A Great Creative Artist, Not Just A Victim

A new Rome exhibition reveals how Artemisia Gentileschi bravely reshaped her life and art

Alasdair Palmer

Artemisia Gentileschi is probably the most famous woman painter from Italy. She may be the most famous woman painter from anywhere. Her fame has both helped and hindered her artistic reputation: it has helped it because it has drawn attention to her work; it has hindered it because the source of her fame is less her art than the rape she suffered, and the public trial which followed it. That rape has been treated as the key to her development as an artist, and to be the source of her most famous image: her violent depiction of Judith decapitating Holofernes as her maidservant holds him down.

One result of the focus on that image has been that Artemisia has been defined as a victim of sexual crime. In the 19th century, she was trashed. The travel writer and critic Anna Jameson wrote in 1834 that Judith Decapitating Holofernes was a “dreadful picture . . . proof of [Artemisia’s] genius and its atrocious misdirection”. By the 20th, it had transformed her into a feminist icon: an artist who, in Germaine Greer’s formulation, “developed an ideal of heroic womanhood. She lived it and she portrayed it.” Other critics, such as the American academic Mary Garrard, have evaluated Artemisia’s output according to the extent that it portrays “powerful heroines”. Professor Garrard thinks that there is a falling-off in quality in her later years because she started painting “beautiful and luxurious female images that were quite different from the powerful heroines who distinguish her earlier career”.

The current exhibition of Artemisia’s work at the Palazzo Braschi in Rome, which runs until May 7, is particularly welcome because it eschews the attempt to define Artemisia by what happened to her on that awful day in May 1611 when she was raped by Agostino Tassi. That is a very marked contrast to the previous major exhibition in Italy of Artemisia’s work (in Milan, in 2011), whose first room consisted of dimmed lighting and an unmade bed where the visitor heard an actress reading extracts from the vivid testimony that Artemisia gave during Tassi’s trial for raping her. The result was to reduce Artemisia’s life and work to that one event — and it diminished her considerably as a consequence.

It is admittedly tempting to see Artemisia’s suffering reflected in her pictures. Tassi had been found guilty at the conclusion of the trial, and sentenced to five years’ exile, but the sentence was never carried out: his powerful protectors had the verdict annulled. It is  very easy to interpret the extreme violence of Judith Decapitating Holofernes as a form of revenge on Tassi, an image of what she would have liked to do to him had she been able.

Very easy — but also very misguided. Between 1620 and 1625, Artemisia painted a hauntingly evocative depiction of Medea killing one of her own children. It is less gruesome than Judith Decapitating Holofernes, in the sense that there are no spurts of blood: Artemisia shows Medea and her small child at the moment immediately before she thrusts her dagger into him. But the painting of Medea is no less powerful. Does its effectiveness mean that it must derive from Artemisia’s desire to murder her own children? Must that picture too be in some way the effect of her rape? Merely to pose those questions is enough to show how absurd the whole approach is.

Determining the effect of the rape on Artemisia’s psychology might appear to be straightforward. In fact it is anything but. Consider what Artemisia is recorded as having said during the trial. She emphasised that Tassi promised to marry her  immediately after he raped her. She described how his promise of marriage induced her to “yield lovingly, many times, to his desires” over the next eight months. It was only when she discovered he had no intention of marrying her, she says, that her father brought the suit against him on her behalf.

No one knows, and perhaps no one can know, what lies behind Artemisia’s assertion that their post-rape relationship was “loving”. But it indicates just how difficult it is to draw conclusions about how the rape “must” have affected her and her art.

Once the idea that the rape is the key to her art and her life is put aside, it is possible to appreciate her inventiveness and her creativity, as well as the power of her personality, in a much fuller fashion, and in a way that gives some credit to her ability to shape her own life and art, rather than having it determined by the shock of her experience at the age of 17.

