“A woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen”, wrote Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) to her Sicilian patron and art collector, Don Antonio Ruffo, in 1649. As Germaine Greer bitterly observed in The Obstacle Race, ‘unfortunately, prejudice against women means that women painters generally accumulate the worst, rather than having their best work attributed to others’. As if to confirm this statement, Artemisia’s works were long viewed as a mediocre derivation of her father’s art or attributed to him. Some of her paintings ended up being misattributed to artists Guido Cagnacci, Artemisia’s Neapolitan collaborator Bernardo Cavallino, or her art student Massimo Stanzione. Not surprising, considered, that even in her own lifetime (in the 1620s), painter Alessandro Bardelli had the audacity to claim as his own her canvas painted for Cosimo II Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Like Caravaggio, Artemisia remained forgotten throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until her public trial records were discovered in the late 19th century by Antonio Bertolotti. Early in the 20th century Italian art-critic Roberto Longhi rehabilitated both artists in his essays.
However, while Caravaggio was celebrated as the greatest artist of the Baroque era, Artemisia’s work fell prey to the “default male” principle and was dismissed as inferior, secondary art. Longhi described her as a “first-rate painter technically”, but “intellectually inferior, even to her father”, an opinion shared by the likes of the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark. Even a contemporary feminist critic Camille Paglia characterized Artemisia as “simply a polished, competent painter in a Baroque style created by men”. Luckily, there exist other points of view. Artemisia’s role was re-established and re-negotiated in the last quarter of the twentieth century by feminist artists, like Judy Chicago or June Wayne, and art critics, led by Mary Garrard, one of the founders of feminist art history, who proclaimed Artemisia a forerunner of the feminist movement and “the first female artist to paint large historical and religious pictures, subjects considered off-limits to women, who were expected to confine themselves to the painting of small devotional pictures”. In March 2020, Garrard released her new monograph Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe, followed by a new sympathetic biography of the artist, written by the British art critic Jonathan Jones. There he dealt with inaccuracies and errors concerning Artemisia’s rape, trial and artistic career. As before, Artemisia’s life and art remain relevant, without losing their challenge and appeal. Her forceful, combative personality, extraordinary creative energy, unrelenting spirit, self-esteem, ambition and grit, her international fame, as well as the reputation for being witty, “excellent and learned”, still fascinate and inspire women today. That said, it is worth mentioning the new artistic project “Finding Artemisia” initiated by British artist Luisa-Maria MacCormack who worked closely with six women “to give a voice to their gender-based trauma, using them as subjects whilst avoiding their forced silence as artistic muses”.
Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593, the eldest child and the only daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudentia. Growing up was not easy for Artemisia: she lost her mother at the age of twelve and led a sequestered life at her father’s house, looking after her three younger brothers. Having displayed her artistic talent early, she was taught by her father and worked in his studio in Rome from sixteen years onwards. However, she became known at the age of seventeen, not as a young prodigy, but as a victim of rape: a marine landscape artist Agostino Tassi, more than twice her age, who worked with her father, was the perpetrator. He was an abuser and serial liar, suspected of his wife’s murder and rape of his sister-in-law. Contrary to the popular myth, Tassi never had been Artemisia’s art teacher, but became a frequent visitor to the Gentileschi’s home, often arriving on the pretext of picking up art supplies. As he was also skilled in creating perspective illusions (so-called quadrature), in 1611 Tassi and Gentileschi collaborated on frescoes for Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s summer palace (Casino of the Muses), with Gentileschi’s figures inhabiting the illusory spaces created by Tassi. One of those figures is a young woman, holding the fan, her hair hanging loose – possibly a portrait of young Artemisia.
