Despite enduring two national lockdowns, Artemisia at the National Gallery, London, remains an exemplary introduction to the life and career of everyone’s favourite badass woman artist.
Practically all of her best-known works are exhibited, from the early Pommersfelden Susannah and the Elders to the Naples and Florence versions of Judith beheading Holofernes, as well as her many self-portraits and depictions of fearsome heroines from historical and contemporary literature.
Additionally, we are treated to the diversity of subject matter Artemisia painted for prestigious clients all over Europe. Less well-known are her public commissions in Naples – a few of which are present – and her collaborative efforts with other Neapolitan artists.
One of the best things to come out of this show is Artemisia’s personality, which we can read for ourselves in 5 handwritten letters to her Florentine lover Francesco Maria Maringhi, part of a group of 36 letters discovered in 2011 in the Frescobaldi archives in Florence.
My personal highlight was the original transcript of the famous rape trial, a loan which was announced during the first lockdown. Here we can see the very words Artemisia uttered to prove her statements true against the artist Agostino Tassi.
Ultimately, the exhibition shows that Artemisia Gentileschi was no mere legend. Through passion and hard work, she devoted her life to building her reputation as a noteworthy artist. She wasn’t satisfied until she could be the best of the best, constantly vying for patronage from the most prominent members of society.
It’s a lot for someone who was housebound all her childhood by a controlling father, and didn’t know how to read and write until after she married. And even that was an arranged marriage.
Artemisia is an inspirational figure to all, regardless of gender, sex, economic and social background. And the best part?
Artemisia ran from 3 October 2020 to 24 January 2021 at the National Gallery, London, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/
Susannah and the Elders (1610)
The famous Pommersfelden version of Susannah and the Elders (1610) is Artemisia Gentileschi’s first signed and dated painting, painted when she was just 17 years old.
It is a fantastic example of her early talent and what she learnt from her father’s painting, such as bright use of colours, subtlety of flesh, and extraordinary attention to details and textures, especially those of clothes and architecture.
Where Artemisia departs from her father’s painting is the added sense of emotion and sympathy to her subjects. In Susannah and the Elders, she emphasises with great subtlety Susannah’s reaction to the two lustful elders approaching her as she bathes.
She immediately twists her body; her legs face the other way while her hands block their approach. Her nakedness contrasts greatly with the elders’ layers of clothing. Her distressed expression is at odds with the blushing of one of the elder’s faces.
Nothing about this situation looks comfortable. It was designed to shock and make viewers feel something, compared to similar depictions by her contemporaries which often appear quite tame, as if Susannah were having a conversation with the elders.
It was painted the year before she was raped by Agostino Tassi.
Transcript of the Tassi-Gentileschi trial
I’m never going to stop talking about how amazing it was to finally see the original transcript of the Tassi-Gentileschi trial, on loan from the Archivio di Stato, Rome.
Agostino Tassi worked with Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi and, since there was practically no distinction between the painting workshop and the Gentileschi’s living areas, there would have been much daily contact between Tassi and Artemisia. This is where he would have done the deed.
In fact, it was a bad idea from day one. Tassi had previously been tried for incest in 1610 with his sister-in-law.
There are very few specific details about the event; most anecdotes are nothing other than rumours. What we do know is that Orazio accused Agostino Tassi of ‘deflowering’ his daughter and it went to court, albeit in private. The trial happened almost 9 months after the event, and this is the transcript, open to Monday, 14 May 1612.
In brief, Artemisia rejected Tassi’s advances. Tassi promised to marry her because, at the time, that was considered an acceptable form of compensation for ‘defloration’ to restore the honour that was taken away by force. Artemisia accepted Tassi’s promise, continuing a sexual relationship for several months. However, it was discovered during the trial that Tassi was already married, so his promise was false.
The officials asked Artemisia if she was willing to undergo ‘judicial torture’ to establish her statements as ‘true’. She agreed and this response is noted in the top line of the left-hand page.
The torture chosen was the ‘sibille’, which is where a system of cords is looped around the fingers and tightened.
During this, Artemisia is recorded as having said:
We can see this a little above the halfway point on the right-hand page.
She then turned to Tassi and said ‘This is the ring that you give me, and these are your promises’, referring to his earlier promise of marriage.
On 28 November 1612, Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome, but it wasn’t enforced until a year later.
