Positioned just off centre, staring towards her audience and regally dressed in the guise of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th century martyr, Artemisia Gentileschi paints, and thus aligns herself, as an empowered and determined woman. While she may have used herself as the model to avoid spending money, this painting highlights Artemisia’s extraordinary standing as a female painter in the 17th century. Taught to paint by her father, Artemisia painted the biblical, mythological and historical subjects that were usually only the artistic studies of men. Her ability to tell a story and present powerful images of women quickly established her as an artist worth admiration.
Forgotten after her death around 1654, only to be rediscovered in the late 20th century, Artemisia was one of Europe’s most celebrated female artists. Prior to London being taken into tier 4, I was able to attend the National Gallery to view the UK’s first exhibition about this esteemed artist. The gallery took you on a journey through her life and work and I was both intrigued and mystified by this artist’s work and how easily she had been forgotten.
The majority of Artemisia’s work featured women, an example of an earlier protofeminist impulse that had been overlooked and forgotten for centuries. Artemisia offered a female perspective on paintings and stories that were often only told by men. None of the women are particularly beautiful and are often depicted as active and in control. Men often depicted women as sexually charged in their paintings, whereas Artemisia painted women with more ambiguity. The women also often seemed more central than the men in her paintings, with the men taking up less of the frame and thus seeming less important, they are not objectified but rather the protagonists. Prior to this exhibition I had often dismissed earlier biblical work, it reminded me far too much of GCSE art and the times I was dragged around galleries as a child. Seeing women centralised within her paintings and stories made me look again at the period as a whole.
Artemisia’s paintings often featured women in roles of power, as the example above shows. The brutality of the Judithe Beheading Holofernes, the violent, physical strength of women contrasted with the submissive man, is a protofeminist and often read as Artemisia taking her revenge on both men and the sexist society she lived in.
Collectors became fascinated with Artemisia’s work, as it offered a female perspective that other artists could not, her paintings of violence and female nudity were seen as more appealing as they were painted by a woman.
Despite Artemisia’s powerfully protofeminist work, we should be mindful not to admire her work purely because she was a women who survived sexual assault. Artemisia’s work should also be admired for the skill in both painting and storytelling, the bold colours she used and the persistence and maturity of her work even as a young woman.
After the trial, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, a small-time artist, and the couple moved to Florence. It was here that Artemisia gained a name for herself and gained both freedom and independence. She learnt to read and write and became associated with the ruling Medici family and intellectuals like Galileo Galilei. In 1616, Artemisia became the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. During all this she had five children, although only two survived infancy, and faced financial issues, which led to her family to relocate to Rome in the 1620s.
By the time Artemisia had reached Rome, collectors were seeking out her work, and she received commissions from across Europe including one from Charles I of England in 1638. Artemisia thrived in Rome and began a passionate love affair with Francesco Maria Maringhi, a nobleman. Letters between the pair were displayed in the exhibition and show Artemisia not to be just a victim but a passionate, witty painter who was unafraid to speak about her sexual fantasies and aspirations for her future.
Artemisia later moved to Naples where she seemingly continued to thrive and gain more success. She visited London and even served Henrietta Maria, the Queen of England and wife to King Charles I, for some time. It was in London that Artemisia painted possibly one of her most influential pieces, Self portrait as the Allegory of Painting (as shown below). While it does not seem to be an actual self portrait, the painting represents Artemisia’s lifelong pursuit in painting, as a physical and emotional journey.
Artemisia was quickly forgotten after her death, despite all her achievements. She would often conceal her name in her pieces as shown in the painting below (if you look closely at the writing on the book you can just about make out her name).
We cannot be sure whether she was forgotten because she was a women or because the sexual assault trial overshadowed her success as a painter but either way this gallery and many others like it represent her to society and hopefully she shall not be forgotten again.
Of course, the gallery is now closed and with the unpredictability that Covid-19 brings we cannot say when it will reopen. But in the meantime the National Gallery is selling tickets for an online tour led by the curator, Letizia Treves. It is 30 minutes and £8, the link for it is here.
Artemisia Gertileschi’s Clio, Muse of History circa. 1632.