For a long time, Tassi stalked the girl. However, the rape would not have been possible, if not for the complicity of Tuzia Medaglia, a mother figure and a chaperone for young Artemisia. She literally facilitated the rape by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to Artemisia’s situation. The subsequent story of the seven-months grueling court case with all sordid details made public, counteraccusations raised against Artemisia by Tassi, who sought to present her as an untrustworthy “whore” by suborning witnesses and producing fake letters she’d supposedly written to other men, post-traumatic shock, excruciating physical examination, conducted by two midwives and constant moral agony, would have been enough to break any young woman’s spirit and obliterate her life and reputation for good. Not Artemisia’s. This seventeen-year girl had the defiance and courage to stand up for herself in the presence of her rapist, who, predictably, denied her evidence. To add injury to insult, Artemisia was cross-examined and tortured in Tassi’s prison cell to verify her testimony: her desperate and pained “è vero, è vero, è vero, è vero” (it is true, it is true, it is true), as sibille cords were wrapped tighter and tighter together around her fingers, is recorded in 400-page trial testimony.
In November 1612 Tassi was convicted and banished from Rome but the decision of the court was subsequently overturned on instructions of the Pope. It was Artemisia who had to bear the consequences. The next day after the trial she was married off to Pierantonio Stiattesi (younger brother of an impoverished notary who lodged with the Gentileschis), a painter from Florence, whose talent was far inferior to Artemisia’s. It was clearly an arranged marriage to save her honor, while for Stiattesi it was a chance to improve his financial situation by receiving the girl’s dowry. Scholar Francesco Solinas characterizes him as “a loyal and affectionate assistant and faithful parasite, protector of his wife’s honor”. Artemisia left her native city and moved with her husband to Florence for a fresh start. Eventually, she had her best revenge by achieving success and recognition among art patrons and fellow artists. Who remembers a mediocre Agostino Tassi outside Artemisia’s case today? Meanwhile, her oeuvre continues to attract worldwide attention.
She became a celebrity at a time when women artists were rarely acknowledged. She created her most famous works before she turned 25. In Tuscany, she associated with some great Florentines of the age, like scientist Galileo Galilei (her lifelong friend and correspondent), artist Cristofano Allori (in 1615 he acted as godfather to Artemisia’s third child, named Cristofano in his honor) and poet Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, the grand-nephew of the Renaissance master. He commissioned her to paint the Allegory of Inclination for the Casa Buonarotti in 1615-16 when she was only 22. Artemisia captured her allegory as a female nude so convincingly, that drapery was ordered to be painted later over the naked body. In July 1616, Artemisia became the very first woman to join the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence. The Academy, part artists’ guild and part organization to honor the city’s leading figures (Galileo Galilei joined three years earlier), had been established in 1563. It was in Florence that Artemisia truly became a painter with her instantly recognizable style, her own reputation, and her clients.
While in Tuscany, Artemisia assumed her original father’s Florentine family name – Lomi (after all, her grandfather was the famous goldsmith Giovanni Battista Lomi, who made the iconic crown for Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany). This way, she might have wished to distance herself from past trauma and its painful memories. She quickly taught herself to read and write (she grew illiterate, like most girls of her class). We know this because of her correspondence with a wealthy Florentine nobleman Francesco Maria Maringhi. It is possible that she met Maringhi through Buonarotti the Younger, and the two began a passionate clandestine love affair, while Artemisia was still married. Their correspondence was only discovered in 2011 in family archives of the Marchesi Frescobaldi in Florence and until recently has never been seen outside of Italy. At the London exhibition1 one gets the chance to see Artemisia’s own handwriting and ‘hear’ her voice through intense, ardent love letters, written between 1618 and 1620. She signs them as “Artemisia Lomi”.
