Updated: May 7, 2021
Though Artemisia Gentilleschi (1593-1652) was quite famous in her lifetime, the most famous female painter of the 17th century, she was forgotten for over 300 years. However, in 2018 the National Gallery in London acquired this painting of Artemisia in the guise of St. Catherine of Alexandria. This purchase was the first purchase of a work by a female artist in 27 years and only the 21st in the history of the gallery, which has a permanent collection of some 2,300 works. Not only have they cleaned and restored the painting, putting it into a new frame, but in the lead up to a major exhibition of her work in 2020, they have sent her touring! Yes, this great lady painter is making the rounds this year of various places in the U.K., from schools, to libraries, to doctors' offices, and women's prisons (by the way, the doctors report that the painting has a calming effect on patients). Artemisia "fever" seems to be everywhere as here in this wonderful gallery exhibition by Robilant and Voena called The Gentileschi Effect https://www.robilantvoena.com/exhibitions/191/ Well worth a look.
So what's all the fuss about, and who was she anyway? Born in Rome in 1593, she was the daughter of a painter, Orazio Gentileschi, a follower of Caravaggio, as was his daughter after him. A very talented youngster, she was talented enough for her father to hire her a private instructor, Agostino Tassi. Unfortunately, Tassi took advantage of the 17 year old, in fact raping her (more on that in my blog post "The Indecent Proposal: Susanna and the Elders"). Despite the horror of this and the trial (her father brought Tassi to court where Tassi was condemned as guilty but with the punishment never meted out), Artemisia went on with her life, marrying and moving to Florence where her patron was the Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II. She was much favored in her day, and her image became well known as she often painted herself in her paintings. Often her work involved the retelling of rather gory tales of women being wronged and men being brought to justice (Susanna and the Elders, 1610, or Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620 or St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-1617, who at least became a saint.) Given the early tragedy in her life (note those paintings were all done within ten years of the rape), one can understand her penchant for such themes. However, what fascinates me is how she moves through life in allegorical self-portraits. I want to look at the Self Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, The Allegory of Fame, and The Allegory of Painting.
Above we see Artemisia as St. Catherine, a noble woman (princess supposedly) who was known for being superbly educated, and who, as a Christian, was busy converting people to the then new religion. This did not please the Roman emperor Maxentius, especially when his wife converted. Catherine managed to out debate all of the scholars the emperor sent to question her. She was still sentenced to death upon a spiked wheel (notice that in the portrait above), but it broke. However, she was martyred anyway, as they just chopped off her head. It is sometimes thought that this apocryphal tale was just a retelling of what happened to mathematician, Hypatia, with the religions switched and beheading instead of stoning. The physical suffering of the saint might be reminiscent of the torture Artemisia went through during her rape trial to make sure she was telling the truth. Thumbscrews were applied to her fingers, for instance. Notice in that painting how Artemisia is giving us the side-eye as she holds the palm of the martyr. She endured, and St. Catherine's broken wheel symbolizes Artemisia's own truthfulness. Artemisia cast herself as the martyred saint and told the world part of her own story.
Sometimes she painted herself as a concept, in an allegory. Allegories were ways of painting abstract concepts and quite a popular genre during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In this self-portrait, Artemisia is Fama or Fame, and indeed by 1630 when she began this painting, she was famous. It was said as early as 1625 that "It was easier to envy her than to imitate her" (Morris). It is thought that this piece was painted in Naples, though it might have been painted in London, her next place of residence. Mercury was normally the symbol for Fame. However, since allegories were always represented by a female rather than a male, painters of this theme often gave the female some symbol of Mercury. Mercury was the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, and here we see Artemisia holding a horn or trumpet, an instrument to draw attention to the imminent delivery of a message. Perhaps it was the fact that she was about to go to London where she would have great success in the Court of King Charles I. Again, she is wrapped in rich dark red, though this time with quite a show of skin. Her eyes are to the side, as if saying, "Well, of course, I am famous. How could you ever doubt it?" The elegance of it is quite wonderful as she had a hard upbringing, since her father was not rich, her mother died when Artemisia was only 12, and then there was Agostino Tassi. This is a woman whose prestige and fame were hard won, and she wore them as her mantle.
By the time she was painting this allegory, it was 28 years past the time of the rape trial, and she was living in London with many clients and the King as a patron. Now, going from Duke to King in terms of patronage is quite a step up. Her successful career, perhaps, supported her bold move to paint herself as Painting. Now there is dispute about whether this is really a self-portrait. In Vermeer's Allegory of Painting, one sees the male artist, with his back turned to the viewer, painting a female figure dressed in robes and a wreath-like crown to suggest classical times. So Artemisia may have been pushing it a bit to paint herself as the essence of Painting, so she may have disguised herself somewhat. However, there is no doubt that she was showing herself to be a great painter, just by doing this piece even if it is not a self-portrait.
So Artemisia is back and once again reigning in glory. Loan requests from the National Gallery in London have gone out across the world for key paintings to be lent for the exposition of her work planned for February 22 through May 31, 2020. Her re-emergence has sparked a number of proposed shows of her work and other work from the Baroque period. From Rome, to Naples, to Paris to Seattle (October 17, 2019 - January 26, 2020), everyone wants a piece of Artemisia. Meanwhile her painting of herself as St. Catherine of Alexandria continues its tour. One poignant comment from Artemisia's visit to the women's prison shows how powerful her story is, "I see pain in her eyes."
[Side note: St. Catherine's day is celebrated in France in late November on the 25th. I was surprised my first November in Paris, years ago now, when on that day, I saw many young women wearing summer straw hats with flowers. When I asked about it, I was told on St. Catherine's Day, women 25 and under who are unmarried wear those summer flowery hats to let young men know that they are available for marriage. St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was a virgin saint, is one of the 14 Holy Helpers and the patron saint of unmarried women. In terms of business, milliners happily show off their creations, and compete for attention. The young women are supposed to wear the hats all day long, and are normally treated to a fine dinner by their friends. It was all quite a surprise for me, especially since St. Catherine died so gruesomely. In England the day is sort of a companion to Guy Fawkes Day which happens earlier in November. It is celebrated with spinning fireworks called St. Catherine's Wheel.]
Paintings are in public domain.
Quote from "Artemisia: Her Passion Was Painting" by Roderick Conway Morris, NYT November, 2011.
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019