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What A Woman Can Do - Artemisia Gentileschi at National Gallery London

  • Artemisia Gentileschi - Danae
  • Artemisia Gentileschi - Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy
  • Artemisia Gentileschi - Jael and Sisera
March 15, 2020
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

If you are interested in Baroque as an important stylistic period, and look closer at any major art history survey rarely you’ll find any relevant women artists. Mainly they were men, regardless of the discipline (painting, sculpture, architecture); however, it doesn’t mean that was the truth. On the contrary, there were a couple of talented women who practiced art and were highly acclaimed such as Artemisia Gentileschi.

This remarkable Italian painter lived and worked at the time it was rare for a woman to be involved with arts. Nevertheless, thanks to her father Orazio Gentileschi, an established craftsman, and to her enormous talent, she was able to form an authentic personal style, maintain a career for more than four decades, and was the first woman to have access to the artists’ academy in Florence.

Although Artemisia Gentileschi was recognized as a distinct painter during her lifetime and was commissioned by the leading monarchs at the time, her body of work wasn’t discovered until the 20th century. What comes to special attention is her genuine interest in the women’s themes which makes her a proto-feminist in today’s world.

For both her conceptual work frame and immense technical achievements, Artemisia Gentileschi is recognized as one of the most gifted painters of the Italian Baroque period, and her work is still considered equally intriguing as it was in the 17th century.

To present her domains for the first time in the UK, The National Gallery is hosting a grand retrospective inspired by the recent acquisition of the artist’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615–17).

Artemisia Gentileschi - Esther before Ahasuereus
Artemisia Gentileschi – Esther before Ahasuereus, about 1628-30. Oil on canvas, 208.3 × 273.3 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, 1969 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. National Gallery London

The Exhibition

Under the curation of Letizia Treves, the National Gallery James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings, the exhibition will provide a thorough overview of Artemisia’s practice with around thirty works loaned from international public and private collections, and to underline the artist’s resilience, wit, and vulnerability with numerous personal letters that were recently discovered and conserved for the show. Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, stated the following:

The first exhibition devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi in Britain, a country she visited and worked in at the end of the 1630s, celebrates her astounding artistic achievements with a superb selection of her paintings. She was a remarkable and immensely admired artist in her lifetime and she is an inspirational figure in our own time.

A special treat for the visitors will be Susannah and the Elders, the earliest work Artemisia Gentileschi made in 1610, at the age of seventeen. Interestingly so, the artist revisited this particular subject throughout her career, always giving it a fresh reinterpretation of the same. On display will also be her last-known painting depicting the same subject, produced forty-two years later (Susannah and the Elders, 1652).

Left Artemisia Gentileschi - Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria Right Artemisia Gentileschi - Susannah and the Elders
Left: Artemisia Gentileschi – Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1615-17. Oil on canvas, 71.4 × 69 cm © The National Gallery, London / Right: Artemisia Gentileschi – Susannah and the Elders, 1610. Oil on canvas, 170 × 121 cm © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn. National Gallery London

The Installment

The exhibition will be presented chronologically. The first room will include some of the first works Artemisia produced as a result of the artistic training in Rome, where she was guided by her father Orazio; his Judith and her Maidservant (about 1608) will be presented along the mentioned Susannah, as well as Cleopatra (about 1611-12) and Danaë (about 1612).

Numerous Artemisia’s paintings were interpreted in the past as autobiographical, an observation closely related to the fact she explored her personal identity through her artistic production. This is especially apparent in the paintings the artist produced in Florence (1612/13-20), where she repeatedly used her own image. Therefore, the room dedicated to her Florentine period titled Becoming Artemisia in Florence will include three (self-reflective) paintings from the mid-1610s such as Self Portrait as a Female Martyr, Self Portrait as a Lute Player, and Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria; as well as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the painting closely affiliated with the National Gallery’s own self-portrait.

This room will also include one of the exhibition highlights – the two versions of Artemisia’s iconic composition of Judith beheading Holofernes, the first one made about 1612-13 and the other about 1613-14. The bloody scene shows the epic scene in a most violent manner indicating the artist’s personal struggle to stand up for herself in a world governed by men. A Caravaggesque painting depicting the same theme, but a moment later in the narrative, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, dated in 1623-25 will be shown in the following room.

Artemisia was a gifted storyteller who introduced the gendered perspective to traditional, Biblical or ancient history subjects. That is why her paintings often feature female heroines such as Judith, Susannah, Cleopatra, Lucretia often played by Artemisia herself giving a performative quality to her masterful works. On display at this room will be the works Lucretia (about 1620-25), Cleopatra (about 1633-35), Clio, Muse of History (1632), David and Bathsheba, Jael and Sisera (1620), Susannah and the Elders (1622), and the recently discovered Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (about 1620-25).

The next room titled The Hand of the Famed Artemisia will bring the artist seen through the eyes of other artists; The Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush, a drawing of her hand by the French artist Pierre Dumonstier II in 1625; a bronze medal called Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi made by unknown artist in 1625; and a Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi with painter’s palette in hand by her friend, produced by the French painter Simon Vouet around 1623-6. The visitors will be also able to see Artemisia’s own handwriting, and ‘hear’ her voice with a series of letters to her Florentine lover Francesco Maria Maringhi, written between 1618 and 1620.

Two exhibition rooms will explore Artemisia’s period in Naples, the city in which she lived for the last twenty-five years of her life and established a studio that she ran together with her daughter Prudenza, also a painter. Artemisia’s first altarpieces Annunciation (1630) will be shown, as well as Saint Januarius in the Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (about 1635-7) and collaborative works made with other leading Neapolitan artists.

The final room will be focused on Artemisia’s brief trip to London, where she was reunited with her father a few months before he passed away. At the court of Charles I of England, she painted the celebrated Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (about 1638-9). This work manifests the artist’s vision of Painting as a physical activity while the inspired woman at her easel refers to Artemisia herself.

Artemisia Gentileschi - The Birth of St John the Baptist
Artemisia Gentileschi – The Birth of St John the Baptist, about 1635. Oil on canvas, 184 × 258 cm © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, National Gallery London

Artemisia at the National Gallery London

After the description of the upcoming exhibition, it is quite clear the same will present properly the practice of Artemisia Gentileschi in historical terms, but the question remains to which extent it will problematize the art historical canon and a general lack of women artists. This kind of intervention was initially conducted by the art historians affiliated with the Second wave of feminism back in the 1970s, however, judging by the current circumstances on the global scale it seems that these proposals have to be revisited, especially with the work of this unique and highly emancipated Baroque painter.

The National Gallery in London has postponed its Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition, due to open 4 April, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Artemisia was originally running until 26 July 2020.

Video – Artemisia Gentileschi in 8 paintings | National Gallery

Featured images: Artemisia Gentileschi – Danaë, about 1612. Oil on copper, 41.3 × 52.7 cm. Saint Louis Art Museum. Museum Purchase 93:1986 © Saint Louis Art Museum; Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, about 1620-25. Oil on canvas, 80 × 106 cm. Private European collection © Photo: Dominique Provost Art Photography – Bruges; Jael and Sisera, dated 1620. Oil on canvas, 86 × 125 cm © Szépmüvészeti Múzeum / Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. All images courtesy The National Gallery London.