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The exhibition of the year: Artemisia at the National Gallery

by Margaret MacKinnon


Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), about 1638-9, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019


'I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do’

(Letter from Artemisia Gentileschi to Don Antonio Ruffo, 7 August 1649)



The rain was unrelenting on Friday but it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the masked and socially-distanced art-lovers queuing outside the National Gallery to be admitted to the Artemisia exhibition on the second of two preview days before its official opening to the public. Many of us had booked tickets months earlier for the show's original inauguration back in April, and the wait had only heightened our expectations of the UK's first exhibition dedicated to this Baroque artist. Happily, these expectations were more than met by this thoughtfully curated, life affirming, exhibition.  


The story of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593 and died in Naples in 1654, is by now quite familiar. Her mother died in childbirth when she was 12 years old and only a few years later Artemisia began her artistic training in her father, Orazio's, studio. At the age of 17, Artemisia was raped by Antonio Tassi, a colleague of Orazio, who had been hired to teach Artemisia perspective. At the subsequent trial brought by Orazio against Tassi, the truth of Artemisia's testimony against him was tested and affirmed by torture.  Soon after Artemisia's 'victory', she married Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved with him to Florence where she threw herself into her career as an artist.


The works on display range from Artemisia's first known painting, Susannah and the Elders, completed in 1610, when she was just seventeen, to her final dated picture, another interpretation of the same subject, painted in 1652.  The paintings are, for the most part, arranged chronologically which allows viewers to follow Artemisia's development as an artist with regard to both technique and composition.  Susannah, a heroine painted repeatedly by Artemisia over the years, is a young woman bathing in her garden who is surprised by two lecherous old men. 


Left: Artemisia Gentileschi, Susannah and the Elders, 1610 © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden (inv. 191). Middle: Artemisia Gentileschi, Susannah and the Elders, 1622, © The Burghley House Collection. Right: Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1652, Polo Museale dell’Emilia Romagna, Collezioni della Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna © Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna (6320).



The earliest version of Susannah is remarkable not only for the technical skills it reveals, but for the emotional weight of the anguish on Susannah's face and the awkward torsion of her body as she twists away from her tormentors. Artemisia's 1622 rendering of Susannah is less dramatic. Here Susannah inclines her head toward the two elders, as if listening to their conspiratorial whispering and considering how best to protect herself from them. The third Susannah on display, from 1652, shows Susannah leaning away from the men but looking directly at them and raising her arm to ward off their assault. One of them looks taken aback by Artemisia's forthright reaction to their depravity.


Many of us had booked tickets months earlier for the show's original inauguration back in April, and the wait had only heightened our expectations of the UK's first exhibition dedicated to this Baroque artist. Happily, these expectations were more than met by this thoughtfully curated, life affirming, exhibition.  

The curatorial decisions evident in the exhibition enhance the paintings and the viewers' appreciation of them.  The selection is limited to 30 or so works, all secure in their attribution to Artemisia. Many are clearly signed and dated by the artist which attests to the pride she took in her work and also, perhaps, to her concern that they might be misattributed to Orazio or to other followers of Caravaggio, as indeed was the case with Artemisia's David and Goliath (c.1639) among others.


The rich hues of the walls on which the artworks are mounted -  deep aubergine, slate grey and ultramarine blue - showcase Artemisia's command of chiaroscuro, most evident in the stunning Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1623-5), lit by a single candle, with half of Judith's face deep in shadow. The background colours also highlight the artist's skill at rendering the luminous fabrics in which she dresses her protagonists. While in Florence, Artemisia took on debt in order to acquire the wardrobe necessary to give her entree to the highest levels of society in which she sought her patrons. These same dresses were reproduced in her works, notably in Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-9) in which the allegorical figure wears a gown of iridescent two-tone green silk. 


