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Artemisia revisited – Huon Mallalieu

Blog | By Huon Mallalieu | Sep 29, 2020

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

NATIONAL GALLERY: ARTEMISIA, October 3 to January 24, booking open

It's easy to overlook the fact that Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1654) was one of the greatest baroque painters, because so much polemical baggage has piled up around her. She was a woman in a patriarchal society and a rape victim and she had an arranged marriage - so of course her work must have been unjustly overlooked.
Let us throw this baggage overboard at the outset. Although it was rare, she was not the first woman to have a successful painting career. Discounting female illuminators, Italian predecessors included Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1535 - 1625), who went on to work at the Spanish court, and Lavinia Fontana (1552 - 1614).
Even if her father Orazio suggested that she become a nun, that was not necessarily in order to suppress her talent, as the career of her contemporary, Sister Orsola Maddalena, née Theodora Caccia (1596 - 1676), shows. In fact, Orazio encouraged her and proudly promoted her work, in Rome and later in London. Her rapist was convicted, and her husband was no hindrance to her; indeed he was friendly with her lover. At the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, she was paid three times the rate male colleagues received, and in Naples she was welcomed by men who drove out other incomers like Reni and Domenichino.
She was no more overlooked post mortem than many men; even in the patriarchal 1840s, it was conceded that, “in portraits, she excelled her father”. Here we see that she exceeded him even more in subject paintings.
Her subjects can cause arguments. Lurid incidents of Old Testament and classical violence with strong female protagonists (often self-portraits) are feminist statements to some; others consider that it titllated male patrons to order sex and violence from a woman. In fact, it was fashion, and both male and female colleagues were painting Judiths, Jaels and the rest.
This show is a perfect size. Prompted by the Gallery’s acquisition of the Self-Portrait as St Catherine, 20 more Artemisias have been assembled from around the world, together with one - a Judith - by Orazio and portraits of Artemisia. There are recently discovered letters to her lover and, thanks to the COVID-delayed opening, the transcript of the rape trial has been added. This reveals that her veracity was tested by torture with the sibille, cords tightened around the fingers, which she withstood triumphantly. It makes Pierre Dumonstier’s drawing of The Worthy Hand of the excellent and skilful Artemisia holding a brush (British Museum) all the more poignant.
Yes, she was a wonderful painter and a remarkable person, irrespective of sex.