Susannah and the Elders (1622)
For the Burghley House Susannah and the Elders (1622) in Stamford, Artemisia focused on Susannah’s modesty, rather than the physical rejection of the elders’ advances.
She actually references an antique sculpture with the ‘venus pudica’ pose, in which Venus was also surprised at her bath and tried to cover herself. But unlike Venus, Susannah is a real woman of flesh and blood.
We’re supposed to internalise Susannah’s mental state during this predicament. She glances upwards, as if hoping for God to intervene; there is in fact a narrative detail in the Apocrypha which reads:
‘As she wept she looked up to heaven, for she trusted in the Lord wholeheartedly.’
Her nakedness is evident, and we are intended to visualise her state of embarrassment. The effect is further heightened by the way one of the elders pushes the other out of the way to leer at her.
It’s really quite an evocative image.
Susannah and the Elders (1652)
This is Artemisia’s last known, dated work, portraying her last variation of Susannah and the Elders, of which she made many throughout her career. It is in the collection of Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.
Dated 1652, when she was almost 60 years old, Artemisia returns to the use of gestures, like her first version in 1610.
She abandoned the vertical format in favour of the horizontal, giving greater weight to the elders’ invasion of her personal space.
Lighting certainly drives the narrative; Susannah practically has a halo around her head, the rest of her body gleaming, whilst the elders emerge from darkness.
This picture is documented as a collaboration between Artemisia and one of her pupils Onofrio Palumbo, attesting to the continued demand for paintings of this type by Artemisia up until the end of her extended career.
Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr (1613-14)
When Artemisia Gentileschi moved to Florence around the end of 1612 or beginning of 1613, she began to incorporate her own image into her work.
This is the earliest known likeness of Artemisia, portraying herself as a female martyr, identifiable by the martyr’s palm in her hand. As you’ll see in later works, the cloth wrapped around her head becomes a distinguishing feature of her image.
It is dated to about 1613-14 and part of an American private collection.
There is some discussion about the awkwardness of her hand and how it is less modelled than her face, suggesting the possibility it was added later by Artemisia.
A hypothesis suggests it started as an ordinary self-portrait but reworked into a martyr to satisfy a client’s needs or increase its saleability.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1615-17)
The next self-portrait shows Artemisia as a lute player, and is recorded in the Medici collections, possibly originally commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo II. It is currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.
What is lovely about this picture is the accuracy with which Artemisia portrayed the instrument and the lutenist’s finger placement on the strings, suggesting she had real knowledge of lute-playing. Such an image would have fitted very well among courtly images of music and love.
This self-portrait was also painted on a reused canvas. An earlier composition lies underneath. Artemisia turned the canvas 180 degrees and painted her self-portrait over it, probably because financial difficulties – due to her husband’s debts – meant she had to be economical with her resources.
It most closely resembles the National Gallery’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the two may have been created in close proximity and time, if not side by side.
Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17)
The Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17) provided the initial impetus for the National Gallery exhibition.
It was discovered in 2017 and acquired by the National Gallery, making it their first acquisition of a work by Artemisia in their collection.
As the 8th work by a female artist in the collection, it went on a nationwide tour to schools, prisons, and hospitals so that many who would not normally be able to see art in person could do so.
It is closely linked with the Self Portrait as a Lute Player (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) and the two may have been worked on around the same time, if not side by side.
There is still much to learn about this portrait. It started off as an ordinary self-portrait of the artist donning a headscarf. Possibly for reasons of marketability, she adapted it to represent the 4th-century saint by giving her a crown, halo, palm frond, and broken spike wheel.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17)
Also closely related to the Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (National Gallery, London) is the Uffizi’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17), which contains an underlying composition like the National Gallery painting and was modified afterwards.
The sitter’s appearance has been variously identified as either a self-portrait of Artemisia, a portrait of Maria Maddalena of Austria, or of Caterina de’ Medici. The latter is more likely because Saint Catherine was her namesake.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39)
Skipping significantly ahead, the British Royal Collection’s Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (1638-39) is the only certain work surviving from Artemisia’s time in the court of Charles I, and perhaps her most famous self-portrait.
Here, Artemisia fused the two separate traditions of self-portraiture and allegory. Because depictions of allegorical figures and muses always used female figures, this fusion was only possible for Artemisia and not her male contemporaries.