Despite all difficulties, Artemisia thrived at the Medici court, as testified by her Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1615-17), formerly hung in the Apartment of the Courtly Ladies at the Medici Villa at Artimino. The image may relate to an entertainment at court in 1615, when a “Sig.ra Artemisia” was recorded among the performers. On that occasion, the music was composed by Francesca Caccini (daughter of composer Giulio Caccini), a highly successful and outstanding woman composer at the Medici court. The constellation of brilliant women in Florence was not a coincidence: Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and mother to Cosimo II Medici, was a remarkable woman. It was she, who being a notable patron of art, science and religion, invited Galileo Galilei to the Tuscan court in 1605. It was also Christina of Lorraine who Orazio Gentileschi petitioned about Artemisia, following the trial in the summer of 1612. He praised his daughter as a young artistic prodigy. Of all the family, he acknowledged that it was Artemisia who inherited his gift, “having been educated in the art of painting”. According to Orazio, just in three years, she became so accomplished that he “would dare to say that she has no equal for she now executes such works as perhaps the leading Mastri of this profession have not reached for their level of skill”. It was not long before other members of the Medici family took an interest in Artemisia. Shortly afterward, she herself became the subject of contemporary artists’ works.
About 1625, when she was 32, a medallion was issued in Rome with her portrait in profile with a Latin inscription: “Artemisia Gentileschi Famous Painter (Artemisia Gentileschi Pictrix Celebris). There are only two extant examples of this medal (the other is in Berlin). That Artemisia should be memorialized in a format inspired by ancient coins and Renaissance medals, attested to her fame and recognition among the fellow artists.
Following her return to Rome in 1620, Artemisia became the subject of another work of art, this time by French artist Simon Vouet. Elected as president of the Academy of St. Luke, he stayed in Rome, painting the chapel of San Lorenzo in Lucina. We do not know the circumstances of their meeting (although it is known that Artemisia prayed at San Lorenzo), but he painted the Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi between 1623-26. She is depicted in a golden dress with a palette, a chalk-holder and a bunch of brushes in her hand. She wears a medal featuring the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, built by King Mausolus’ widow – Queen Artemisia.
In the same year, another French artist, Pierre Dumonstier II, arrived in Rome. He was clearly in awe with Artemisia’s talent, for he made an exquisite black and red chalk drawing of her right hand elegantly holding a brush between her first two fingers and a thumb, now in the collection of the British Museum, London. There is an inscription, running above the drawing, reading: “This last of December 1625 after the dignified hand of the excellent and learned Artemisia, gentle lady of Rome”. And on the back an addition: “The hands of Aurora are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this one is thousand times more worthy because it has the knowledge to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture”. It is not a ‘portrait’ in the traditional sense, but rather a symbolical representation of the artist by her hand – the agent of her innate talent and resulting success. Interestingly, the Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush by Dumonstier appears to refer to Artemisia’s hand in Vouet’s portrait. The drawing must have been intended for the famous collector and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo, who owned both works.
Surprisingly, it was the 2018 National Gallery’s acquisition of Artemisia’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) – her first painting to enter a UK public collection – that acted as a catalyst for her current exhibition in London that brought around thirty of the artist’s works from public institutions and private collections from around the world – the majority of the loans have never been seen in the UK before. The image of St. Catherine was painted at approximately the same time as the Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, but in this case, Artemisia took on the guise of a saint famed for her intellect. These two self-portraits, done in Florence and listed in Medici collections, give a clear idea of what Artemisia looked like.
As for the exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s work at the National Gallery in London, it was the achievement of Letizia Treves, the National Gallery James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings, who managed to mount a major monographic show despite the logistic nightmare, brought about by Covid-19 pandemic. The opening of the exhibition was delayed by almost six months. The postponement required Herculean efforts on the part of the staff and lenders. However, having finally launched in October 2020, the show stayed open only for three weeks, shortly re-opening in December before the new set of lockdown measures was announced in London. It seems that the exhibition shared in Artemisia’s turbulent fate. Perhaps, the art historian Jonathan Jones was right about the “curse of Artemisia” and “the great artist’s terrible luck”.
According to Treves, the narrative of Artemisia’s rape and trial obscured her art and overshadowed her significant artistic achievements, while, in fact, she had been recognized as one of the most gifted painters of the Italian Baroque era. Therefore, the goal of the exhibition was to balance out the view of Artemisia as an artist and as a woman. “Artemisia is an inspirational figure of resilience and unbowed creativity in the face of exceptionally challenging odds. I hope that this exhibition will bring Artemisia’s artistic achievements to the fore so that visitors can fully appreciate what a talented painter and extraordinary woman she really was”, concluded Treves.
