BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 22 OCT 20

Artemisia’s Defiant Women Were a Prophecy

A long-overdue exhibition at London’s National Gallery shines a light on a great baroque artist

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 22 OCT 20

Her paintings blaze across the centuries. A prodigy who was raped at the age of 17, forced into an arranged marriage and suffered the death of four of her five children, Artemisia Gentileschi emerged from hell to become one of the great storytellers of the baroque. For the first time in the UK, 29 of her paintings – loaned from more than 20 museums – are on view in ‘Artemisia’, curated by Letizia Treves, at London’s National Gallery. Also on display are works by other artists, including her father and teacher Orazio, as well as the passionate letters she wrote to her lover, Francesco Maria Maringhi. 

This thrilling exhibition – the first-ever devoted to a historic female artist at the National Gallery – is chronological: opening with Gentileschi’s beginnings in Rome, where she was born, it moves through her success in Florence to her later years in Venice, Naples and London. Portraits of formidable women in history abound: from Bathsheba, Cleopatra, Clio and Corisca, to Danaë, Esther, Jael, Lucretia and Mary Magdalene. Gentileschi painted her earliest major work, Susannah and the Elders, in 1610, when she was just 17. This biblical story was popular in the Renaissance: a young Hebrew wife is accosted by two lecherous old men who falsely accuse her of taking lovers. They threaten to reveal her secret unless she has sex with them, but their machinations are revealed and they are put to death. In Gentileschi’s brilliant, claustrophobic version, Susannah recoils in horror from her tormentors, her hands raised high as if to fend off the blows of their words. It’s a painting that would prove horribly prophetic. 

Artemisia Gentileschi Susannah and the Elders, 1610 Oil on canvas 170 × 121 cm © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susannah and the Elders, 1610, oil on canvas, 1.7 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden 

The following year, Gentileschi’s teacher, the artist Agostino Tassi, raped her. He was arrested, found guilty and exiled from Rome but, as he was close to the Pope, it was only briefly enforced. Much of the 300-page transcript of the seven-month trial has survived and is included in the exhibition. It records how Gentileschi was tortured to test the truth of her words and repeatedly cried out: ‘It’s true, it’s true.’ The day after the trial finished, Gentileschi was married off to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre painter who traded in pigments. They moved to Florence, where she painted her fierce Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr (c.1613–14) and Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c.1615). Bought in 2018 by the National Gallery, the latter is the first 17th-century Italian self-portrait by a woman in the museum’s collection of around 2,300 works, of which only 24 are by female artists. The work’s intense framing creates a sense of intimacy; you can almost feel the artist breathing. Despite being condemned to death for her beliefs and vulnerable to the ghastly machinations of men and their politics, Catherine/Gentileschi is clearly not broken. This is a self-portrait as a show of strength: a young woman in total control of her own representation. 

In the years immediately after the trial, Gentileschi painted two graphic versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1612–14), both of which are on display here. The story concerns the assassination by the Biblical heroine Judith of the Assyrian General Holofernes, whose armies had invaded her homeland. It’s likely that Gentileschi had seen Caravaggio’s version from 1598–99; however, her interpretation of the story is far more brutal than his – and Caravaggio was a convicted murderer.

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith beheading Holofernes, about 1612-13 Oil on canvas 158.8 × 125.5 cm Napoli, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte (Q378) © ph. Luciano Romano / Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte 2016
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c.1612–14, oil on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples; photograph: © Luciano Romano 

In 1638, Gentileschi joined her father in London, where he was working for the royal family. Here, she painted her extraordinary Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638–39). Although the work is relatively small, its ambition is huge. It’s an astonishingly active self-portrait of an artist at work: Gentileschi is consumed with the canvas in front of her; her cheeks are flushed and her dark-brown eyes gaze upwards, both at the painting she is concentrating so hard on and into the light. The angle of her self-depiction is complex and original; the perspective is tilted, so we can’t help but look up at her – or, perhaps, up to her? The painting is a defiant statement that Gentileschi, a woman, is not simply the embodiment of an allegory but is also a human being hard at work. 

Orazio died and Gentileschi returned to Naples. Her final years were professionally successful, but the letters she wrote to her patron, Antonio Ruffo, make clear her daily battles – with illness, the cost of models and the violence of the city. Yet, Gentileschi was never cowed, proclaiming in one missive: ‘You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.’ 

Artemisia Gentileschi Self Portrait as a Female Martyr, about 1613-14 Oil on panel 31.8 × 21.8 cm Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr, c.1613–14, oil on panel, 32 × 22 cm. Courtesy: © the owner (private collection) 

Her final painting is dated 1652: poignantly, it’s another version of Susannah and the Elders. The date of the artist’s death is unknown; the last we know of her is a payment towards an overdue tax bill in 1654. She possibly died of the plague in 1656, which nearly eradicated the population of Naples that year. Gentileschi left behind around 57 major paintings, many of which feature a woman as a powerful, often violent, protagonist: victorious, whatever life has thrown at her. 

‘Artemisia’ runs at the National Gallery, London, UK, until 24 January 2020.

Main image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–39, oil on canvas, 99 × 75 cm. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.