The two paintings of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi are set side by side in the Artemisia exhibition. © The National Gallery, London


The grouping of certain pictures, such as her various self portraits, illustrates that Artemisia followed the common and practical technique of repurposing drawings in multiple paintings.  This is used to great effect in her painting of the mythological figure Danae (1612) who is shown in the identical pose of the earlier Cleopatra (1611-12).  Both figures recline, naked, on disheveled bedclothes; while Cleopatra clutches the asp whose bite will kill her, Danae contemplates a different fate as she is visited by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold coins.  Artemisia shows her mastery of depicting the female form in the curve and weight of breasts, and the crease of an armpit.  A later rendition of Cleopatra (1633-5) is remarkable for the deathly pallor of the skin and the faint but discernible bluish tint to the queen's lips.  


The exhibition follows Artemisia as she moves from Florence, back to Rome, then on to Venice and finally Naples, the last location interrupted by a brief sojourn in London. Artemisia was well-received in all the cities in which she worked, and was given numerous commissions by aristocratic and royal patrons.  She adapted her style to the needs and prevailing fashions of her surroundings. In Naples, she worked collaboratively with other artists whose specialities complemented her own mastery of figurative painting. A large canvas of David and Bathsheba (1636-7) from that period seems to differ significantly from earlier works, but this can be explained by the collaboration of other artists who contributed the landscape and architectural elements.


Artemisia Gentileschi, David and Bathsheba, about 1636-7, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, © Columbus Museum of Art


Glimpses of Artemisia's personal life are also on display, including the original transcript of the Tassi trial which, remarkably, survives in its entirety. Artemisia's letters to Francesco Maria Maringhi, a Florentine aristocrat with whom she had a long-standing affair, disclose both her passionate nature and her anguish on the death of her son Cristofano at the age of four and a half.  Her complicated married life is further revealed in letters written by Artemisia's husband to Maringhi extolling his wife's accomplishments and popularity. It seems both husband and wife were adept at extracting financial favours from the nobleman.


Left: Solinas 2011, Letter 3, Artemisia to Francesco Maria Maringhi. Florence, 1618-19, Archivio Storico Frescobaldi, Florence, © Photo courtesy of the owner. Right: Proceedings of Agostino Tassi's trial for the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, 1612, Tribunale del governatore_Processi_sec XVII_104,  f.341v.-f.342r. © Archivio di Stato di Roma



The final room of the exhibition is devoted to Artemisia's time in London. Although she had received an invitation in 1635 from Charles I to come to London, it was not until 1638 that she moved here, principally to assist her father, Orazio, in the completion of a commission to paint the ceiling of the Queen's House at Greenwich.  After Orazio's death, Artemisia stayed in London, completing the beautiful Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting which is now part of the Royal Collection. Two large canvases vie for attention on the last wall. 


Artemisia's Esther before Ahasuerus (1628-30) radiates all her power as a mature and confident artist. Her Esther, exquisitely dressed in a delicately embroidered gown, is caught just as she faints before her husband Ahasuerus, having begged him to revoke his decree calling for the massacre of all Jews living in Persia. Her maidservants rush to take the weight of her body as she slumps towards the floor.  Ahasuerus, meanwhile, looks on in alarm, rising from his chair too late to catch her. Next to this is Orazio's Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (1630-32), a richly coloured stage set showing the moment in which Potiphar's wife's attempt to seduce Joseph is rejected and she is left holding the cloak he abandons as he flees the scene.  


Left: Orazio Gentileschi, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, about 1630-2, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019. Right: Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuereus, about 1628-30, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



To this layman's eye, Orazio's work lacks the emotion of his daughter's, and the figure of the wife does not match Artemisia's skill in representing the female form. The juxtaposition clearly demonstrates how far Artemisia's style has diverged from that of her father, teacher and rival. In order to distinguish one from the other, she has become a first-name artist, like Michelangelo and Leonardo. And while she may not lay claim to their genius, she brought a uniquely female perspective to her subject-matter, a perspective largely absent from the male-dominated art world.  


Artemisia continues to inspire us because she is an exceptional artist whose life experiences inform her work but do not define it. National Gallery curator Letizia Treves and her team deserve much credit for shaping this exhibition and bringing Artemisia's works so beautifully to life.

