Her words for herself in a letter dated 1649: ‘Caesar’s spirit in a woman’s soul’
Dear friends and readers,
Though one purpose of these sketches and offerings of images is to call attention to either relatively or just about wholly unknown (erased) women painters and artists, I felt it would be perverse to choose another 17th century painter for my first round. Gentileschi’s pictures are so extraordinary, I have a couple of superb sources (Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque, by a host of art scholars, the catalogue and essays from an exhibition put on by the National Gallery of Women’s Art) and there are plenty of people who’ve never heard of her despite a moving autobiographical novel by Anna Banti (Artemisia, by Lucia Lopresti — yes she used a pseudonym), from which a film was made (by Agnes Merlet); several scholarly biographical and art studies (e.g., Mary Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi), individual essays [I will come back later to add a bibliography], a popular American novel (by Susan Vreeland). She even made the cut for Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party:
The key event of Gentileschi’s life about which there is much documentation is a series of rapes: Agostino Tassi, Orazio Gentileschi (yes a painting father and workshop)’s apprentice or partner repeatedly raped her, her father publicly accused him of rape, and a trial. Mary Garrard reprints the whole of the extant papers and letters (in English as well as Italian) which provide a searing look into the daily behavior and mores of the era. Gentileschi was accused of being “a whore” herself: she did succumb to allowing this apprentice to fuck her again either in the hope he would marry her or because poor girl she had fallen in love with him; it was only months later that her father became aware of what had happened. Also involved was a woman who lived with the family in a role common in this period: a servant as chaperon who was also supposed to help find Artemisia a marriage partner, to broker it. At one point one of Tassi’s hanger-ons attempted to gang-rape Artemisia. As all that happened to her ever after was shaped by this public trial and what was said, for the rest of both their lives, Gentileschi and her father paid for their attempt at restitution and revenge. Artemisia was herself tortured at one point to make her “tell” the truth and test the truth of what she said.
Many of her pictures include violence, trauma, anger and sevral famously behead a man from a story in the Bible: here is her tour de force Judith slaying Holofernes painted after the trial:
What may escape the modern viewer is that here we find Artemisia as the first female artist daring to paint a large-scaled historical and religious subject. I feel a sardonic humor in her choice of a subject which by the definitions of allowable historical and religious she could. Note the man’s agonized face, his terrific reddish color, the wrinkles of his skin, the blood trickling down the sheet, the way he is turned as Judith struggles to behead him.
She had done a Judith and her maidservant dated as just before this, where we find his head in a basket, a sort of image from a mirror, much more subdued lyrical using parallels in details of dress, soft browns, beiges, as the woman look about them, this time Judith fearful at being found out:
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome July 8, 1593, Orazio’s first child; like his friend, mentor, rival, the great theatrical Baroque painter Caravaggio, Orazio came to Rome to make a name for himself; his wife gave birth to several sons, three were apprentice painters, but her father saw his daughter excelled them, and trained her in easel painting while he worked on large frescoes. According to Stefania Biancanio, Artemisia “could skillfully grind pigments, boil oils, paint small commissions;” he used her face for portraits. Meanwhile his wife and her mother died in childbirth in 1605.
It was around the time she was 17 she painted Susannah and the Elders:
As Germaine Greer remarks, the woman is not there to excite sexual arousal; but show us an originally strong, muscular and sensual woman in the prime of life “crumpled against the cruel stone of the coping” (Greer 191), driven into “ruinous complicity” with her vulture enemies.
Unfortunately, Orazio allowed Agostino Tassi to give her more advanced training. Records show that Agostino had already boasted he had murdered his wife, raped his sister-in-law, beat up prostitutes regularly. Yet he was socially acceptable. He resisted Orazio’s demand he marry her. That is when this unheard-of kind trial (her father had to have known how hostile would be everyone to such truths about the way women were treated) began. It is important to remember that against all odds, she won the case; Tassi was exiled. But the public attitude was utterly hostile to these judges, and in 1614 one semi-champion (whom Greer said had been Tassi’s friend), a Florentine, Giambatista Stiattesi, married her and took her to Florence. It was then she painted Judith Slaying Holofernes, and was commissioned by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, commissioned her to paint “Inclination” as a ceiling decoration for the Casa Buonarroti.
