In 1612 a court in Rome heard the testimony of Artemisia Gentileschi, a 19-year-old, in a case against a well-connected artist called Agostino Tassi. Tassi was her art tutor and her probable future husband. He was supposed to teach her about the Roman art world. Instead, he raped her. Though the court decided he was guilty, his influential patrons saw to it that he never suffered any consequences.
Gentileschi went on to have a glittering career. One of only a handful of female artists at that time, she was admired across Europe in a way that Tassi never was, picking up commissions in Florence, Genoa, Venice, Naples and London.
Yet she is often remembered primarily for that early assault, which is assumed to be the subtext of her most powerful pictures. Gentileschi was particularly adept at painting brutal scenes of objectification, violence and revenge. Their resonance in the #MeToo era is undeniable.
Nowhere is the link between the work and the painter’s own biography more tempting than in “Susanna and the Elders”, painted in 1622. It tells a story from the biblical Apocrypha in which a pair of lecherous old judges come across the young Susanna while she is bathing and try to blackmail her into having sex with them by threatening to claim that they found her committing adultery. Susanna refuses, and is saved only by the prophet Daniel, who metes out swift and unsparing justice.
The vulnerability of the naked Susanna; the vengeance that Gentileschi never quite got. It’s hard not to see the painter’s pain in there. But it’s not that simple. Susanna’s story is one that many people painted, and even the composition of this one came from another artist’s print. The picture’s dark atmosphere is pretty standard Baroque fare. It is, nonetheless, an astonishing work. Look at the fabrics, the swooping arc that takes in the heads of the old voyeurs, the ghost of Susanna’s calf beneath the water. Gentileschi succeeded not because of her backstory, but because of her brilliance.•
Artemisia is at the National Gallery in London from April 4th-July 26th