Why do I need to know about her?
London’s National Gallery made a huge purchase this month, spending a whopping £3.6m ($4.7m) on “Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a 17th-century painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most important Baroque artists and a contemporary of Caravaggio. Only a few months ago, the painting had been sold to a private buyer in Paris for €1.85m (a big hike from the €350,000 the French auction house thought it would sell for). Gentileschi’s painting is one of 21 by female artists in the museum’s collection of more than 2,300 works of art.
Wait, what? Can that be right?
Yes, women made less than 1% of the art in Britain’s most important art museum. Female artists have long had a hard time of it, their output being dismissed as mere “craft” or “decoration”. But it would be unfair to lay all the blame for this sorry state of affairs at the door of the National Gallery. Its collection, acquired over centuries, is made up of western European painting from 1250 to 1900. During this period, women had to do whatever their father, husband, employer or God wanted them to do. Their life choices were limited to getting married, being a servant or joining a nunnery. For centuries, being a famous painter was simply not on the radar. “Works by women artists of this time are very rare compared to works by male artists” says the gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi. “Our collection reflects that historical fact.”
Can tell me a bit about this painting? What’s going on?
A cherubic yet assertive-looking woman stares out from the tightly cropped canvas. She’s wearing a burgundy dress with a sweetheart neckline and her head is wrapped in a flowing white cloth. The realistic glow of her cheeks come from Gentileschi’s mastery of a technique known as sfumato, where shades of paint are delicately blurred together. The golden light emanating from the centre of the painting shows she was a pro at chiaroscuro, playing with the contrast between light and dark to make a subject look 3D – a technique that was popularised by Caravaggio.
What’s interesting about Gentileschi’s paintings is how many of them have strong, fierce female heroines as their subject. Here, she is posing as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of unmarried girls, philosophers and dying people who was martyred in the 4th century after the Roman Emperor Maxentius sentenced her to death for protesting about his persecution of Christians in Egypt. The Romans tried to kill her by tying her to a spiked wheel, but the contraption broke at her touch. She escaped momentarily, only to be beheaded.
Why would Gentileschi make such a gory allusion in her self-portrait?
We can’t ever be certain, but maybe it’s because she could empathise with St Catherine’s pain. When Gentileschi was 17 years old, she was raped by her painting teacher, Agostino Tassi. A transcript of the 400 year-old court case survives, where scholars have learnt that she was physically tortured during the seven-month trial as a perverse way to make sure she was telling the truth.
Thumbscrews accompanied relentless questioning; cords around her fingers were pulled tightly as she insisted “It is true, it is true, it is true”.
Tassi was convicted (several witnesses claimed that he had also murdered his wife), but his conviction was never enforced. His art was highly respected at the time, and he had a friend in a high place, Pope Innocent X, who gave him protection and once said “Tassi is the only one of these artists who has never disappointed me.”
Gentileschi was functionally illiterate, and some scholars think that she used art to communicate her feelings about this horrendous experience. Another of her paintings, “Judith Slaying Holofernes”, shows a man being aggressively pinned down by two women and decapitated by another with sword. At a time when men had all the power, creative revenge was as good as it was ever going to get.
So hang on a minute, Gentileschi had never learnt to read, but she had learnt to paint. How come?
In the 17th century, the few women who got a chance to paint were rich. Even then, it was seen as a hobby rather than a career. Gentileschi was not that posh but she was lucky to have a father, Orazio, who was a successful artist and a good friend of Caravaggio, who used to pop by the house to borrow props for his artworks. When Gentileschi was 12, her mother died in childbirth and the bereaved Orazio decided he wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps. He worked at home, and so Gentileschi spent her teenage years hanging around his studio, observing his working methods and the models, painters and benefactors who streamed in and out.
After the trial, she was quickly married off to a mid-rate painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, and moved with him to Florence, far away from Rome and the scandal surrounding the courtcase. As skilled a networker as she was a painter, she won a commission from the Medicis, after which her career went from strength to strength. As she wrote in a letter to Galileo (she was one well-connected lady): “I have seen myself honoured by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works, not only with great gifts but also with most favoured letters, which I keep with me.”
Don’t go judging her too harshly for the shameless self-promotion. Even in the 17th century being a successful artist, or even just an artist who could afford to eat, was all about how you sold yourself. And Gentileschi’s high opinion of herself was certainly merited. She was the first woman to become a member of the famous Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence. A contemporary described her as “a miracle in painting, more easily envied than imitated.” Three centuries later, Roberto Longhi, an Italian critic, called her “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, drawing, and other fundamentals.” There was a spike of interest in Gentileschi at the turn of this century, which led to a French biopic, a novel by Susan Vreeland, an off-Broadway show and a father-daughter show with Orazio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Did I hear that the National Gallery’s painting is being restored at the moment? Where can I see her work in the meantime?
Yes, the self-portrait is currently with restorers, having the artistic equivalent of a facelift, and will go in display in six to nine months. But if you’re willing to travel, there are plenty of other places you can see Gentileschi’s paintings. Because so many of them ended up in palaces, they were well looked after over the centuries and 60 attributed to her have survived. Unsurprisingly Italy has most of them, a smattering are in Rome and Naples, and in Florence there are two in the Palazzo Pitti and one in the Uffizi. Germany and Hungary each have one painting, there’s one at the Prado in Madrid, a few pop up in museums across the United States. Mexico City’s Soumaya Museum has one of her two “Mary Magdalene as Melancholy” paintings – the other in in Spain, in Seville Cathedral.
In England, you can see her “Susanna and the Elders” at Burghley House, an Elizabethan manor in Cambridgeshire. At Hampton Court Palace in London is her “Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting”, where she immortalises herself as an artist in oil, paint brush in one hand, easel in another. Gentileschi fans should also pay a visit to Marlborough House in Greenwich, London, and look up at the ceiling. There’ll you see a huge and intricate painting that many believe she helped her father paint for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.