She seems to have followed a close reading of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a popular source book for descriptions of icons of all sorts.
For the opening lines of Pittura (Painting), he writes:
‘A woman, beautiful, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently coloured drapery…’
Artemisia matches this description almost word for word. The choice to identify with Pittura is a natural choice, and ultimately reveals the scale of her ambitions:
To simply be the best.
Madonna and Child (1613-14)
We often associate Artemisia with gory, dramatic images, but she was also very capable at depicting tender subjects.
This Madonna and Child (1613-14; Galleria Spada, Rome) is one of the most welcoming and sweet paintings in the exhibition. For me, there is a Rubenesque quality to the Christ Child.
Painted during her Florentine period, Artemisia was at the time practically pregnant almost every year of her seven-year sojourn.
She gave birth to five children in five years, all while remaining productive and becoming the first woman to become a member of the respected Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in 1616.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t always attributed to Artemisia.
It wasn’t until 1992 when a 17th-century inventory recorded its attribution – ‘Una Madonna d’Artemisia Gentilesca con il putto in braccia’ (‘A Madonna by Artemisia Gentilesca with the child in her arms’) – and presence in the collection of Alessandro Biffi, a Roman collector who discharged certain debts by bequeathing works of art to the Veralli family. Marchesa Maria Veralli married Orazio Spada in 1636, bringing several of Artemisia’s works into the Spada collection.
Judith and her Maidservant (1608)
This isn’t by Artemisia herself, but rather her father Orazio Gentileschi, painted about 1608.
She would have been about 15 years old at the time, around the time when she began training in her father’s workshop. Being housebound all her childhood, she would have ground pigments, learnt to copy her father’s works and also from prints of other artists’ works.
This rendition of Judith and her Maidservant (Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo) bears all the trademarks of Orazio’s proficiency as a meticulous painter of sumptuous fabrics and textures, brilliant use of colour, and charming theatrical compositions.
According to the Apocrypha, the maidservant Abra waited outside the tent to keep watch, but here Orazio makes her an active participant in the deed. The shared turn of their heads suggests urgency and worry, to which Judith places a reassuring hand on Abra’s shoulder as if to say ‘Everything will be all right.’
Artemisia absorbed all of these qualities throughout her career. She even made her own variation of this composition (Uffizi, Florence), itself a masterpiece of storytelling.
Judith and her Maidservant (1614-15)
Artemisia’s Uffizi variation on her father’s Judith and her Maidservant (Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo) is a clever piece of storytelling.
Although the scene shows the aftermath of the beheading, the pommel on the hilt of the sword bears a screaming head, alluding to the screams of Holofernes during the beheading.
The beheading is also referenced in the way the sword rests on Judith’s shoulder, near her exposed neck.
Artemisia’s Judith is also considerably older and rougher than her father’s portrayal, adding greater weight to the realism of the act.
Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1623-25)
Heralded early on as Artemisia’s greatest masterpiece, the Detroit Institute of Art’s Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1623-25) shows Caravaggio’s influence the most.
Lit entirely by a single candlelight, the highlights and gestures of the protagonists practically guide us towards the severed head of Holofernes at the bottom of the picture.
The dramatic lighting creates suspense and also picks up on the metallic surfaces of the sword’s hilt, its scabbard, and the candleholder. Amidst this, we can also notice the blood dripping from the blade of the sword.
For me, this springs to mind Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) in the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome which Artemisia may have known when she came back to Rome in late February or early March 1620.
We know nothing about the commission of Artemisia’s picture but it is widely held as one her greatest masterpieces.
Judith beheading Holofernes (1612-13)
One of the great highlights of the exhibition is the uniting of the two famous versions of Judith beheading Holofernes in Naples and Florence.
Shown here is the first version in the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples, dated about 1612-13.
It was cut down at some point in its history but may originally have been as large as the Uffizi version.
Popularly read as Artemisia’s revenge painting, enacting her anger against Agostino Tassi, it depicts the dramatic moment when Judith beheads the sleeping Holofernes, unlike more conventional depictions which focus on the aftermath when she tries to flee the enemy camp with her maidservant Abra.
Obviously, we would think of Caravaggio’s version as a source of inspiration, but it was also entirely possible that Artemisia came to this idea on her own. Furthermore, Caravaggio’s painting was in the house of the papal banker Ottavio Costa in Rome and, given Artemisia’s restrictions at home by her father, would have been unlikely for her to have seen it.