Biancanio says there were eight years of intense creativity, and she was matriculated into the Academia del Designo, the first woman ever accepted, and of profound importance to her professional career and self-esteem. She was now freed from a need to be part of a guild, she could buy pigments on her own (before she could not), sign contracts on her own; she had autonomy from father, husband, and later her sons. She bore four children, two daughers (Prudentia and Palmira) by Stattsei and moved to Rome to make a living for herself and her children. Her family included her two sisters and two maids. In 1626 she is in Genoa, 127 Venice, and then she dared to try her luck in Naples (a different and southern hispanic Italian culture), in 1630 opening a huge studio. In 1638 Charles I invited her to England. Braving wars, plagues and pirates, she took her household and rejoined her father there and they collaborated on a commission for the Queen’s house in Greenwich. It was an allegory of peace and the arts (now in Marlborough House, London). She is said to have met Anthony Van Dyck in 1622. When her father died eight years later, she returned to Naples. While in England, she had excited ignorant “repellent” gossip (Greer).
The atmosphere of her last years can be called “a twilight” (Biancano’s word) of success and loss: from these years we have letters to a Sicilian patron, Don Antonio Ruffo, who wants a genuine original from her at a cut-down price. Greer says these 1649 texts make “painful” reading: Artemisia complains of poor health, poverty, of how he is cutting her price, of the behavior or her models to her, the poor esteem her work is actually held in from the point of view of how it’s preserved or not. She is “an exhausted woman obliged to court provincial patronage.” From this time comes her series on the life of John the Baptist, this on his birth puts before us a world of women:
While the baby is bathed, Elizabeth looks tired and indifferent to or unaware of what Zachary is writing down.
Numbers of the attributions of her painting to her have been disputed (by F. Ward Bissell especially) over the years (given to Caravaggio for example). They paintings are said to “vacillate” between her father’s hand and Giovani Baglione, and other minor Italian male painters of the time; this is where Mary Garrard’s work has made a difference: Gentileschi now prevails as the painter of figures of somber women playing music, intent on their musicianship.
If you look at some of what is said by even more recent critics, you find denigration. This Lute-player made to recall Saint Cecilia is called “naive” because the figure is so in the foreground, too simple, inexpert:
Biancanio makes a strong case for a work denied Artemisia, an extraordinary Danae
There are similarities to her father’s work, to a Milan Cleopatra (no certain attribution); it’s on copper (Artemisia did execute works on copper), but apparently it’s the painterly techniques (the shading of skin, the loose bedding, the psychology of the story-telling narrative that is telling: King Agrisius of Argos locked his daughter, Danae, in a chamber after a prophecy that she would bear children who would grow up to kill him. Zeus broke in to the chamber in a shower of gold, impregnated her, and her son, Perseus, eventually killed his grandfather. In the picture she clutches the coins in her right hand, her face look strained, guarded, her legs drawn together as if she is hurting after penetration. I love her maid, with her head covered in the long white scarf, her intense blue garment clutched, as she looks up to the sky and stars from which there is no help. I think of the sardonic comment made to Webster’s Duchess of Malfi as she cries out to God in the skies: “Look you, the stars shine still.”
The motif of the maid as a franker version of herself is found in Holofernes images; now we have an interplay of arms and swords (also a motif in her paintings, and a shielding from the light:
Now the head is on the ground; look at the maid’s alert calm-seeming face.
Her extant work is varied, and some clearly from commissions:
Greer suggests her male figures in the portraits are femininized; here one man is suppliant and the other withdraws from him.
She depicts tender motherly love in this Madonna and Child:
But repeatedly we return to this scene where a woman is coerced into sex: here the story of Bathsheba usually presented from the point of view of David and Bathsheba’s cowardly husband, is turned to the reluctant woman: forced marriages are a form of continual rape however submitted to:
Lucretia, soiled, weary, crumpled despite her immense solidarity, is about to cut her breast off first rather than just pushing the dagger directly into herself:
Artemisia Gentileschi’s story can be made into one of astonishing success: she painted for powerful men, traveled to prestigious courts to execute art meant for public definitions of such people. Her self-portrait (which I led with) shows her in peaceful reverie, intense contemplative state, and her magnificent, Clio , her chosen muse, makes proud to have fame (it may be read as an allegory). Throughout her career she is continually remembering moments of her life through female and male figures:
But it’s said on her tomb were painted nasty graffiti accusing her of nymphomania and adultery.
