A distinctive presumed self-portrait of this exceptional woman painter, cropped close, from an unusual viewpoint, using chiaroscuro, colour, and the most amazing fabric textures.
Painter Artemisia Gentileschi
Painting Allegory of Painting (‘La Pittura’)
Year c 1638-9
Media oil on panel
Dimensions 98.6 x 75.2 cm (38.8 x 29.6 in)
Collection Her Majesty the Queen’s Collection, England
A woman is painting, and is seen from above her left shoulder, looking down at her right hand holding a brush, outstretched, and her palette held by the left hand.
Her palette runs almost parallel to the bottom edge of the painting, her left hand grasping it with the thumb on top and towards her. That hand is close to the bottom left corner. Her right hand, close to the top left corner, holds a brush in a pincer grip between the thumb and index finger. That right hand is dirty brown with paint, to just above the wrist. Her head is to the upper right of the centre of the painting, seen in unusual profile, looking down the left cheek from the brow. She is lit from above and to the left of the viewer, putting her forehead into full light, and her head casting its shadow from the left temple, left ear, and down to the left base of her neck.
Her hair is black and tied back behind her, four locks streaming down the left edge of her face, just in the shadow. She wears a dark green low-cut dress, the right sleeve pushed up to the elbow, where it ends in a ruff. Her left sleeve runs down the forearm and ends by her palette. A gold linked chain passes around her neck, supporting a locket which appears to be a small mask, dangling under her breast. She wears a mid-brown apron over the dress, suggested by a strap passing over her well-lit left shoulder. There is a mid-brown wall in the background, an edge (corner, or the opening of a door or window) passing vertically down a line through the woman’s body. The brown of the wall, and the woman’s dress, fades to black in the bottom right corner of the painting.
The composition, driven by its unusual view, is built around her right hand, face, upper chest, and left shoulder, which lie just above the diagonal passing from top left to bottom right, from dark brown gloom, through the brilliant light on her right forearm, face, and upper chest, and back to black at the bottom. Her left arm then sweeps an arc to end in the prominent thumb at the lower left. The main lit area – her face and upper chest – is to the right and above the centre of the painting. The view is cropped so that her hands and back are just within its area.
This unusual view can be accounted for if this was a self-portrait, painted using two mirrors, one placed above and on the left of the painter, the other directly in front of her, where she is gazing so intently. If so, it was particularly ingenious because the reflection in the second mirror would have normal chirality (left and right would not be reversed). However it has been suggested that this is not a self-portrait, in which case the choice of view would have been most unusual. It is believed to have been painted during her stay in London, possibly for the King, Charles I, as it appears to have passed straight into the Royal Collection, where it has remained ever since (apart from a short absence prior to the Restoration in 1660).
Artemisia Gentileschi was born on 8 July 1593, the eldest child of the renowned Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, while he was working in Rome. She learned to draw at an early age, and worked in her father’s workshop. Her father was strongly influenced by the work and friendship of Caravaggio, which in turn was an early influence on Artemisia. Her mother died when she was 12. She was taught by Agostino Tassi, when he was working with her father on murals in a palace in Rome, at which time Artemisia was already painting her own works in oils. Tassi raped Artemisia, and continued to have sexual relations with her in the expectation that they would marry. Her father pressed charges against Tassi, who was eventually convicted after a long trial which was very traumatic physically, mentally, and emotionally for Artemisia.
Her father arranged for her marriage to a modest painter from Florence, and the couple moved to Florence where Artemisia started to receive commissions. They worked there between 1614 and 1620, during which Artemisia became the first woman ever to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. She enjoyed good relationships with other prominent artists and intellectuals, including Galileo Galilei. In 1618 the only one of her four children to survive into adult life was born, Prudentia, who also became a painter. However in 1621 she separated from her husband and moved back to Rome, the same year that her father moved to Genoa. This did not prove a success, so she moved to Venice, and then Naples in 1630.
She gained more commissions in Naples, and again built friendships with other artists and intellectuals there. She went to London for a year, when her father became court painter to Charles I, but after his death in 1639, and before the Civil War which started in 1642, she returned to Naples. There she took on an assistant, Onofrio Palumbo, with whom she collaborated increasingly. It is thought that she died between 1654 and 1656, perhaps in the plague that decimated Naples in that last year.