However, comparing it to the Caravaggio helps us to understand why Artemisia’s version is so much more interesting and dramatic. It gives a real sense of the reality of such an act, of the force and strength required for two women to overpower a military general of Holofernes’ size.
It may be hard to see, but Judith – on the right – actually has one leg up on the bed in order to support herself and give greater weight to her actions. The maidservant is also an active participant, wrestling Holofernes down, rather than just a passive observer. The entire scene is utterly convincing.
Judith beheading Holofernes (1613-14)
The more spacious composition of the later version of Judith beheading Holofernes (Uffizi, Florence), dated about 1613-14, may reflect the original size of the earlier Naples version (Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples), which was cut down at some point in its history.
The Florence version has also been confirmed as being based on a tracing of the Naples one, sort of like what she did with her self-portraits.
Adding greater realism to an already violent scene, Artemisia included blood splatters on Judith’s dress. In fact, it was relegated to a dark staircase in the 18th century because Grand Duchess Maria Luisa found it too horrifying to contemplate.
Several points support the belief it was painted in Florence, and probably for a Florentine patron.
- Artemisia signed it with the Tuscan surname ‘Lomi’, which she used extensively in Florence.
- The costly dress and appearance of the characters seem to reflect Florentine elegance and refinement.
- Its Florentine provenance. In 1774, it was transferred from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi, suggesting it had by that point been in the Medici collection.
Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici is thought to be the patron on the basis of a 1635 letter from Artemisia to Galileo Galilei, referencing his assistance in securing payment for a picture:
‘that Judith which I gave to His Serene Highness the Grand Duke Cosimo of glorious memory’
However, a slightly earlier dating may equally work, perhaps as a showpiece intended to win Cosimo’s patronage in the first place.
Jael and Sisera (1620)
The tale of Jael and Sisera is a less common subject in painting, certainly compared to those of Judith and Holofernes.
The inspiration for Artemisia’s version (1620; Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) may have come from artists like Ludovico Cigoli and Simon Vouet, who also depicted this subject.
It derives from the Hebrew Book of Judges in which the Canaanite army general flees a battle against the Israelites. He is offered milk and shelter by Jael, an Israelite woman of the Kenite tribe. While he is sleeping, Jael drives a tent peg through Sisera’s skull.
Artemisia’s signature is chiselled at the base of the pilaster, recalling the incisive action of Jael’s tent peg.
Although not as complex as her other works, it is nonetheless a powerful portrayal of a woman who is ready to take her fate in her own hands.
Esther before Ahasuerus (1628-30)
Esther before Ahasuerus (1628-30; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is one of very few works dated to Artemisia’s three-year period in Venice between late 1626 and 1630.
It is a great example of Artemisia’s ability to work on a large scale, as her father was used to. It is also a useful work to understand how far she had come from her initial training in Orazio’s workshop.
For the exhibition, it is hung next to her father’s similarly-sized Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-32; Royal Collection, Windsor).
Both pictures pay extraordinary attention to the details of different fabrics and materials, clear narrative composition and scale, and great use of light and colour. But the ultimate difference is Artemisia’s more effective portrayal of human drama.
Orazio’s painting relies heavily on physical gestures as a visual metaphor for the drama that is Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of the slave Joseph. He leaves her with his coat instead and literally turns his back to her. But the figures are practically static and without expression, almost like sculptures.
With Artemisia’s depiction, the moment is much more dramatic. Esther faints in front of her husband Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, due to having fasted for the past three days. We see Esther immediately being supported by two ladies-in-waiting. The proximity of one of them to Esther’s neck suggests the urgency at which she falls. She also looks noticeably paler. Meanwhile, her husband rushes off his throne. The scene is infinitely more human, and this was what Artemisia became very good at upon leaving her father’s workshop.
The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (1635)
This painting of The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (about 1635; Museo del Prado, Madrid) was one of a series of six pictures commissioned on behalf of Philip IV of Spain, all illustrating the life of the Baptist. The other five were painted by Massimo Stanzione, except one which was by Paolo Finoglia (now lost).
In this point of the story, the important part is when Zacharias writes on a piece of paper ‘His name is John’, after being asked by the midwives what his son should be called. Artemisia shifted this moment to the side, instead devoting all her attention to the midwives who bathe and tend to the infant.
