Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Artemesia Gentileschi: "The Magnificent Exception"

Artemisia Gentileschi (born 8 July 1593)


The subtitle for today's post, "The Magnificent Exception," is the title of a chapter on the painter Artemisia Gentileschi in Germaine Greer's The Obstacle Race: The Fortune of Women Painters and Their Work. I can't begin to express the excitement I felt on encountering the work of this renowned Baroque painter when I first read Greer's 1979 discussion, which is accompanied by 10 black-and-white illustrations but only one color plate. 

Self-portrait, c. 1609-12
Then there was Mary Gerrard's stunning 1991 Artemisia Gentileschi, a book that weighs in at nearly five pounds--607 pages, 24 color plates, 327 black-and-white illustrations. 

And I just about lost it in 2003, wandering through the Uffizi, when I turned a corner and found myself face to face, for the first time, with a Gentileschi painting that wasn't a color plate in a book--the painting was large, one of several versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes. (This painting, along with her Saint Catherine, was among those badly damaged in the 1993 car bombing of the Uffizi, but both have been restored.)

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, himself a noted painter, and Prudentia Montone, about whom very little is said, except for the fact that she died when Artemisia was about twelve. In assessing Artemisia and her work, Greer writes, "Great genius is the exception that makes the rule. It is always and everywhere gratuitous; the wonder is not that genius does not appear on earth more often but that it ever appears on earth at all": 
For the woman of today, Artemisia represents the female equivalent to the Old Master. She is the exception to all the rules: she rejected a conventional feminine rĂ´le for a revolutionary female one. The price she paid was enormous: we shall never know how much of her potential was expended in fruitless friction, truculently defending her independence, exacting respect from patrons who condescended doubly to a woman dependent upon their support. 
As Greer makes clear, while Gentileschi might be an "exception to all the rules," even a "magnificent exception," her road was not easy. She was a successful, internationally known artist, but she paid a heavy price. 

Her life story has been sensationalized in film, novels, a graphic novel, and even a play that imagines Artemisia Gentileschi and Hildegard of Bingen in an "exorcism," talking about their lives and work "on an explosive arts panel about survival strategies for women artists." She is also present at Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party--her place setting is one of those prepared for thirty-nine women represent at the table.

Self-portrait, c. 1630
Maybe "sensationalized" is the wrong word to use here, because there was a well-documented rape trial. If you are interested in the lives of women in the past, as I am, the charges brought by Artemisia's father against the painter Agostino Tassi, whom he had hired to tutor his daughter, are not insignificant, and it's easy enough to find the details online. But Artemisia Gentileschi is more than this single event, as traumatic as this assault was. 

From 1614 to 1620, Artemisia Gentileschi worked in Florence, the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). After a brief return to Rome, she was on to Genoa, then back in Rome (1620s), then on to Venice (c. 1627-30), to Naples (1630s), and eventually on to England (1638 to c. 1642).

After the Civil War broke out in England, she could be found again in Naples, where she seems to have died, perhaps in 1652 but maybe as late as 1656. These were not the wanderings of a woman who could not find work--every where she went, she found patrons, commissions, and opportunities.

Susanna and the Elders, 1610
But such a listing of where she worked is a mere itinerary, however. The works speak for themselves. Most memorable, at least for me, are her paintings featuring female subjects, like her 1610 Susanna and the Elders.

The most widely recognized of her paintings are her variations on the topic of Judith slaying Holofernes. They are mesmerizing--graphic, bloody, powerful, memorable. One of these Judiths is what stopped me dead in my tracks at the Uffizi in 2003. After hours spent in the galleries, where all the great artworks had begun to blur together and send me into system overload, experiencing that painting was a singular and memorable moment. (My son gave me three magnificent reproductions of Artemisia's Judith paintings last Christmas--they are hanging above my desk as I write this post!)

There are many excellent books on Artemisia Gentileschi and her work, more recent than the Greer and Garraard works I've noted above. But I'll link you here to a wonderful biography and online gallery from The Art History Archive. After that, you won't have any trouble finding more.

(I don't usually link you to Wikipedia articles, since anyone can find them--but there's an extensive bibliography there, which is something the Art History Archive does not provide.)

Also, just for fun, I pulled my massive college art history textbook off the shelf--H. W. Janson's History of Art, the 1968 "Twelfth Printing." Guess who's not there??? (By the way, there were  no women artists at all in that book, and not a single woman artist made her way into this standard art-history textbook until 1986, nearly twenty years later--when twenty-one women are included! Twenty years after that, in 2011, only twenty-seven women artists were included. But for the 2008 8th edition, one of Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith paintings was on the cover . . . Good, I guess?)



Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612-13