Initially, Artemisia and her father were strongly influenced by Caravaggio, his starkly chiaroscuro style, and subjects which tended toward violence and conflict. Her first major work shows Judith, with the aid of her maidservant, hacking off the head of Holofernes, and in terms of gore is at least the match of Caravaggio at his most gruesome. Her first work showing this was painted in about 1612, contemporary with her rape and Tassi’s trial, and it is generally accepted that she used Tassi as the model for Holofernes, herself as Judith, and her female companion (who failed to come to her aid during the rape, and acted likewise in the trial) as Judith’s maidservant. Thus the painting can be seen as her emotional response to those traumatic events.
However, even before those events, she had shown a preference for scenes in which women were in distress, emotional turmoil, or their virtue was compromised, and this continued throughout her career. She painted a second version of Judith slaying Holofernes in about 1620, and several works showing Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes. Other classical narratives which she returned to on several occasions include Bathsheba and King David, Susanna and the Elders, Lot and his daughters, Lucretia, Cleopatra, and Mary Magdalene. She also painted scenes in which a woman overcame a powerful man, including Esther and Ahasuerus, Delilah and Samson, and Sisera and Jael, in addition to Judith and Holofernes.
As her career progressed, so she diverged from being a follower of Caravaggio, or a Caravaggist. Although Caravaggio’s life had been short and intense, his influence lasted, and Artemisia played an important part in the development of post-Caravaggist styles, particularly in her use of colour.
Artemisia Gentileschi was, until the advent of Impressionism, justifiably the most famous woman painter, although there were several others who had achieved as much – Judith Leyster (1609-1660), a contemporary, and Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), for example. As a result of that, and her horrific rape and trial, she has become something of a feminist icon, and subject to many misunderstandings.
Her paintings though tell a very different story. They not only compare very favourably with her contemporaries, but several can be claimed to be among the leading works of seventeenth century Italy, and possibly Europe as a whole.
The angle of view, composition, and close-cropping of this painting in particular make it remarkable for its time, and those coupled with her casting herself in the role of the Muse of Painting, made it a bold and daring work. Its style, though, is quite unlike anything of Caravaggio, even though it uses a similar chiaroscuro effect.
Many of Artemisia’s paintings are also remarkable for her handling of the delicate textures, weaves, and colouration in textiles and fabrics. These are sometimes achieved by the use of painterly marks, much in the way that Rembrandt did in his later years. However several passages of lacework and tassels had distinctive fine detail. These are to be found even in paintings such as the later (Uffizi) Judith and Holofernes, and can be seen in the clothing in this work too.
Despite her success in a male-dominated world, Artemisia’s subjects and her treatment of those subjects remained hers. Whilst she did paint some of her women naked (for example Cleopatra and Venus), she consistently shows us scenes and narratives which contrast with the standards of the day, and still have much to say to us. And she does so with all the skill and power of a true Master.
Bal M ed (2005) The Artemisia Files. Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, Uinversity of Chicago Press. ISBN 978 0 2260 3582 6. (A collection of papers on feminist themes in her paintings.)
Contini R and Solinas F (2011) Artemisia Gentileschi, The Story of a Passion, 24 ORE Cultura, Milan. ISBN 978 88 7179 668 0. (Accompanied major 2011 exhibition, with a series of important essays on the latest scholarship, the most complete collection of excellent reproductions, and the most detailed chronology. Essential reading and looking.)
Locker JM (2015) Artemisia Gentileschi. The Language of Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 18511 9. (Fascinating re-evaluation in the light of recent discoveries of papers and paintings. Emphasis on later life. Although well illustrated, this is not a collection of reproductions of her paintings.)
Straussman-Pflanzer E (2013) Violence & Virtue. Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 18679 6. (Excellent little monograph on her most famous painting.)
Artemisia (1997), biopic directed by Agnès Merlet, starring Valentina Cervi. 90 min, French with English subtitles. Bluebell Films. IMDb. Although generally well-researched and containing much that is authentic, this interpretation of Artemisia’s rape is widely disputed and does not fit with records. However it is still a beautiful movie which perhaps captures some of the passion in her painting.