The stakes are very high. London’s first major exhibition launch since lockdown. The UK’s first retrospective for Artemisia Gentileschi. Its first retrospective of any Renaissance or Baroque woman painter.

A quarter of the works — the swaggering, bejewelled-on-black “Lady Holding a Fan”; nude, dead “Cleopatra”, lips turning blue, eyes rolled back; “Madonna and Child”, an unidealised, weary mother offering a nipple to a wriggling infant — are reattributions of recent decades, as women’s position in art history has been urgently renegotiated. The artist’s passionate, arrogant, manipulative letters, discovered in 2011, are here, plus — publicly displayed for the first time — the transcript of her 1612 rape trial. A rare, authentic female voice is breaking through the all-male Old Master bastion. Artemisia cannot disappoint.

“I will show your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,” the artist wrote to a patron. “With me Your Lordship will . . . find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.”

He did, we do. Moments in, it is clear this show resembles no other the National Gallery has staged, for no male artist could have created such potent paintings of female fury, fear, ecstasy, pride, bewilderment and cunning.

‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1610
‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1610 © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden

Susanna, the nude bather spied by a pair of lechers and threatened with death for adultery if she refuses them, opens the show. In a precocious version, painted when the artist was 17, the blushing heroine recoils in horror from the looming, whispering men; she throws up her arms in defence; her legs turn one way, her torso twists the other — she doesn’t know where to run.

Aged 29, Artemisia, now a virtuoso storyteller, reimagined the scene: Susanna, in the affecting pose of the Hellenistic “Crouching Venus”, tries to conceal her nakedness with her chemise, and lifts her eyes to heaven, desolate. Trapped against a stone wall as the fat, corrupt elders in violet and crimson lean over it — invading her pictorial space as they try to invade her body — she freezes in terror. Her stillness contrasts with the water flowing, rippling, in the fountain.

‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1622
‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1622 © The Burghley House Collection, Bob Laughton

It is night in the final rendering. Artemisia, aged 59, depicts Susanna edging awkwardly away along a classical balustrade as the men, faces inflamed, approach — a grandiloquent tenebrist scene whose theatricality amplifies the girl’s vulnerability and slim delicacy. 

The three pictures are a microcosm of Artemisia’s development. First a human encounter is depicted with raw, affecting realism, derived from Caravaggio’s naturalism. Then the mature Artemisia balances that high emotional tenor with classical elements. Finally the late monumentality, not quite as persuasive.

‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1652
‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1652 © Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna

But similarities between the trio matter more: unlike any other depiction of the popular story, treated by artists including Rubens, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Jordaens, Allori and even Rembrandt, Artemisia paints not an enticing nude whose beauty we are invited to ogle — almost in complicity — but what it feels like, at a visceral physical level, to be helpless and overwhelmed. 

Much has been written of the power and unconscious bias of the male gaze; Artemisia’s Susannas prove the point afresh. It’s impossible to stand before them without wondering: if art history had been different, if more female artists had painted and had depicted women, could women’s position in history itself have been different? Artemisia’s paintings force consideration of how male artists controlled — distorted — representation of women. Her décolleté “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy” celebrates sexual rapture — no repentance: this is a free woman. Her “Lucretia”, about to commit suicide, is a rape victim made hideous and ungainly by grief; an ugly painting about an ugly subject.

‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, c1613-14
‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, c1613-14 © Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi

Are Artemisia’s Susannas and Lucretias charged with her own trauma of rape and injustice? Her assailant, her father’s friend, subsequently her lover, was found guilty of “deflowering” her but escaped sentence; she, not he, suffered the torture of having her fingers crushed — a painter’s fingers — to extract evidence. The story is shocking, and perhaps was life-shaping: the rupture in Rome with her controlling painter father Orazio; a move to Florence with a factotum of a husband, soon dispatched, and a dizzying ascent into Medici circles; an aristocratic lover, sexy but unreliable; then years as a resourceful, ambitious single mother, restlessly, successfully, questing fame in Rome, Venice, London, Naples. 

All this is in the glorious self-portraits. In the youthful ones, Artemisia’s distinctive chunky form, forceful features and heavy-lidded eyes are playfully adapted, Photoshop-mode, pose barely changing from the accusatory “Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr” to the sensual “Self-Portrait as a Lute Player” to the soulful “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria”. The later “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting” is a masterpiece: she is splendid in green silk, eyes looking into the light, impasto highlights on her forehead signifying inspiration — an image of assurance, determination, commitment. 

‘Cleopatra’ c1633-35
‘Cleopatra’ c1633-35 © Photo Giorgio Benni

In truth, all her heroines display those characteristics. All are self-portraits, and their narratives turn on courage and ingenuity conquering adversity. Four “Judiths” are sometimes perceived as revenge for the violence she suffered in life. If so, it is in the painterly virtuosity of the frenzied tangles of bodies, knives, sumptuous fabrics.

In the two compositions entitled “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, Artemisia emphasises the sheer brute force exerted by Judith and her maid in overpowering the bulky Assyrian general. She eroticises the violence: in the picture borrowed from Naples, the heroine is almost astride him; in the Uffizi version, the arcing eruption of blood from his severed neck splatters her breasts.

‘Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’, c1638-39
‘Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’, c1638-39 © Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Two sequels, alert with suspense, narrate the women’s escape. In “Judith and Her Maidservant”, the pair turn as if about to be discovered, Judith holding the general’s sword dangerously close to her own neck. In the nocturne “Judith and the Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes”, on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, anxiety and subterfuge are conveyed through dramas of light and shadows, every detail — blood dripping off the sword, discarded steel gauntlet — reinforcing her triumph. This is among the outstanding pictures of all the Italian Baroque.

A quarter of a century ago, feminist critic Camille Paglia dismissed Artemisia as “simply a polished, competent painter in a Baroque style created by men”. This exhibition, despite the constraints of its claustrophobic basement space, the Sainsbury wing now less satisfactory than ever, is the triumphant refutation. Yes, the language is Cara­vaggio’s, but Artemisia stunningly enlarged it to convey, through riveting psychological storytelling, the experiences of that half of society which had never before been given interior emotional expression in paint.

To January 24, nationalgallery.org.uk

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