It’s a joy to see the Artemisia exhibition finally open at London’s National Gallery, postponed from the beginning of lockdown in March.
Even when you have seen her paintings in books, there’s a deep warmth and physical reality that comes out when you see them in the flesh.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later) is remarkable. She was the most celebrated female artist in Europe in her time. She was trained by her artist father Orazio Gentileschi; he knew Caravaggio and was influenced by his style, an influence passed on to his daughter. She soon came to be recognised as an artist in her own right. Even her work as a teenager is remarkable not just for its technical skill, but for its vitality. In 1616, still in her early 20s, she became the first woman to be accepted as a member of the prestigious Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
When she was 17 Artemisia was raped by her father’s artistic collaborator, Agostino Tassi. Orazio took Tassi to court, and Artemisia had to testify under torture to verify her statement. The trial transcript is open to the page where she repeatedly says: È vero è vero è vero: “It is true, it is true, it is true.” Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to banishment from Rome. The day after the verdict Artemisia married the younger brother of her lawyer, and moved from Rome to Florence. She had five children in five years, though only two survived infancy; her daughter Prudenzia also became an artist, though little is known of her work.
Her female figures seem to inhabit their bodies more than those of any male artist, though the physicality can also be gruesome.
Artemisia often used her own features in her paintings, probably to save the cost of hiring a model. One room has two paintings of St Catherine of Alexandria with her broken wheel, another of a female martyr holding a palm, and a self-portrait as a lute-player, all with the same slightly plump face.
She mainly painted Old Testament and historical scenes, taking on commissions for major religious themes, and returning to some of these subjects throughout her life. There are two versions of Cleopatra’s death in this exhibition, from 1611-2 and 1633-5, and three versions of the story in the book of Daniel of Susannah and the Elders – a young woman being spied on by two lascivious old men as she bathes. These span her career: the first is her first known signed work, from 1610; the others are from 1622 and 1652, her last-known dated work.
Her female figures seem to inhabit their bodies more than those of any male artist, though the physicality can also be gruesome. Two paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes show the physical effort of severing his head, with blood spattering across the bedding and Judith’s arms.
Another painting shows the scene from the book of Judges where a woman, Jael, hammers a tent peg through the head of the Canaanite military leader Sisera, saving Israel.
The inscription on another artist’s chalk drawing of her right hand holding a brush in 1625 calls her “the excellent and learned Artemisia” and praises her hands “for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture”.
Artemisia returned to Rome in 1620. Her husband had run up debts, and she was the breadwinner of the family. They became estranged, and she started an affair with a Florentine nobleman.
By now she had a solid reputation as an artist, with commissions from heads of state; her work included several altar-pieces. The inscription on another artist’s chalk drawing of her right hand holding a brush in 1625 calls her “the excellent and learned Artemisia” and praises her hands “for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture”.
In 1630 she moved to Naples, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. She knew her worth; in a letter in 1649 she wrote of possessing “the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”, and said: “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.”
Artemisia’s father Orazio was court painter to King Charles I for a decade before Charles managed to persuade her to join him for a while in 1638-9; she probably collaborated with him on a painted ceiling at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. The exhibition twice contrasts Artemisia’s work with her father’s: in each case there is a clear similarity of style, but Orazio’s paintings are static, while Artemisia’s breathe with life and movement. Two of her most startlingly alive paintings are Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy and Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.
This exhibition, the first in the UK devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi, includes two recently identified paintings; the curator told me there must be other paintings, possibly from her time in London, that are yet to be attributed to her.
Artemisia is at the National Gallery until January 24, 2021