I dare to say, she has no equal”. To further her talent, he sent her to work with and learn from other artists. One of them, Augostini Tassi, repeatedly raped her when she was 17.
Her father took Tassi to the Papal Court, where the young Artemisia was tortured to ascertain she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty but was pardoned by the Pope, who liked his paintings, while Artemisia was labelled ‘a lascivious and precocious girl’. It is impossible to know how the experience of the rape, torture and trial, only to see Tassi escape unpunished, shaped her art and her outlook on life. But there is no doubt, she stepped out of the mould of female expectation. In the same year as the rape trial, 1610, she painted the amazing version of ‘Suzanna and the Elders’ in her bedroom. It is a stunning painting, especially so when we consider her very young age. It portrays the biblical story of Suzanna being blackmailed by two lecherous judges, who had sneaked into her garden where she bathed in private. If she would not have sex with them, they would accuse her of adultery, a death sentence.
She refuses, telling them she is the loser whichever choice she makes. The subject was popular in the 17th century. Susanna is usually portrayed passively displaying her body, seemingly for the judgement of the men viewing her rather than for her terrible predicament at their hands. Gentilischi’s painting shows Sussana’s horror and revulsion as the men suddenly invade her physically and emotionally. She is a victimised woman, horribly wronged, rather than a passive object of beauty or sexual desire. It is thought that ‘Susanna” is Gentilischi’s first self-portrait and that she appears in many guises in her paintings, her own model. This was unheard of for women artists until well into the 20th century. Another popular biblical subject in the 17th century was the story of the Jewish heroine, Judith, who decapitated general Holofernes, leader of an invading army. After gaining access to his tent by the ruse of being offered as a hostage and in the face of dithering by the Jewish army leaders, she murders Holofernes, single-handedly defeating his army.
In this visceral, violent painting (1611) Judith and her maid are shown as powerful, strong and decisive women, bravely defending themselves against the struggling Holofernes and liberating their people. They are fully capable of an act of planned violence. It is interesting to compare it to Caravaggio’s painting of the same subject (1599). Judith has no strength and looks more worried about her lovely dress while the maid looks on. Gentilischi’s painting captures the brute force of the butchery being performed by the blood-splattered women. Gentilischi was a friend of the scientist Gallileo and no doubt, experiments found their way into her paintings! Art historians have described Gentilischi’s women as ‘gory’, animalistic’, ‘buxom’, ‘sullen’ and ‘irreligious’. They are unable, when faced with her expressive, powerful, active women, to fit her work into a ‘feminine’ stereotype: “There are no signs of femininity, weakness, gracefulness or delicacy”. She has been accused of hating men by writers who have also been appalled by her ‘amorous liaisons’, which produced four daughters, all of whom became artists. Gentilischi would have given her daughters the same message that her work gives to girls and women today: you can be independent, active and capable of being and doing anything you want against all odds.