‘…a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen…’

(Letter from Artemisia Gentileschi to Don Antonio Ruffo, 30 January 1649)



The exhibition is curated by Letizia Treves, the National Gallery James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings. She says: “Artemisia is an inspirational figure of resilience and unbowed creativity in the face of exceptionally challenging odds. I hope that this exhibition will bring Artemisia’s artistic achievements to the fore, so that visitors can fully appreciate what a talented painter and extraordinary woman she really was.”


Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says: “The first exhibition devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi in Britain, a country she visited and worked in at the end of the 1630s, celebrates her astounding artistic achievements with a superb selection of her paintings. She was a remarkable and immensely admired artist in her lifetime and she is an inspirational figure in our own time.”

ON LINE EXTRAS FOR THE EXHIBITION


For those who are unable to visit the exhibition, or for those who wish to know more about the painter, the National Gallery website has many online extras to enjoy. Google Arts & Culture unites a selection of Artemisia's works digitally, notably the painted ceiling at Marlborough House – part of the Royal Collection - done in partnership with her father that is not publicly accessible.


The collection was also created with the ultra-high resolution Art Camera that allows users to zoom into the artwork at brushstroke-level details. This is an astonishing level of access to the paintings.


Within the online exhibition, contemporary voices such as FKA twigs and Katy Hessel discuss Artemisia’s relevance to women of today, and examine how her legacy has informed the art canon.


ABOUT THE ARTIST


Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on 8 July 1593, the only daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639). She began her artistic training with her father in 1608–9, and her earliest dated painting is from 1610. The following year an event took place that changed the course of Artemisia’s life and shaped her reputation, not just in her own times but also in the centuries which followed: she was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi (about 1580 – 1644), a collaborator of her father’s.


An infamous seven-month trial followed; every word of this case survives in a detailed court transcript that shines light on the lives of artists in the early 17th century. Tassi was condemned to choose between a punishment of five years’ hard labour or banishment from Rome (he opted for the latter, though this was never enforced). Artemisia was swiftly married off to a minor Florentine painter, Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and left Rome for Florence.


Artemisia lived in Florence from 1612/13 to 1620. Although her reputation must have preceded her arrival, Artemisia was clearly appreciated in Florence and her stay there marks an important phase in her personal and artistic development. Her paintings were both commissioned and acquired by members of the ruling Medici family. In 1620 Artemisia returned to Rome, beset by creditors after running up debts, and remained there for just under 10 years. By 1630, after a brief trip to Venice, she had settled in Naples where she ran a successful studio. In 1638 she travelled to London, possibly to assist her ailing father Orazio in painting the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich. By 1640 she had returned to Naples, where she remained until her death in or shortly after 1654.


Although during her lifetime Artemisia was regarded as one of the most accomplished painters among the followers of Caravaggio (whom she may have known personally through her father Orazio), with her works being avidly collected by the leading rulers of the day including Cosimo II de’ Medici in Florence, Philip IV in Madrid, and Charles I in London, she was only really re-evaluated in the 20th century. Today Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most important female artists of the Baroque period.


‘with me Your Lordship will not lose and you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman’

(Letter from Artemisia Gentileschi to Don Antonio Ruffo, 13 November 1649)

Artemisa

Sainsbury Wing

National Gallery, London

Showing until: 24 January 2021


Tickets must be booked in advance. Visit nationalgallery.org.uk or call 0800 912 6958 (booking fee). You can also book tickets in person from the Gallery. Overseas customers can contact the gallery by dialling +44 (0) 20 7747 2885.



ARTEMISIA AND TIMELESS TRAVELS MAGAZINE


A feature on Artemisia Gentileschi was included in the very first edition of Timeless Travels, written by Jane Fortune, founder of Advancing Women Artists.



Find out more about the content of the Summer 2014 issue or purchase a digital copy of the issue for just £3.95.


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