Artemisia Gentileschi by Sheila Barker, director of the Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists in the Age of the Medici at the Medici Archive Project, is the second book in the monographic series Illuminating Women Artists co-published by Lund Humphries and Getty Publications.
The series, which began with the first English monograph on Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldan (published September 2021), will include monographs on the artists Sofonisba Anguissola, Mary Beale, Rosalba Carriera, Judith Leyster, Barbara Longhi, Louise Moillon, Plautilla Nelli, Josefa de Óbidos, Clara Peeters, and Elisabetta Sirani. All are Renaissance and Baroque artists who enjoyed celebrated careers during their lifetimes, but whom most readers have likely never heard of because contemporaneous sources neglected to “pass [them] down continually in the history of art.” It is these omissions that the series intends to combat. The sheer number of artists within this first chronological category suggests that the complete series will represent a proportionately large chunk of women artists omitted from the established art historical canon, indicating by extension a long-ingrained and long-unquestioned male bias.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c. 1654) is by a wide margin the most recognizable name on this list, enjoying greater recognition in recent years, with a healthy presence of works at auctions and a major retrospective at London’s National Gallery in 2020. Arguably, the sexual assault she suffered aged 17 at the hands of her father Orazio’s colleague Agostino Tassi has come to define her, if not in art historical terms then certainly in the popular imagination; her images of powerful female figures are easily summarized in auction or museum blurbs as avatars for feminist strength in defiance of (or revenge against) this singular biographical event. The 2020 show made inroads toward shaking off this reductive and emotionally driven interpretation. Barker deliberately sets out to correct “panegyric” accounts of her life and work, bringing together the most recent art historical developments and discoveries of primary documents to flesh out her biography, and asserting that we “have only begun to get to know her.” Barker also clarifies that the monograph is still far from exhaustive — we still do not know Artemisia’s place or date of death — and she encourages readers to continue to consult and cross check the evidence to further define Artemisia’s catalogue raisonné.
The account of Artemisia’s life is interwoven with details of 17th-century Italy that describe a patriarchal society oppressive to women’s independence. Women appearing in public spaces unattended was disapproved of. In 1611 Artemisia was obliged to take one excursion at dawn for safety, which nonetheless caused her to be waylaid by Tassi, who would go on to assault her. Viewing Artemisia’s works with this context makes them all the more astonishing; there is a compelling dichotomy between the cold, hard business acumen of a woman exploiting her exoticism as a female painter and the strong-willed character driven by remarkable self-belief and confidence.
Throughout her biography Artemisia appears driven by hard-nosed entrepreneurial intent. Barker reminds us that she knew “talent alone did not suffice to bring profits.” Early on in seeking to establish herself in Florence she patronized the silk merchant Alessandro Covoni, purchasing costly fabrics on credit — a risky move — in order to dress above her station, i.e., to look the part, gain access to her “main target,” the Medici Grand Duke, and potentially provide one of her works in lieu of payment. Repeatedly she associates with figures who can facilitate introductions to high-rolling patrons; she explicitly states to the Neapolitan painter Massimo Stanzione that producing portraits “served only as a means of acquiring the good graces of those who might then give more worthy kinds of commissions.” Although early letters evidence that her spelling was terrible, she eventually becomes adept at sonnets and is praised by literary societies. Music historian Eric Bianchi’s recent discovery that she exchanged sonnets with the Roman composer Pietro della Valle is one such example of Artemisia “[attaining] a gloss of the poetic skills that were the delightful currency of polite society in Italy.” She considered the use of these skills as serious business leading to more patrons. Lastly, letters written between 1635 and ’37 to friends at the courts of Rome, Florence, and Modena indicate that she would send them unsolicited paintings as a means to secure favors — in other words, paperwork to grease her safe passing through these cities to England to gain entry to the lucrative court of King Charles I or Queen Henrietta Maria de Bourbon in England.
Despite these calculating machinations, Barker’s account reveals an undeniably strong character and confidence distinct from, or perhaps in conjunction with, her practical survival needs. Artemisia learned her trade as a teenager in the workshop of her father, Orazio, who was an established painter. Yet Barker suggests that she did not learn the great chiaroscuro of Caravaggio from her father, who adapted his style to emulate the Renaissance master, but rather, studied directly from Caravaggio’s works. Barker cites a recent argument by Gianni Papi that she thus “attained a better grasp of anatomy and a keener sensitivity to the emotional rapport between figures than her father had at that moment.” Similarly, as an adult, Barker remarks that it was unheard of for women to paint erotic nudes, which were the preserve of male artists in the Renaissance. Vaunting their knowledge of anatomy while provoking lustful responses in the viewer was “regarded as an accomplishment that marked the greatest practitioners of the art.” In this context, using her own likeness for the erotic figure of “Allegory of Inclination” (1615–16) was a ballsy move that conveys a supreme level of self-confidence and posturing that arguably transcends the mere need to prove and differentiate herself.
One constant that remains, however, is the disadvantage of her sex; it underpins her every move. This brings to mind how far feminism has evolved over the centuries, and how far we have to go to achieve equality. In 2021 Judy Chicago spoke of “women [building] enough power so that it doesn’t matter what men think.” In Artemisia’s time, every action is very much considered in relation to men, rather than independently, as in Chicago’s utopian ideal. Artemisia’s letters are boldly feminist, but she still compares herself to her male counterparts, stating, “I will show your Lordship what a woman can do” and “A woman’s work raises doubts until her work is seen.” It is also startling, though ultimately unsurprising, to read how mortally dangerous it would have been for a woman to depict the male nude, and so this entire subject was off limits. This concept, so untroubling to us today, would have been a matter of dire seriousness in her time in terms of compromising a woman’s reputation.
Barker’s text weaves documentary evidence together with some excellent close visual analysis of her attributed paintings, unpacking the rich symbolism and its significance in her work, which offers a lively and vivid understanding of the wider contexts and motives behind her movements. Even despite some gaps in knowledge, Artemisia’s compelling character clearly shines through, matching the vivacity of her work. The overbearing patriarchal presence that dictated her actions in her society contributes to our understanding of this chapter in feminist history, and its implication remain relevant to feminism today. Thus contextualizing Artemisia’s experience fulfills the series goal to serve as a “significant intervention” in the current movement among the arts and heritage to “make evident and contextualize historically the contributions of women artists.”