To understand why the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) is an artist for our time is to realize that she was an anomaly in her own.
After studying with her father, Orazio (1563-1639), a painter of considerable talent, Artemisia went on to pursue a spectacular career. The first woman to become a member of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, she was hailed by her contemporaries as a “noble and celebrated painter” and “a miracle in painting.” (Proving that hyperbole is forever, Artemisia’s admirers also deemed her a rival to the sun.)
She became a famous and much-sought-after artist, and counted as her patrons the Medici court as well as the kings of France, England and Spain. Artemisia beat significant odds to become the stellar exception in the old boys’ club. Is it any wonder she’s a favorite of feminist art historians?
The contemporary fascination with Artemisia also stems from the violence she suffered. At 17, Artemisia was, to use the legal term of the day, “deflowered” by a colleague of her father, the artist Agostino Tassi. Tassi, already a figure of considerable disrepute, was brought to trial and sentenced for the crime.
The rape of Artemisia has colored the way many people view her art-and who can blame them? After all, some of her best pictures depict strong-some might say vengeful-women taking matters into their own hands. Given Artemisia’s tale of victimization, endurance and ultimate success, she seems a figure tailor-made for the age of Oprah. Already the subject of three books, a movie and a play, Artemisia will undoubtedly continue to be the focus of popular beatification.
How much light this beatification will throw on her art is another question.Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy, an exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers an exemplary opportunity to consider the paintings of both. Judith W. Mann, curator of European art at the St. Louis Museum of Art-who organized the show along with Keith Christiansen of the Met and Rossella Vodret of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici di Roma in Rome-has no doubts about Artemisia’s artistic legitimacy.
She does, however, wonder whether “the application of gendered readings has created too narrow an expectation” of Artemisia’s accomplishment. Similarly, Ms. Mann worries about how the life might obscure the work.
These are good reasons to worry: Politics and biography are lousy guarantors of art. So it’s a mercy that Artemisia is as solid a painter as she is. She certainly knew that she was good: take a look at Self-Portrait as a Lute Player(circa 1615-17) and watch your P’s and Q’s around that ferocious confidence.
Artemisia’s finest paintings are those that depict the Old Testament narrative of the “worthy woman” Judith and her slaying of the Assyrian general Holofernes. Visitors to the Met will startle at Artemisia’s gorier renderings of this tale, particularly the blood-splattered Judith Slaying Holofernes from 1612-13. But the two versions of Judith and Her Maidservant -one dating from 1618-19, the other 1625-27-are more nuanced, less violent and just as charged.
Depicting the moments directly after the beheading of Holofornes, the works show the title characters responding to an unforeseen presence or noise. The earlier canvas is unsettling in its intimacy, while the later piece is a tour de force of expressive lighting. Both are tense in their calm. It is with these riveting pictures that Artemisia clears the murk surrounding her art.
The real discovery of Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy , however, is Orazio. Renowned in his own day, Orazio was, at the age of 40, transformed as a painter by the example of Caravaggio, an artist he befriended and shared studio props with. Although his talent would eventually propel him into the company of kings, Orazio was always something of a roughneck-spending his money recklessly, hitting the taverns, and writing obscene (and sometimes libelous) verse. Yet his paintings evince a temperament capable of profound religious feeling and astonishing pictorial delicacy.
Orazio’s Annunciation (1623) is the centerpiece of the show and as supernal a machine as one could hope for. The crowd-pleaser will undoubtedly be Lute Player (circa 1612-15), a canvas that more than deserves the sobriquet “Vermeer-esque.” Yet the show-stopper is Mocking of Christ (circa 1628/30-35). Treading a line between devotion and absurdity, this chilly painting pits refinement of means against brutality of subject. Mocking of Christ is bound to disturb all who come in contact with it and may offend some; therein resides its queasy power. It has to be one of the harshest paintings in the canon of Western art.
Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy is superbly mounted and a tremendous feat of scholarship, but it isn’t perfect. The exhibition is, in the end, too big for its subjects. Neither Orazio nor Artemisia can withstand the extensive scrutiny they are given here. Their artistic gifts, while substantial, lack expansiveness-there’s only so much of this family’s genius we want to put up with. Having said that, any exhibition that includes paintings as crystalline as Orazio’s Danae (1621-23) or as resplendent as Artemisia’s Susanna and the Elders (1622) qualifies as a must-see. So head to the Met and get ready to be impressed-at least for enough of the time.
© 2002 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 7, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.