By Arielle Lande
In the male-dominated 17th century, Artemisia Gentileschi was considered a significant figurehead of baroque painting. When brutally exposed to the gender politics of Renaissance society, she famously said ‘I will show your illustrious lordship what a woman can do’. The latest exhibition of her work at the National Gallery, not only gives her the posthumous recognition she finally deserves, but demonstrates her extraordinary artistic skill that unites the viewer with her paintings.
Artemisia transformed biblical subjects of the male gaze into courageous female heroines. She also reflects her own artistic valour in the portrayal of these women. Her depiction of Cleopatra, gripping the asp that will kill her in an act of fate, focuses on her dramatic suicide. A similar composition depicts the mythological figure Danae, who was raped by Zeus, in a highly narrative interpretation.
One is consumed by her intensely theatrical ‘Pittoras’; the viewer is inserted into the deeply intrusive scene of Suzannah and the Elders. Artemisia re-interpreted this subject twice more addressing this act in a trilogy of treachery. Two versions of Judith beheading Holofernes are hung next to each other, like a diptych, both erupting in blood and gore. The violence depicted in these paintings have been related to her brutal rape by her teacher, Agostino Tassi, in 1611, at the age of 17. This discourse of art history is visually represented in the exhibition, with a recorded document of the rape case on display in the first room, setting the tone for the drama that is to unfold.
Artemisia Gentileschi ,Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, (1593–1654 or after),oil on canvas, 71.5 × 71 cm, The National Gallery, London © Photo: The National Gallery, London
Artemisia’s life intertwines with her art, not only through her disturbing past, but also in her ambitious competition with her male contemporaries. The chiaroscuro shading and double portraiture, are emblematic of Caravaggio and her father, Orazio Gentileschi, who also created duplicates of his own works.
Over half of Artemisia’s paintings have been identified as self-portraits. Each one portrays an alteration of the ‘self,’ representing biblical figures or classical muses such as Self-portrait as a Female Martyr or Self-portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria. Arguably her most renowned is Allegory of Painting, which poses the question; is it a self-portrait, or an homage to the act of painting?
An appreciation of her body of works and indeed her life requires us to understand the battle between misogyny and feminism. Whilst this exhibition celebrates Artemisia in all her glory, it resounds in the struggle of female artists throughout history to gain recognition regardless of their gender. If Caravaggio’s violent lifestyle is considered separate from his artistic mastery, why has the narrative of Artemisia’s art, only now been disassociated from her rape?
Self-portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria is only the 21st painting by a woman to enter the National Gallery’s permanent collection, which is a rather embarrassing statistic, considering the museum boasts a colossal 2,300 works. This debate echoes the Guerrilla Girls poster in 1989; which asks the burning question: ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the MET. Museum’?
We should therefore hope that this exceptional display of work not only celebrates Artemisia but brings attention to the women from the Early Modern through to the contemporary, not because they were women, but because they were great artists.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith beheading Holofernes, 1611-12, oil on canvas, 159 x 126 cm, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, ( Public domain)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, ( Public Domain)