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February 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1415


Reviewed by Aoife Brady

Edited by Letizia Treves. 256 pp. incl. 140 col. + b. & w. ills. (National Gallery, London, and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020), £30. ISBN 978–1–85709–656–9.

When Eleanor Tufts published Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists in 1974, she lamented in concluding a short chapter on Artemisia Gentileschi that ‘despite all the recognition given to her paintings [...] no book has ever been written on this major artist of the seventeenth century’.(1) It is heartening to observe that, less than fifty years later, over a dozen substantial scholarly volumes dedicated exclusively to Artemisia have been published in multiple languages (with much more available, of course, in the form of journal articles, essays and book chapters as well as novels, plays, documentaries and a feature film). Among them, now, is this exhibition catalogue, which, through the careful interpretation of documentary sources and astute analysis of Artemisia’s paintings, enriches our understanding of this ‘extraordinary artist who led an extraordinary life’ (p.10).

The acquisition by the National Gallery, London, of the recently discovered Self-portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria (cat. no.11; Fig.14) is credited as the impetus behind Artemisia, whose scheduled opening on 4th April 2020 was postponed to 3rd October due to the covid-19 pandemic. The date of the acquisition, July 2018, indicates the short timeframe in which this exhibition and its associated catalogue were curated and produced. Although supported by a team of expert scholars, the curator, Letizia Treves, shoulders a considerable amount of the authorial burden of this publication – alongside an engaging essay on Artemisia’s selfportraiture, she contributes detailed, footnoted introductions to each of the five sections of the catalogue and twenty-five of the catalogue’s thirty-six entries, many of which span several pages and masterfully tie together the various strands of thought presented in the preceding essays.

Writing about female Old Masters is not, as art historians have come to accept, a straightforward task. If analysis of a female artist’s oeuvre leans too heavily on biographical details, such as, in Artemisia’s case, her rape in 1611, it is deemed reductive. Ignoring, on the other hand, the unique challenges faced by women of the early modern period, suggests that an artist’s experiences have no bearing on their art, an approach too narrow and equally problematic. To dispel any remnants of the myth of the unmediated artist from the outset, in the opening chapter of this volume Elizabeth Cropper eruditely lists examples of Artemisia’s male contemporaries whose life experiences play a fundamental role in our understanding of their art, encouraging the reader to question why it should be any different in the case of Artemisia.

In an essay titled ‘Artemisia portraying her self’, Treves outlines methods of self-fashioning with which Artemisia engaged while developing her career, such as letter writing and selfportraiture. These were conventional means of self-promotion for female artists of the time, but the process proved all the more challenging for a young and barely literate Artemisia, as she tried to distance herself from the controversy of her rape trial. Treves’s essay builds on a long-running discourse on Artemisia’s use of her own image in her work, appropriately updated to include the National Gallery’s painting, which adds considerably not only to our understanding of the artist’s self-portraits, but also of her working methods. Sheila Barker picks up where Treves leaves off, describing the artist’s reception during her lifetime and in the centuries that followed her death. Barker examines Artemisia’s strategies of self-promotion beyond those executed in paint on canvas, which included wearing ‘showy and expensive clothing’ (p.78), an indicator of status well recognised by contemporaries and predecessors, including Giorgio Vasari, who made clear the importance of donning finery: ‘I used to wear such clothes as we painters are glad to put on when we are poor, but now I am clothed in velvet’.(2)

Larry Keith delves further into Artemisia’s supposed self-portraits in a contribution that expands on an article he published with Treves and others in 2019.(3) By means of technical analysis, Keith confirms Jesse Locker’s earlier theory that St Catherine of Alexandria (c.1615–18; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; no.12) is self-referential, deriving from the same initial design as both the National Gallery’s portrait and Self-portrait as a lute player (c.1615–17; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford CT; no.10).(4) Both Keith and Patrizia Cavazzini offer insights into how a young unmarried woman might have trained as an artist in the early seventeenth century. In her account of the fraught relationship between Artemisia and her father, Orazio, Cavazzini paints a picture of the artist’s formative years in Rome. With Artemisia’s freedom to explore the city restricted by her gender, Cavazzini reimagines the young artist’s experiences, inferring how she might have learned and suggesting what paintings she was likely to have seen. The rich context provided by Cavazzini and expanded upon by Keith reminds the reader that Artemisia’s challenges did not begin with her rape, but much earlier in life.