There are plenty of other explanations for Artemisia’s decision to depict the moment in which Judith decapitates Holofernes — and it is worth remembering that we can’t even be sure that it was Artemisia, rather than one of her patrons, who decided on that subject. She painted the same scene again several years later, and there is no doubt that on the second occasion, it was the result of a request from a patron. Blood and violence were a standard theme of post-Caravaggio Roman artists, as they were of a great deal of Counter-Reformation art in Italy. Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia’s father and teacher, knew Caravaggio personally, and copied his style of painting. When he instructed Artemisia, Orazio would have taught her how to imitate many of Caravaggio’s innovations, such as intense realism and strongly directional light — and some of her early paintings are characterised by those features. She certainly saw Caravaggio’s pictures in Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi Francese. Whether she saw Caravaggio’s very violent version of Judith Decapitating Holofernes we cannot know. But there are some obvious similarities: Caravaggio depicts the blood spurting from Holofernes’s neck as Judith hacks off his head, just as Artemisia would do.

There was no shortage of trauma in Artemisia’s life. During the trial, she was tortured by having a rope tightened round her fingers. Tassi was allowed to question Artemisia directly, and did so in as unpleasant a way as possible, asking her to go through the details of her loss of virginity. It was a very public humiliation. Within a month of the trial, she married Pierantonio Stiattesi. The newlyweds moved almost immediately to Florence, at least partly to get away from the unpleasant gossip generated in Rome by the trial.

They had several children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Marriage meant that, in addition to the other problems she faced, Artemisia had to deal with a series of pregnancies and with the agonies of seeing her children die. Given those obstacles, it is amazing that she managed to turn out as many pictures as she did.

At some point during her stay in Florence, she embarked on a serious affair with Francesco Maria Maringhi, the wealthy illegitimate son of a Florentine nobleman. Artemisia’s relationship with Maringhi seems to have ended only with his death in 1653.

A cache of letters from Artemisia to Maringhi was discovered in 2011. The letters date from 1616 to 1620. They reveal that at that stage, the relationship was extremely intense, and characterised by outbursts of jealousy, anger and passionate expressions of boundlessly devoted love, at least on her part — no letters from Maringhi to Artemisia survive.

Her husband knew about her relationship with Maringhi, and she knew that he knew. Stiattesi and Artemisia separated sometime before 1624, when she is recorded as heading a household in Rome comprising of herself, her daughter, and two servants. Stiattesi had by then dropped out of her life, or been pushed out. The only surviving reference that Artemisia makes to him is in a letter in 1637 to Cassiano dal Pozzo: she asked him if he has heard whether Stiattesi is alive or dead.

Artemisia wrote to a patron who was trying to get her to accept a lower price for one of her paintings that “you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of this woman”. Her few surviving letters do indeed reveal a tough woman who knew how to cajole and threaten as well as how to flatter. 

Despite constant worries about money, Artemisia was notably successful as an independent artist. She received, as she liked to remind patrons in her letters, “commissions from all the monarchs of Europe” — which was an exaggeration, but a pardonable one. Her fame reached Charles I in London, who bought her pictures, and employed her, as it reached Philip IV in Spain, who did the same. She was the first woman member of Florence’s Accademia per Disegno. There was a bronze medal struck with her portrait, and an engraving printed, both of which celebrated her achievements. After stints in Venice, Rome and London, she returned to running a successful studio in Naples. She didn’t die impoverished, neglected or forgotten. We don’t know the exact date of her death, but we do know that she had a stone tomb. 

She developed a very high level of skill amazingly early. Her first masterpiece, Susanna and the Elders, was signed and dated in 1610, and may have been completed when she was 16. It is remarkably technically accomplished. She probably used herself as a model for Susanna, whose nudity is painted accurately but not pruriently. Susanna’s nakedness was frequently an excuse for prurience — it is, for instance in Tintoretto’s rendition of the subject — but the youthful Artemisia’s Susanna is a study in vulnerability, not an exercise in parading female flesh to male viewers — although it is inevitably and unavoidably also that. Artemisia returned to the subject twice, once in 1622, and once again more than 40 years later, in 1652. In the 1652 version, which was done in partnership with her pupil Onofri Palombo, Susanna is not naked — but she is just as vulnerable.

