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November 23, 2011 5:59 pm
According to Roberto Longhi, Artemisia Gentileschi was the “only woman in Italy who ever knew what was painting, colour, impasto and other essentials”.
The critic’s words tell us more about the paternalism of the art establishment than about Gentileschi and her peers. Nevertheless, it is true that the 17th-century painter is the only female old master – a revealing oxymoron in itself – prior to Angelica Kauffmann to enjoy renown beyond that of connoisseurs.
But even though her paintings dwell in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts, her reputation is still defined as much through her rapport with men as by her work. In an exhibition in 2002, for example, the Met paired the artist with her father, the Caravaggiste painter Orazio Gentileschi.
At least this show in Milan bestows individual attention. Yet it starts with an appalling lapse of taste, ushering visitors into a dim-lit room empty save for an unmade bed beneath a curtain of handwritten manuscripts, accompanied by a recording of an actress reciting Gentileschi’s testimony of her rape by the painter Agostino Tassi.
Let’s hope we are not being encouraged to see Gentileschi as the Baroque equivalent of Tracey Emin. Or is the bed supposed to flag up the crumpled, blood-spattered sheets that Gentileschi painted – twice – to marvellous effect beneath the dying Holofernes as Judith slit his throat? Whatever the symbolism, it is a particularly vulgar instance of the prurient fascination with Gentileschi’s sex life rather than her art.
The melodrama that taints her story stems from an episode in her youth. Born in Rome in 1593, she spent her early years learning her craft in her father’s studio. At the age of 17, however, she was said to have been sexually assaulted by Tassi, one of her father’s collaborators. After the attack Gentileschi continued the liaison, possibly in the hope that he would save her from dishonour by marrying her. Some nine months later, probably to revenge himself over Tassi’s theft of a painting, Gentileschi’s father accused him of rape.
The subsequent trial, which saw Gentileschi herself tortured with thumbscrews, transformed private trauma into public scandal. Though Tassi was found guilty, he never served his sentence. Gentileschi, meanwhile, married a second-rate painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, and started a new life in her husband’s home town of Florence.
Yet rather than withdraw in shame, Gentileschi set to work. Florentine commissions included paintings for Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is a measure of her status that she became the first female member of the prestigious Drawing Academy in Florence.
As her career unfolded, Gentileschi swapped cities and companions, travelling through Rome, Venice and London before finally settling in Naples. She had a long, passionate affair with Francesco Maria Maringhi, possibly marrying him in Naples, and several children. Her daughter Prudenzia, the only child to survive into adulthood, probably worked alongside her in what was clearly a busy studio. By the time of her death, probably from plague in 1656, Gentileschi’s paintings graced the residences of major European rulers, including Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain. She counted Galileo among her friends.
Yet though exceptional in her spirit and independence – she once said a woman’s soul hid “the soul of Caesar” – Gentileschi was also a woman of her time. It is a shame this show never alludes to the flowering of female painters in Late Renaissance central Italy. Nourished by humanism’s celebration of cultivated women, Gentileschi’s predecessors included the sculptress Properzia de’ Rossi and the painter Lavinia Fontana, both from Bologna. Life for these artists was far from easy – Fontana was banned from Carracci’s academy in Rome because of the presence of nude models – yet their presence reveals that Gentileschi was no freak of nature.
The latent tragedy of her violation is that it supplied the art establishment with a perfect excuse for treating her paintings as confessions rather than canvases on their own terms. Take her famous image of the Old Testament heroine Judith slicing the throat of Holofernes, an Assyrian general, on loan from the Capodimonte museum in Naples. Painted during her time in Florence, its acute violence, as Judith angles her wrist to get more heft into her dagger and blood slakes over the ivory sheets, and the plump-cheeked murderess’s resemblance to Gentileschi herself – captured here in a superb later self-portrait – have led it regularly to be read an as expression of cathartic rage against Tassi. (To underline its status as misery-memoir, it is the first painting here to greet spectators leaving the bedroom.)
An act of revenge it may be, but it is also one of the finest paintings of the Baroque. Cropped tight for the photorealist-style flair Caravaggio made famous, the anguished grid of arms and hands struggling against shadow-lit sheets and glossy darkness is a masterclass in structure. The fleshy yet well-proportioned bodies betray Gentileschi’s debt to the classicism of the Carracci brothers; the dynamic fury of the women makes Caravaggio’s version, where Judith holds her victim at arm’s length, look static by comparison.
The Counter-Reformation saw a proliferation of paintings devoted to female heroines, from Esther and Judith to Cleopatra and Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, their preponderance in Gentileschi’s oeuvre, allied to her unorthodox treatments, has fuelled her proto-feminist reputation. Although the original 1610 painting in Pommersfelden is not here, a late 1649 variation on Susanna and the Elders shows the naked heroine twisting away from the male gaze as if from an assault. (In more conventional representations, she remains unaware of their lascivious attentions and thus far more vulnerable.)
Hard to deny too is Gentileschi’s delight in sisterly, and possibly Sapphic, complicity. In her monumental painting of Esther and Assuero on loan from the Met, the Jewish queen’s lady-in-waiting appears to kiss her mistress’s neck as she swoons in front of the king, who is dressed as a foppish dandy.
Although in pitiful condition (like many canvases in this show), her 1640 painting of Bathsheba bathing is nevertheless a treat simply for the gauche, naturalistic grace of the woman carrying a pail of water up the steps to the queen – her beautifully garbed back to us, one bare foot raised, her head twisted in delicate, awkward profile. But perhaps this show’s most delicious offering is the 1617-18 portrait of Judith and her maid Alba as they swing round startled by some offstage noise, their victim’s head forgotten in a basket. The curving rhythms of the painting – Alba’s tumbling turban, the wickerwork rim, Judith’s decolletage – bind them like twins despite the social divide.
Far from every painting here is a masterpiece. Unlike, say, Caravaggio, Gentileschi had a family to feed and she was frequently short of funds. Wonderfully unsentimental letters to her lover Francesco Maria Maringhi, on display here, reveal a businesslike attitude to commissions – she complains bitterly at one point about being paid “with a measure of coal”. She also writes to her patron Cassiano dal Pozzo in the hope he can persuade a Roman cardinal to purchase the moving narrative painting “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” – on show here – so she can afford to pay for her daughter’s wedding.
Little wonder that, working from cartoons and drawings, she frequently copied or made variations on the same subject. Her 1620-21 revisitation of Judith and Holofernes, held by the Uffizi and on display here, is if anything even more glorious than the original. Less tightly focused than Capodimonte’s painting, it weaves the protagonists’ taut, pale limbs and sumptuous fabrics into a symphony of cold, shadow-dappled colour.
Several other paintings, however, such as “The Nymph Corsica and the Satyr” (1635-40), have the hasty, insubstantial air of poor studio collaborations. Although this show would have been better without them, their presence underlines the commercial nature of Gentileschi’s studio.
The plethora of female subjects, imagined with such unusual sympathy, vigour and grace, suggests that Gentileschi was indeed affected by her own experience. Yet the inspired rigour with which she pursued her craft proves that she was never at its mercy. Had she been a man, like Caravaggio, for example, whose homoerotic homages to male flesh have never distracted us from his genius, her treatment by critics would be very different. Let’s hope the next exhibition gives her the respect she deserves.
Until January 29, www.mostrartemisia.it
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