Revealing letters written by Artemisia and her husband Pierantonio Stiattesi to Artemisia’s lover, Francesco Maria Maringhi, discovered by Francesco Solinas in 2011, form the topic of fresh analysis not only in his contribution to this catalogue, but throughout the publication and in the exhibition. In interpreting Artemisia’s letters to Maringhi, Solinas avoids romanticising their affair, laying bare many truths of the relationship. The author provides endnotes so rich in information that one cannot help but feel that he had much more to say, and indeed, the comparisons between Artemisia and other female artist letter writers might have benefited from further elaboration. The letters are also discussed in an extended catalogue entry, pointing to their central role in our growing understanding of Artemisia’s life and work. Rather than transcribing and translating the letters, the catalogue reproduces select passages from the manuscript in crisp colour, providing insight into their author’s psychological state. Artemisia’s scrawled handwriting in a letter to Maringhi (no.13C; Fig.13) written following the death of her son Cristofano, for example, brings to life the mourning mother’s distressed state as her fortunes took a turn. Absent from this section of the catalogue, unfortunately, is an entry on the rape trial transcript, displayed publicly for the first time in the exhibition, but a late addition to the loan list.

Three very different compositions depicting Susannah and the Elders form an elegant framework for both the exhibition and its catalogue. Two are credited as Artemisia’s earliest and latest known works, and a third (Burghley House Collection, Stamford; no.22) was painted in 1622 during her second Roman period. Collectively they map an evolution of the artist’s style and technique, and illustrate the manner in which Artemisia responded to her surroundings as she moved from city to city. The entry on the earliest iteration of the theme (1610; Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden; no.2) refutes a theory posited by Keith Christiansen that the seventeen-yearold artist painted this in collaboration with Orazio ‘as an extension of her father’s practice’, and gives Artemisia firm agency over her work.(5) The late painting (no.36; Fig.15), signed and dated 1652, is a relatively recent discovery, which had languished ‘ruined and abandoned for years in the Pinacoteca [di Bologna] deposits’ before its reattribution by Adelina Modesti in 2008.(6) One wonders, ironically, if it was its original attribution to another oft-overlooked female painter of the seicento, Elisabetta Sirani, that led to the painting’s dismissal by members of the Soprintendenza at the time of its donation.

The catalogue concludes with a chronology of Artemisia’s life compiled by Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, who condenses the artist’s biography concisely into five pages. Beyond its obvious function as a reference tool, by merit of its brevity the chronology emphasises the pace with which Artemisia’s career progressed, how her style changed and evolved, the difficulties that she experienced and the many times that she relocated and reinvented herself. In listing the artist’s many achievements beyond the trial of 1612, it emphasises that, just as Artemisia’s career was not defined by a singular early life experience, the reader should not use one event alone to frame an understanding of her work. If this catalogue leaves us with one certainty, it is that Artemisia was far more complicated than that.

1. E. Tufts: Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists, London 1974, p.63.

2. G. Vasari: Le vite de’ piú eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, transl. J. Foster, London 1855, IV, p.491.

3. L. Keith et al.: ‘Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria”’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 40 (2019), pp.4–17.

4. J.M. Locker: Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting, New Haven and London 2015, p.134.

5. K. Christiansen: ‘Becoming Artemisia: afterthoughts on the Gentileschi exhibition’, Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), p.102.

6. A. Modesti: ‘A newly discovered late work by Artemisia Gentileschi: Susanna and the Elders of 1652’, in S. Barker, ed.: Women Artists in Early Modern Italy: Careers, Fame, and Collectors, London 2016, p.135.