In 2017 Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ was discovered in France. In 2018 the portrait was acquired by The National Gallery and, in a very unusual development they decided that, rather than hang in the London gallery, the portrait would go on tour. First stop was Glasgow Women’s Library, where I was fortunate enough to spend time getting to know the portrait, and the artist.
Artemesia was the daughter of an accomplished artist, Orazio Gentileschi, one of Caravaggio’s earliest followers, and she became an extremely successful artist in her own right– a rarity for a woman in 17th-century Italy. Despite her fame at the time, her work was variously forgotten, undervalued or assigned to her father, but over the last 30 years she has emerged as one of the most significant figures of the Italian Baroque.
Artemisia spent her childhood in her father’s workshop, where she learned drawing, how to mix colours, and how to paint. As her artistic talent blossomed she specialised in paintings of strong and women from myths: victims, suicides, warriors. The self portrait as St Catherine is typical, St Catherine being martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the Emperor Maxentius. Perhaps her most famous, and accomplished, painting is Susannah and the Elders, a subject painted by many artists over the years, but Artemisia’s version depicts the elders as voyeurs rather than, as with most male artists, showing Susannah as a temptress.
As a young woman she was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist engaged by her father to act as tutor to the young Artemisia. It was common at this time for men charged with rape to be tortured with thumbscrews to ensure that they gave a true testimony. At Tassi’s trial the judge ruled that, since he was an artist, this would be unfair treatment – so the thumbscrews were applied to Artemisia instead!!
Following the trial she married a painter and moved with him to his home in Florence. They had a daughter together, Prudentia, named after Artemisia’s mother, who had died when Artemisia was 12. It was in Florence that Artemisia established her status as an artist and became the first woman to gain membership to the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence. In 1621 she returned to Rome, without her husband, and while she continued to be successful Rome was not as lucrative as she hoped so she moved, via productive spells in Venice then Naples, to the English Court,
where her father was court painter to Charles I. Charles I was impressed by Artemisia and his collection included her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.
While the details are not certain, it is possible that she died in the plague that swept Naples in 1656.
Her reputation was rediscovered in 20th century, Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, describing her as “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, drawing, and other fundamentals” . Her reputation continues to grow and it is correct that she is recognised as a great and influential artist and not solely as a woman artist.