Banti’s novel is a help in trying to imagine what Artemisia’s life might have felt like: it is a serious historical fiction and set just after World War Two. Banti weaves between an imagined author standing among ruined in a garden after the barbarism of World War Two, with a draft of a manuscript on Gentileschi destroyed and Gentileschi herself: the novel is an explanation of how we see them as the story begins. Artemisia’s story opens with her experience of rape: “Do not cry” (p. 1). Artemisia is ever holding back intense terrible endless crying: “She must wean herself from it if she does not want to die of grief” (p. 26). From the first phase of the novel on Artemisia:
“She did not have the strength to hate her violent, cowardly lover, the go-betweens, the false witnesses, Cosimo, Tuzia, and all the apprentices, washerwomen, models, barbers, painters, parasites: people who seemed to have scarcely ever have noticed her ever since she was a child and who instead had followed her hour by hour, substituting her actions and movements with unrecognizable ones in the presence of the judge. Today she feels guilty, guilty as everyone wishes her to be . . . (1995 Bison _Artemisia_, trans D’Ardia Caracciolo, p. 25)
She is separated off from other women who do not help her. They move away. She is locked in the house as a shameful thing. She wants to stay in the dark — Banti’s imagery returns right back to the beginning of subjective poetry and stories of early modern Europe through 18th century epistolary novels and poetry by women to studies of archetypal imagery in women’s novels today, e.g., “If only the dark would last forever, no one would recognize me as a woman, such hell for me, woe to others” (p. 25).
Well she overcomes that impulse (which Richardson’s Clarissa did not); but it’s not a simple process of repression, but layered. Forced into a hasty marriage, with a man she can’t respect because he doesn’t behave in a powerful aggressive way, calculating and therefore successful, world, because he makes her ashamed because he is of her, she knows others will sympathize with him. It also agonizes her to see him failing.. She lashes out at him and then feels remorseful, but goes ahead berating the man after all, feeling torn all the while.
“His hands look dirty against the white cloth. Dirty but light. This Artemisia remembers and it tears at her heart like something that has been lost; those hands, when they caress, are as light as feathers [she remembers them as beautiful then] She carries on talking, accusing, so as not to feel moved, and sheraises her voice and listens to herself in horror, within these walls which goad her into cruelty and spitefulness” (p. 83)
He leaves her. He runs away in the night. In Florence, she understandably gets into venomous fights with other women because, now separated from her husband, her humiliating sexual reputation is used against her. You could call her behavior self-destructive; the point here for Banti are the parallels with her modern heroine and her own life: There are many parallels in Banti’s life, but she is also allowing her heroine to express anger and anger becomes a driving motive in her ambition.
Always the imagined private life for which we have no record is intertwined so when Artemisia goes to England, it is after Antonio has come with another woman and triumphed over her. In another agon, she sets out though and the metaphors of stone, rock and burning sand as she boards a ship reminded me of Mary Wortley Montagu’s poetry about herself later in life as she set forth for and lived alone in Italy, an exile.
and in the depths of her heart, as on the gray sand secretly disturbed and marked by the waves, she saw the marks left by this thought which she had faithfully kept and inscribed all these years (p. 130).
It’s this idea of stone, of rock, of burning sands, of the mind as this endlessly enduring hard strength.
Her mind is described thus:
She was coming back from such a great distance, where she had received such terrible blows and lightning bolts that her eyes seemed dreamy … p 131).
The modern novel-writing heroine thinks in a contrasting passage: “What terrible masters words turn out to be” (p. 131). These words she is told about her husband drive her into “exile.” It is a tremendous voyage (remember Woolf’s Voyage out); vignettes of the people, of the places, each figure caught and
then Artemisia seen too. She enjoys her trip. I paraphrase from the Italian: She liked not being anywhere
in particular and moving on, the transience of it. She is happy to arrive anywhere too.” This woman’s identification is part of it: “Afterwards she recalled having seen a puppy, no, a small cat, very frightened, at the sparkling carriage window” (from the English translation, p. 167)
We are expected to know she went with her wondrous career but see the price she paid.
When a few women read the book on WWTTA, some were disappointed there was not much on her painting itself, and her public career was not the focus, just the outward framing; I wished there had been more about her household, what she drew from her relationships there. I have read Vreeland’s novel; it is a mainstream American book; a professional reviewer on Amazon writes accurately of The Passion of Artemisia that Vreeland attributes some “decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at that time, and ends on her “triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florence” (“in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes”); the focus is equally her career, and family, “beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas.”
I conclude on one of her musicians, which some have tried to argue are not Gentileschi’s: here the face is hers:
A self-portrait of herself as a lute-player.