Artemisia’s attitude to female nudity has caused problems for some feminist scholars. Naked, or at least bare-breasted, women are sprinkled more or less evenly throughout her paintings. What was this “proto-feminist” doing painting so many women in various states of undress?

The most likely answer is that she did it because that was what her patrons and clients wanted.  She  forged a reputation during her own lifetime for painting beautiful naked women, and one of the reasons why she did not get any big commissions from the Church when she lived in Rome was probably that reputation. (She did receive commissions from the Church once she moved to Naples.)

It is notable that there is not a single unclothed male in any of her pictures. The reason is almost certainly that she would not have been able to draw naked men from life: having them in her studio would have been too big a scandal even for her. On the other hand, male artists did not generally have naked women in their studios in the first half of the 17th century. Artemisia did. In one of her letters, she complains about “the intolerable expense of female models”, and how “out of the 50 women who undress themselves, there is scarcely one good one”. In another, she laments: “When I find good ones, they fleece me, and at other times, one must suffer their petty gossip with the patience of Job.”

Artemisia may have found employing female models costly and tedious, but it gave her a significant comparative advantage when it came to the depiction of naked women. There was always a significant demand for such images, which were given a veneer of respectability by being part of religious or mythological subjects. Artemisia met that demand, and it helped to keep her prosperous.

But that is not the whole story. It is also unquestionably true that her images of naked women have a sensitivity to the characters of the woman portrayed, and a fidelity to the features of the bodies of the real women she observed — round bellies, uneven breasts, for instance — that were usually absent from male artists’ depictions. It is inconceivable that Artemisia would have depicted Lucretia as Felice Ficherelli did in his offensively lubricious portrayal of her rape by Tarquin: Lucretia in Ficherelli’s version appears not only to have an impossibly perfect physique, perfectly poised for ogling by the viewer, but to be complicit in her own rape.

The exhibition at the Palazzo Braschi provides a marvellous opportunity for assessing Artemisia’s work. It has pictures from every stage of her career, and it sets them in the context of work by her competitors and assistants. The comparison demonstrates that in purely artistic terms — the capacity to handle paint, to create striking and beautiful compositions, to imbue figures with character and feeling — she was much better than most of them. When you see the paintings of artists such as Simon Vouet or Giuseppe Vermiglio next to hers, you realise that she was not only more technically competent: she also had a broader, more humane vision.

It also enables you to see how her style changed over the course of her life. Her pictures became more monumental. Explicit violence goes out. Tender human feeling is in, although sometimes with extremely sinister implications: her painting of Lot and his daughters, depicting as it does the episode when Lot’s daughters get him drunk in order to have sex with him so as to be able to conceive children, is a deeply unsettling image.

Artemisia was also a very skilled portraitist. Her picture of a woman known only as The Lady with the Fan, for example, is remarkable for its portrayal of the swagger of a self-confident woman ostentatiously twirling her pearls; while her portrait of Antoine de Ville captures the anxious smirk of a cavaliere not quite as self-assured as he would like to be.

If she is not at the very top of the hierarchy of Western artists — and even at her best, she is not an artist of the calibre of Rembrandt or Rubens or Caravaggio — her art can be tremendously effective, as this exhibition proves. There is an excellent catalogue that carefully addresses her stylistic evolution and the complicated question of attribution. The number of works that can be securely attributed to Artemisia seems to vary from year to year. In 2013, an exceptional picture, in a private collection, known only as Santa a mezzo busto was identified as her work. In 2014, a beautifully restrained and delicate picture of the death of Cleopatra was sold at an auction in Brussels as “Dutch School, 17th century” before being attributed to Artemisia. Neither attribution is unchallenged. There is much scholarly blood still to be spilt, and perhaps quite a lot of money to be made, in determining what is, and what is not, a genuine Artemisia Gentileschi. As a confidently commercial artist, it is a compliment that she would  have appreciated.

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