The exhibition opens with Artemisia’s first work that made her famous – Susannah and the Elders, painted and signed in 1610 (although some art historians believe the date to be wrong), and seemingly foreshadowing the tragic events after which Artemisia’s life would never be the same. The artist herself experienced first-hand the plight of Susannah, the heroine of the Old Testament Book of Daniel (13:15-63). The story narrated by a beautiful virtuous wife of a wealthy Babylonian Jew and two judges, friends of her husband, who spied on her in her garden and were overwhelmed with lust. On a hot summer day, as she was about to take her bath alone, they accosted her, demanding sexual favors and threatening to accuse her of having been seen with a lover, if she rejected them. She refused to be blackmailed by the judges. In the end, justice prevailed, and Susannah was set free, her reputation restored, while two lustful men were sentenced to death. Artemisia’s canvas contained hidden references to Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine chapel (Susannah’s hands resemble that of Adam being expelled from Paradise) and departed from Orazio’s style. The painting also demonstrates Artemisia’s awareness of the works of the Carracci family and its school. The young artist claims to be a painter of complex narratives with subtexts and layers of meaning.
This masterful work is displayed next to the original transcript of the rape trial in which Orazio Gentileschi pressed charges against Tassi for deflowering Artemisia (1612, Archivio di Stato, Rome). Written partly in Latin but with spoken responses noted verbatim in Italian, the document is shown to the public for the very first time with its pages open on Monday, 14 May 1612, when Artemisia was brought to court to have judicial torture to verify her earlier statement. As revealed in the new biography, written by Jonathan Jones, who had studied the Roman archives, the rape was a vile Machiavellian plot, intended to destroy the reputation of the Gentileschi family – “a conspiracy against a young woman hatched at the heart of the Rome of the popes”. All in all, the subsequent trial proved to be about more than just a young sexually curious, “lascivious and precocious” girl falling in love with her art tutor.
Jones also suggested that the two men in the composition – the old and the young one, with black curly hair – uncannily resembled the figures of Tassi and much older papal official Cosimo Quorli, who both had stalked, harassed and pressured young Artemisia for months preceding the rape. Apparently, Quorli had been plotting the scheme since Tassi’s arrival in Rome in June 1610. He wielded significant power as quartermaster to the Pope, or the person responsible for furnishings in the papal palaces. Quorli and Tassi also might have been spreading rumors about the girl: the pretext for Tassi’s first visit to Artemisia when her father was away, was his feigned concern about the vile rumors (no doubt, invented), supposedly spread about her by a former Gentileschi’s servant.
This meeting paved the way to further encounters, also facilitated by the treachery of Tuzia Medaglia, Artemisia’s chaperone. As Tassi and Quorli expected, Artemisia kept quiet about Tassi’s visits. Finally, prompted by Medaglia, Tassi entered the house unnoticed when Artemisia was painting. He tore the brush and palette from her hands, telling her not “to paint so much”, bundled her into her bedroom and raped her. Artemisia managed to wound him with a knife in an attempt to defend her honor, which prompted Tassi to promise to “marry” her (perhaps, the goal was to make her keep silent about what had happened). Later, Quorli made several attempts to rape Artemisia himself, but she fought off the old man. “An older and a younger man conspiring to subject a young woman to sexual terror and humiliation – it’s hard to disassociate Artemisia’s experience of 1611 from her painting of Susannah and the Elders of 1610”, wrote Jones in his new book.
It all came to a halt during the carnival party in 1612, when Artemisia sent her new painting Judith beheading Holofernes, as a present to Tassi. Having learned about this, Quorli forged a letter from Artemisia addressed to Tassi’s household and telling them to hand the painting over to Quorli. The cunning plan worked, provoking a subsequent scandal. We do not know, what became an eye-opener for Orazio, who had remained ignorant of the events unfolding in front of his eyes, but in the third week of March 1612, he addressed a petition to Pope Paul V filing a suit against Tuzia Medaglia, Tassi and Quorli for the rape of a virgin and procurement. He also charged Quorli with “the theft of paintings”, including a Judith “of large size”. Quite possibly, it was that iconic Artemisia’s painting, capturing Holofernes’ murder by the biblical heroine Judith and her maidservant Abra.
