The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition has opened at the National Gallery at long last. It is accompanied by a handsome, fully illustrated hardcover catalogue. The hassle is that you have to book your slot to see it. Go in at one entrance to the building at the appointed hour, descend into the depths. Then, when you’re through with looking, you go back upstairs and traverse pretty well the full length of the building, in order to get out. As you progress towards another door, different from the one that allowed you to get in, you pass through gallery after gallery hung with masterpieces, with not another human being in sight. It’s a melancholy sort of experience, at least on a weekday. Saturdays and Sundays may possibly be a little better.
One has quite a repertoire of female misfortune and female empowerment – ELS
If this seems like a very contemporary way of experiencing art, it must also be said that Artemisia Gentileschi, active in the early 17th century, seems like a very contemporary artist – an aspect that the NG show is quite eager to stress. It is not simply that Artemisia was a woman painter, in an epoch when successful female artists were extremely rare. It is also what she chooses to paint and how she presents it. Today we are used to autobiographical art. Quite a number of currently successful figurative painters seem to produce almost nothing but self-portraits. Artemisia was not shy about portraying herself. The painting of hers recently purchased by the NG – the only example of her work they actually own – shows her as a female martyr, St. Catherine of Alexandria, complete with symbolic palm branch.
There are, in her biography, a number of dramatic incidents. Notably, the fact that she was, when very young, raped by one of the assistants of her father, who was the painter Orazio Gentileschi. When the rapist was tried for his crime, Artemisia had to undergo judicial torture, to prove that her testimony against her attacker was true. He was convicted but suffered very little in the way of penalties because he had influential friends.
Her surviving oeuvre, comparatively small in numbers though she had quite a long and successful career, mostly in Italy but also with a few years here in Britain, at the court of the Stuart monarch Charles I, is full of compositions that feature women either being victimised or taking their revenge. Notable among these are two similar paintings, one now in the collection of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and the other that of the Uffizi in Florence (both currently on view in London), which show the Old Testament heroine Judith slaying the Assyrian general Holofernes. Also in the show is another painting from the Uffizi, which shows Judith and her maidservant Abra leaving the scene, with Holofernes’ severed head, still dripping blood, carried by Abra in a basket.
Add to these paintings of Susannah and the Elders, of Lucretia committing suicide, of Cleopatra expiring with the fatal asp still in her hand, or else already dead, and of Jael about to drive a spike into the head of the sleeping Canaanite general Sisera, and one has quite a repertoire of female misfortune and female empowerment.
It is, however, necessary to remember that some of these themes were also common currency with male artists of the Italian Baroque, who savoured their combination of eroticism and violence.
One peculiarity of the show is the fact that it contains very few portrait paintings, apart from those featuring Artemisia herself. This is curious because we know from surviving texts that Artemisia was very active as a portrait painter. She seems to have derived most of her income from that. The most striking example in the show is a full-length of a gonfaloniere or military standard-bearer. Painted in 1622, it is fully signed. The catalogue tells one that it was ‘for many years… the only portrait known to have been painted by Artemisia’.
The mention of the signature signals another problem, which is that modern authorities on Artemisia’s work often seem distinctly uneasy about what is hers and what isn’t. This even in some cases where the painting has what appears to be a signature. Not all the paintings on view at the NG are signed. When a painter is long dead, his or her reputation falls into the hands of a panjandrumate, male and female. That is, if the artist concerned seems to be historically significant, and can be thought of as being representative of what art should be about. Each member of this group of panjandrums is, to some extent at least pitted against the others. And, though they may not be fully conscious of it, each would-be authority interprets the work in contemporary terms as well as in purely historical ones. Artemisia today is revered as a patron saint of feminism. Yet it also seems that she didn’t have a particularly distinctive stylistic touch.
Where clear documentary proof is lacking, this inevitably leads to a tendency to construct the oeuvre of the artist concerned in preconceived ways, which are not necessarily those that prevailed when their work was being produced. There are some traces of that in what is now being offered at the NG.
What is interesting here, however, is that the show also includes a few items that are not by Artemisia, and which are not presented as such. The most conspicuous of these exceptions is a portrait of her as a mature woman by the well-known French artist Simon Vouet, who in the 1620s became Principe of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. The identity of the sitter is confirmed, among other things, by a gold medal, she wears around her neck.
The disconcerting thing is that this painting could quite easily be mistaken for a self-portrait by Artemisia herself. Yet it is also typical of Vouet.
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that Artemisia was certainly an interesting figure, but not a game-changer. Her life story is fascinating. Her obsessive choice of themes for her surviving paintings can be related to that. Stylistically she did nothing to change the direction of European art.
Top Left: Artemisia, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612-1613, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples Top Right Artemisia, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c.1613-1614, Gallerie Uffizi, Florence – Middle: Middle picture Artemisia – Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-1617, The National Gallery, London – Bottom picture – Artemisia – Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting, 1638-1639. The Royal Collection, London – Photos: James Payne © Artlyst 2020