National Gallery
Sainsbury Wing
Until 24 January 2020
I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do
Artemisia Gentileschi


A riveting exhibition at the National Gallery spanning Artemisia Gentileschi’s 45-year career displays her best artwork.  Her incredible talent had no precedent in the form of women painters, and sovereigns and popes commissioned her pictures, frescos and portraits.  The exhibition displays chronologically her most revisited subjects, such as Susannah, Judith, Cleopatra and Mary Magdalene, and some of the most famous self-portraits.  The female figure is prevalent in her pictures and has a strong physical presence and a determined personality as well as sensuality and elegance.

Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, who was her first master.  As often happens with women artists, her work was neglected and undermined for a long time until some sensational biographical events came to the foreground.  Her contemporaries barely mentioned her until Roberto Longhi rediscovered her work in 1916, highlighting her painting skills and her ability to promote her own career.  Though she was successful when she was young and all through her adult life, she died poor and her work was forgotten while her notoriety as an indecent and dissolute woman stuck.

She started painting from a young age, showing great talent, which her father supported.  When she was only sixteen, her father claimed that she had already mastered her art and recommended her for commissions.  She had been born in Rome in an artistic environment and had been able to admire the works of the great masters that inspired her, especially Michelangelo and Caravaggio.  During her career she had also been in contact with the most famous artists of the 17th century such as Guido Reni, Carracci and Domenichino.

When she was seventeen, she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter who worked with her father.  Tassi was later sued and sentenced but Artemisia had to undergo the torture of the sibille, that is, cords were wrapped around her fingers and they were crushed to find out whether she was telling the truth.  She was never believed.  After the trial she married Pietro Antonio Stiattesi and moved from Rome to Florence, where she worked for the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo II de Medici.

One of her first accomplished and complete works is ‘Susannah and the Elders’ (1610), painted when the artist was only seventeen.  It shows what she had learned from her father regarding mastering the anatomy of human figures, though she also adds a personal touch by presenting the figures as crouching down, which conveys the dramatic and tense atmosphere of the scene.  Her colours are delicate and are a reminder of Michelangelo’s palette at the Sistine Chapel.  Her feminine angle can be seen in the rendering of the hairstyle of the main figure and in the interpretation of the biblical episode from the book of Daniel.  The woman is exposed and vulnerable but is determined to oppose the lust and deceit of the old men.  Her purity is expressed in her nudity, which is in complete contrast to the overdressed elders who are whispering about their vengeful plans to each other.  It is a female perspective that Artemisia develops further in her most famous works, in which her heroines, such as Judith, Cleopatra, Lucretia and Mary Magdalene, are in the foreground and are depicted as having psychological intensity.

One of her most famous works, ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’, on display in two versions executed in Florence and in Naples in 1612 and 1620 respectively, shows her maturity in the pictorial rendering of the panneggio, in the arrangement of the figures and in the dramatic interpretation of the scene.  The chiaroscuro is marked, concentrating the light on the three protagonists: Judith, Holofernes and the servant, Abra, who, differently from in Caravaggio’s painting, has an active role in the scene of helping to keep Holofernes down.  The impressive determination in Judith’s expression and the strength she shows in holding the sword and cutting the head seem in contrast with her elegant attire and the jewels she is wearing to charm Holofernes (according to the story).  The scene is depicted with intense drama: blood splatters realistically from Holofernes’s neck and this effective moment is caught in all its dreadful charm; its essentiality is iconic.

In Florence, Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia del Disegno thanks to the support of Cosimo II and the protection of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger.  She worked on commissions for ‘Penitent Mary Magdalene’ and ‘Saint Catherine’.  Her heroines always wear precious clothes and jewels that are presented in incredible detail and are reminiscent of Bronzino and the colours of the Venetian painters.  She pays attention to detail, for example a wisp of hair on a neck or dimples on a hand, showing her personal touch that brings her figure to life.  Her heroines are never stereotypes; they are complex, dramatic, theatrical and in control and are depicted as living the particular moment in full.

Artemisia left Florence and went back to Rome.  She then moved between Naples and England in the 1630s, working for Charles I of England, Charles, Duke of Lorraine and Phillip IV of Spain.  Her father, Orazio, was painting the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the ‘Allegory of Peace over the Arts’, which features only female protagonists.  Charles I owned a vast art collection that included works by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, Mantegna and Caravaggio.  He invited Artemisia to help her father, which she did.  She also painted a self-portrait of sorts, ‘The Allegory of Painting’ (‘La Pittura’, 1638–39), one of her best achievements.  The figure is depicted with dark hair, elegantly dressed and with a gold necklace hanging down.  The subject is idealised in her beauty and posture.  Her gaze looks beyond the picture and yet she is committed to her work, holding a palette in one hand and a brush in the other; she is an artist in control of her work.

The exhibition displays a variety of works by the renowned artist Artemisia Gentileschi, focusing on her most famous subjects whose iconography she developed throughout her career with great expertise, showing a definite talent.  Her heroines are exposed and frail in their nudity and sensuality but express, at the same time, their force and their determination to affirm their personality against all odds, which is exactly what their creator accomplished throughout her life and artistic career.

Carla Scarano © 2020.

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