Garrard believes that “Artemisia’s innovation lies not in depicting a woman beheading a man, but in representing a powerful sisterhood”. Nevertheless, the representation was a “savagely violent” one, with Artemisia’s pent-up anger and fury finally finding their outlet. The sharp, reflective blade of Judith’s ornate sword commands the composition. It cuts through the neck of Holofernes, but equally “marks the vertical center of the composition”, in which “extreme violence is juxtaposed against ornate beauty”. Contemporaries saw a certain resemblance to Tassi in Holofernes’ features. During the trial, Artemisia told the judges that she would have killed Tassi if she could. The composition of the work literally reversed what had happened to her during the rape and through her alter ego, Judith, she accomplished what she must have dreamt of so many times in real life. Psychologists list anger, or rage, among the spectrum of possible reactions of a rape victim to the experienced trauma. Anger, when dealt with and channeled constructively, can become the “fuel”, necessary for rebuilding a survivor’s life. In retrospect, this is what must have happened to Artemisia, judging by how obsessively she was churning out the scenes of Holofernes’ murder (the exhibition also features another version of 1613-14 from the Uffizi collection). Likewise, Jael and Sisera, painted in 1620, seem to fall into this category. For Artemisia, her art became her therapy, her paintings – the chronicles of tempests raging in her soul.
This is most evident in the evolution of her Susannah and the Elders visual narrative. Her first 1610 interpretation of the subject is visceral, pained, agonized, nightmarish. It is followed by the tearful version of 1622 (now in Burghley collection), executed when Artemisia was 29, at the height of her fame in Rome. Susannah’s attitude stems from the ‘Venus pudica’ pose and, “more specifically, from a Hellenistic sculpture of Crouching Venus that shows the goddess, surprised at her bath, attempting to cover her breasts”, as explains the entry in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Two men (the older and the younger one) leer at her, still menacingly looming above. She looks vulnerable, helpless and paralyzed by terror, her eyes imploringly looking heavenwards. Artemisia revisits the subject at the age of 59. Susannah and the Elders, painted in 1652 (coincidentally, her last dated work) seems to have finally taken the assault into perspective. In this composition, Susannah is a fragile, but powerful, meditative, calm, self-possessed figure, commanding respect. She is not just a helpless victim of the heinous crime – she is fully aware that justice is on her side. The crime perpetrated by the elders is no longer the center of the composition – it is Susannah, who dominates the scene. Speaking in terms of today’s psychology, Artemisia appears to have undergone the “reorganization phase”, having recovered from the traumatic event, after which the life of the rape victim no longer revolves around her traumatic past. The heroine in the painting deflects, or even halts, the elders’ unwanted advances.
Whether Artemisia identified with her female subjects is still a matter for debate but there is no doubt that she invested herself in her paintings and responded to certain narratives in a more personal way. Her ability to paint female figures of passion, vulnerability and strength remained her trademark throughout her career. Her patrons, while choosing the subject matter of the painting, wished from her something that no male artist could provide – a female perspective and sensibility. As she interpreted conventional subjects, – the so-called “feminine repertoire” (Lucretia, Cleopatra, Susanna, Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, women saints and martyrs) – she reconstituted female narratives to suit her purposes, significantly developing and enriching them in the process of interpretation. It is also remarkable how Artemisia links death and sexuality, and fills her compositions with rhetorical drama, as in Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (about 1620-25, private European collection), rediscovered in 2014 and on display in the UK for the first time. Traditionally represented as a repentant sinner, Mary Magdalene is shown in a semi-reclining pose, her head thrown back and eyes closed. She is oblivious to the world and does not seem to notice her white chemise slipping off her shoulder. Next to her is Lucretia (1620-25) in a tightly cropped, almost cinematographic, composition, captured in her final moments. She seems in doubt, but her furrowed brow conveys the sense of anguish and determination: although a wronged woman, Lucretia is in charge of her own destiny. Meanwhile, the dying Cleopatra (1633-35), appears ashen, her lips turning blue – not necessarily the representation of the seductive queen an art patron would find erotically charged.
