It’s the stuff of feminist polemic: what might female painters have achieved in history if they only had had the opportunities that men did? Artemisia Gentileschi shows what one woman achieved: she was not the only notable female painter in Italy in the seventeenth century but she was valued highly in her own lifetime in her own right as a history painter, that is, an artist who dealt with large scale dramatic depictions of the great events of scripture and antiquity, not just portraits. This exhibition at the National Gallery in London should have been its major spring show; instead it’s turned into a blockbuster to raise the spirits of a population which has only just emerged from lockdown and may face more constraints. And Artemisia is a good artist to express an indomitable spirit.
Artemisia was the eldest child and only daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a painter of irascible temper who kept his preternaturally talented daughter out of bounds at home. Whereas young male artists could wander the streets of Rome, making drawings of monuments and the paintings of the masters, she had little freedom of movement, though she could attend church and could collaborate with her father; she may too have met his friends, most notably Caravaggio, not an easy man to befriend. At the age of seventeen, she produced a painting of Susannah and the elders which may have been assisted by her father but was wonderfully assured. The theme of lascivious old men leching after a young and beautiful woman bathing was popular for obvious reasons; she brought to it both sensuality and a distinctively feminine sensibility… the theme perhaps resonated with her.
Rome at the end of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century was an extraordinarily rich environment for artistic creativity but it was a small and violent world. The particular vulnerability of a woman was brutally evident when Agostino Tassi, a friend of her father’s whom he asked to teach her, raped her while she was painting. Even before the attack, Roman gossips had speculated about her virtue, and her relationship with her father. During the trial that Orazio eventually brought against Tassi – possibly to force him to marry Artemisia or at least to procure damages for the loss of reputation – some witnesses aired rumours that she had had lovers but she proved the truth of the rape charge by submitting to “torments” of ligaments being progressively tightened around her fingers. In the exhibition there is a transcript of the trial which is hard to read but her words under torture were, “it is true, it is true, it is true!”
This exhibition tells us something about the woman Artemisia; more than most artists, her life illumines her work. The savagery of her depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes – another popular subject of the period – is evident especially in her first two paintings of the scene; if this is her revenge for her rape it is extraordinarily effective. Judith is concentrated and focussed, the maidservant intent on holding down the hefty general, and there is not a shred of compunction in their expressions, even. Who knows whether she returned to the theme at the behest of clients – perhaps it became her calling card – but her subsequent treatment of it is as dramatic as her father’s. In one scene, lit by a single candle, she and her maid listen intently, while the head of Holofernes is left insultingly in the shadows.
But there was more to Artemisia than victimhood, though she bore five children in five years to the man who married her after the rape and lost all but two of them very young. Her career in Florence particularly, under female patronage, was extraordinarily productive; in that cultured court she joined the academy of arts and learned to read and write and play music. She was friends with Galileo and had a passionate love affair with Francesco Maringhi, a wealthy man; the letters on show here express their mutual passion. Her career took her back to Rome, this time as a married woman, to Naples and later to London, where she worked with her father on the ceiling of the Queen’s house at Greenwich; female patronage was important to her. Prudently, as it turned out, she left London in 1643.
What is evident from the remarkable paintings in this exhibition, is how a woman could exploit the rich themes of scripture and the stories and figures of antiquity at the behest of her clients to express her own passion and experience. She was also a prolific portrait painter, and though few survive, two are here, notably a self-possessed woman in black with her thumb hooked nonchalantly through her long pearl necklace. Themes from the Old Testament were immensely popular (with the protagonists in contemporary dress), notably those with erotic interest. Artemisia’s clients plainly welcomed a woman’s take. In David and Bathsheba, the focus is on the woman and her attendants, combing her long hair; the pervert king is barely visible; in her last depiction of Susannah and the Elders, the girl seems to brush the voyeurs aside. In Lot and his Daughters, the father already silly with drink. It would be an exaggeration to say that men always fare badly in Artemisia Gentileschi’s work – St Januarius in the amphitheatre, a compliment to the patron of Naples, is a noble figure – but it is women who take centre stage. Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy is a markedly sensuous figure. And in subjects from antiquity, poor Lucretia after her own rape, squeezes her breast in preparation to plunge the knife into it.
So, to return to the question, what women artists could have done had they been given the opportunities of men, the answer is evident in the works of Artemisia. They could have held their own with their male peers in the emotional intensity of their work and they could bring a distinctively feminine sensibility to sacred and profane subjects. Artemisia’s most telling self-portrait was as the patron saint of philosophers, St Catherine of Alexandria, defiant and guarded. It tells you a lot.
‘Artemisia’ is at the National Gallery from October 3 to January 24