As for the portraits, painted by Artemisia, very few remain, but the ones that have survived, are truly remarkable and demonstrate her extraordinary power as a portraitist. Several seventeenth-century accounts describe her as a masterful and prolific master of this genre. The Portrait of a Gonfaloniere (1622) and Portrait of a Lady holding a Fan (the mid-1620s) instantly evoke the images of Velázquez, Rubens or Van Dyck. They do not copy the formulae of these masters, but establish their own original idiom: the sitters appear natural, relaxed and powerful at the same time.
Fleeing from her mounting debts in Florence, Artemisia returned to Rome in 1620. According to some sources, her father and brothers resented her return, and she finally stopped any contact with her jealous and possessive father. After all, she still remembered, that, as summed up by Solinas, “it was primarily for financial reasons that he subjected her to the scandal of the trial against Tassi, the face-saving marriage to the mediocre Stiattesi and her departure from Rome”. In 1623, Artemisia lost trace of her husband, who was arrested in 1622 on charges of attacking some Spaniard who had sung serenades beneath Artemisia’s window. And prior to that, she witnessed Orazio Gentileschi leaving Rome for good: they did not part amicably, and would only meet again in London, shortly before his death in 1638. Curiously, during that stay in Rome Artemisia mixed with foreign, rather than Italian painters, such as the Dutchman Gerrit van Honthorst, or the Frenchmen Nicholas Régnier and Simon Vouet.
After leaving Rome and staying for three years in Venice (between 1627-30), where she was celebrated for her art and beauty, Artemisia fled from the city following the outbreak of the bubonic plague. At the age of 38, she arrived in the Spanish-controlled city of Naples. She set up her own studio in Via Toledo, close to the harbor. One should remember that the Spanish-born Neapolitan Jusepe de Ribera, a friend of Velázquez, was very jealous of anyone who threatened his position as a leading artist. The men in his studio formed a gang which would oust any potential competitor. The celebrated Bolognese artist Domenichino had the misfortune of being bullied by them. As he arrived from Rome to Naples to paint the Chapel of Treasury in the city Cathedral, he began receiving death threats. Three years later he fled from Naples “in fear for his life”. Although this story was unfolding parallel to Artemisia’s arrival, she was well received and accepted by the local artistic community. Perhaps, her very powerful patrons shielded her from attacks, even though she was a friend and teacher of Massimo Stanzione – the artist who later became Ribera’s rival. Although she bitterly complained about Naples (we know from her correspondence that she sought to obtain a weapons license for a cleric working in her household), Artemisia remained there for the rest of her life, except for 1638-1640, when she worked at the English court. Until her departure to London, she remained under the protection of the Viceroy of the Spanish Kingdom of Naples, Fernando Afán de Ribera, Duke of Alcalá, who was stationed in Naples between 1631-37. Through sheer determination and business acumen, Artemisia’s career prospered, she ran a thriving workshop and aspired to be considered equal to any male artist.
There could be another reason, why Artemisia was so well received in Naples: as Rome increasingly preferred new fashionable artists like the Caracci brothers, or Bernini, the style of Caravaggio was still sought after in Spain and in Northern Europe. Artemisia’s works in Caravaggesque manner were appreciated for their tenebrism (the dramatic use of contrasting light-and-deep shade chiaroscuro effects), their heightened emotion and the naturalistic depiction of human, mostly female, figures. Artemisia absorbed Caravaggio’s stylistic achievements while also developing a distinctive language of her own. She also had the ability to adapt to her patrons’ tastes and wishes without compromising herself, so she stood out among Caravaggio’s followers. Finally, her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was on friendly terms with the artist and even lent his props to him. In 1603 when Artemisia was ten years old, Caravaggio borrowed from Orazio a Capuchin monk’s costume and a pair of wings, which he sent back ten days later. So, it is quite possible that Artemisia was revered as someone who once knew Caravaggio in person.
In Naples she began to obtain her first public commissions, requiring her to work on a monumental scale. The Annunciation, completed in 1630, the year of her arrival, was the first altarpiece of her career. She was soon engaged on a collaborative project with an established Neapolitan artist Domenico Gargiulo, who specialized in architectural paintings: in 1635-7 she completed The Martyrdom of St Januarius in the Amphitheatre for the choir of the Cathedral Basilica San Procolo, at Pozzuoli, near Naples (Gargiulo painted the background architecture). It is one of the “key and rarely-lent work” that was conserved and brought to the London exhibition with the financial support of Intesa Sanpaolo. Artemisia’s two other works for Pozzuoli were the Adoration of the Magi and Saints Proclus and Nicea.
Besides the church altarpieces, Artemisia also received commissions from Maria of Austria, sister of the King of Spain. On her arrival, Artemisia made sure to introduce herself to those who could later become her clients. In her letter to her Roman patron Cassiano dal Pozzo she requested him to send her most expensive perfumed leather gloves, “of the most beautiful sort, since I need to give them to some ladies” at the court as presents. She knew how to woo and hustle her prospective patrons: looking to obtain commissions, she would often send them her works – unsolicited – in the hope of gaining their attention. As her career progressed, she created paintings for illustrious art patrons across Europe, such as the Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian I Wittelsbach, Prince Eusebius von Liechtenstein and Philip IV of Spain. She certainly understood what self-promotion was about. Also, as in Florence or Venice, Artemisia moved in intellectual circles and was an inspiration to poets and writers.
There is another aspect to her stay in Naples: between 1620 and 1625, Dal Pozzo introduced her to Giovanna Garzoni, the Venice-trained miniaturist, a member of the Accademia di San Luca, famous for her still lifes and meticulously detailed gouache and watercolor botanical plates, commissioned for the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. Admired for the precision of her botanical drawings, Garzoni used strong magnifying lenses and an occhialino (or microscope) developed by Galileo Galilei. As a result of Dal Pozzo’s influence, the two women shared favors, travels and important sources of patronage.
In 1630-31, on Dal Pozzo’s recommendations, Artemisia and Garzoni found themselves together at the Neapolitan court of their noble host and patron Duke of Alcalá, and between 1639-40 Dal Pozzo would also involve the two women in delicate diplomatic missions on behalf of the Roman Curia to the court of Charles I of England and his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria of France. During their time in London, Artemisia and Garzoni met Marie de’ Medici, the exiled French queen and Iñigo Vélez de Guevara, 8th Count of Oñate and Tassis, Philip IV’s ambassador to the court of St James. The Spanish grandee would subse¬quently become viceroy in Naples (1648-53), and another Artemisia’s protector.
We know that such artists as Van Eyck, Titian, Velázquez and Rubens used to carry out important diplomatic missions, but it is probably the first documented evidence of women artists also being employed in this capacity. Perhaps, one could surmise that Artemisia escaped from Naples to London not simply for artistic, but also for political, diplomatic reasons? Apparently, she arrived in London in 1638 to help Orazio Gentileschi finish the ceiling for the Queen’s House in Greenwich (now in the Marlborough House). The subject of the painting was an allegory of Peace reigning over the Arts, painted in Orazio’s conventional Mannerist style. It is hard to know the extent of Artemisia’s involvement in this project, but the ceiling’s completion seemed to coincide with her arrival in London.
Throughout the years in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and London, she created multiple self-representations in various guises, sometimes bestowing her heroines with her own features. In the catalogue, accompanying the exhibition, Letizia Treves observed that “Artemisia made frequent use of her own image in her paintings, and her personal life was closely intertwined with her art”. Hence, there is a “temptation to see her features in almost every female figure she painted. Since her surviving corpus demonstrates a propensity for subjects that include strong heroines, there has been a tendency to regard Artemisia as fashioning many of these protagonists in her own image. Artemisia was certainly not exceptional for representing leading female characters drawn from the Bible or ancient history, but she was fully aware of the added desir¬ability – and titillation, in the case of full or partial nudity – for seventeenth-century collectors of owning a Susannah, Judith or Cleopatra not just painted by a woman artist but also resembling her”. Artemisia’s letters demonstrate her capitalizing on the fact that she was a woman, using it both as a point of weakness and of power. Some art critics even compare her method to that of Cindy Sherman – in any case, Artemisia well understood the power of the gaze and guise.
One of such memorable guises was her Self -Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), done in 1638-9. The image conflated two different traditions: allegory and self-portraiture (it was catalogued as self-portrait since re-entering the Royal Collection in the later 17th century). The use of women as symbols was archetypally Florentine, so, in this manner, she also referred to her Florentine roots. Artemisia was fully aware of the resulting ambiguity and exploited it: by associating herself with a personification of painting and placing her own initials prominently beneath the painter’s palette, she unequivocally embodied her own art. As noted by Elizabeth Cropper, even her name – Arte-mi-sia (‘let art be for me’) – proclaimed it. The allegorical image was based on the description in the artistic bible of that time – Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia:
A woman, beautiful, with full black hair, disheveled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently colored drapery …
As specified above, La Pittura wears a chain with a mask and has disheveled black hair and intense eyebrows. She looks away from the viewer, immersed in her canvas. Her lack of care for her clothes, while also being clad in her “drappo cangiante”, the shimmering dress of two-tone silk, and her “twisted” pose, point to the original description. There is an argument whether it is a self-portrait, as the woman represented is much younger than Artemisia, who was 45 years old at the time. However, one should distinguish between self-portraiture as a literal recording of features, and “self-representation, where a resemblance is clear, but the artist takes on different guises”.
Art historian Jonathan Jones offers his own interpretation of this work: based on the pose of the witness (self-portrait of Caravaggio), holding up a lantern, the symbol of the truth, in The Betrayal of Christ, he suggests that in her painting Artemisia holds up her right hand just as Caravaggio does, with her brush in place of his lantern, “their faces and raised arms the same”. This gives Jones the foundation to believe that in her Allegory of Painting “Artemisia sets out her stall to Charles as the most radical follower of Caravaggio… Indeed, she claims to be him. The Allegory of Painting merges their identities in one furious female artist”. In other words, Jones believes that Artemisia attempts to remake the image of Caravaggio as a woman. If not entirely convincing, it is an interesting point of view, set out in his recent biography of the artist.
Although she received “great honors and favors” at the English court, Artemisia felt dissatisfied, and by 1640 returned to Naples, where she resumed her artistic practice, remaining the sole head of her household. In 1649 she married off her daughter to a Knight of the Order of St. James. At 56 she was independent, recognized, celebrated – a leading artist and an accomplished painter, taking on her own apprentices. She achieved international fame, first with Cosimo II Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in Florence, then Philip IV, King of Spain, in Madrid and Naples, and Charles I, King of England, in London. Poems and songs were composed in her honor. She never let her past dominate her present and won her battle against all odds. Surely, at this point, she had every right and reason to conclude her letter to Don Ruffo in a seemingly diffident but also a somewhat condescending tone: “I shall not bother you any longer with this womanly chatter, for the works will speak for themselves”.
1 The National Gallery exhibition “Artemisia” is currently open online. You can also browse Google Arts & Culture digital selection of her works, notably the painted ceiling at Marlborough House completed in collaboration with her father (not publicly accessible). The collection allows users to zoom into the artwork at brushstroke-level details. Follow contemporary voices such as FKA twigs and Katy Hessel who discuss Artemisia’s relevance to women of today and examine how her legacy has informed the art canon.