The setting is also amazingly ordinary, featuring a simple wooden chair, tiled floor, copper basin, and chipped bowl of water. For me, the most extraordinary element of this picture is Artemisia’s rendering of fabrics and textiles, especially the shimmering silk shawl on the midwife on the left.
Corisca and the Satyr (1635-37)
Corisca and the Satyr (about 1635-37; private collection) is Artemisia’s only surviving painting of a contemporary literary subject, taken from Giovanni Battista Guarini’s tragicomedy ‘Il pastor fido’, first published in the 1590s.
The nymph Corisca is being chased by a lustful satyr, leading him on by accepting gifts of fine clothing and the blue sandals she wears in the picture. When the satyr reaches out to grab her, he falls on the ground, clutching a hairpiece in his hand.
It’s a scene that would probably still be funny in the present day and shows a different kind of heroine in Artemisia’s work, one who is simply just clever.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1620-25)
Based on Caravaggio’s prototype, Artemisia’s Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1620-25; private collection) is unusually relatable.
She was recently reunited with one of two Caravaggio(?) versions at the Rijksmuseum’s Caravaggio-Bernini. Baroque in Rome exhibition.
Mary Magdalene is usually depicted repenting or suffering in some way, accompanied by her identifying attributes – a crucifix, skull, or ointment jar. There are none of those here. She just seems to be in the moment.
The image is also openly erotic, since her white chemise is slipping off her shoulder. Although sensual paintings of women were plentiful, one that was painted by a woman would have had greater appeal to collectors.
Its existence was documented for many years from a single black-and-white photograph, published by Gianni Papi in The Burlington Magazine in 2011, until it was rediscovered in the south of France and placed on the Parisian art market in 2014.
Met uniquely with universal acceptance from scholars as a work by Artemisia, It sold at Sotheby’s Paris for €865,500, more than twice its initial estimate.
Saint Januarius in the Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (1635-37)
In Naples, Artemisia had unprecedented opportunities for public commissions and met with a huge range of important individuals and contemporary artists. This is in stark contrast to her earlier commissions in Florence and Rome which were typically for private patrons.
Saint Januarius in the Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (about 1635-37) is one of three works Artemisia painted for the Cathedral Basilica San Procolo at Pozzuoli, west of Naples, as part of a much larger series of works involving other Neapolitan artists. They can still be seen in situ.
This commission would have cemented her reputation among the more established Neapolitan artists.
It depicts the patron saint of Naples outside the Roman amphitheatre. The emperor Diocletian sent wild animals to maul Januarius but they were tamed instead. The comically painted lioness and bear respond with humility. On the left, the bowing figure probably depicts the deacon of Pozzuoli, Proculus.
It was probably also a collaborative effort. The architectural background and its figures within are by a different hand; this could potentially be Viviano Codazzi or Domenico Gargiulo, whom Artemisia is documented as having collaborated on other works.
Danaë (1612) and Cleopatra (1611-12; 1633-35)
To end this Artemisia-thon, I want to bring attention to the exquisite little Danaë (about 1612; Saint Louis Art Museum), painted on copper, a support her father used very often. The vibrancy of the oils really shines through as a result.
In the exhibition, it has been reunited with the slightly earlier Cleopatra (about 1611-12; Etro Collection), which provided the initial composition. Both were painted whilst she was still under her father’s tutelage.
They both share a similar composition derived from an antique sculpture of a Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican, which at the time was believed to depict Cleopatra based on the snake-shaped armlet on her left arm. If you don’t know the story, Cleopatra committed suicide by being bitten by a snake/asp after finding out her lover Mark Anthony had died.
It was quite common for artists to re-use compositions if they felt it was visually effective. In this case, Artemisia was referencing a sculpture that would have been quite popular among patrons of art in Rome, so it was a way to show her awareness of current trends.
Though housebound, I suspect Artemisia could have known of Titian’s own variants (shown here, the Apsley House version in London) since prints of them were already in circulation by the late 16th century.
On a semi-related note, in the later Cleopatra (about 1633-35; private collection), Artemisia has chosen to show her in the process of dying, after committing suicide from the death of her lover Mark Anthony.
This may sound morbid, but I actually love this painting because Cleopatra actually looks convincingly dead, which is not an easy thing to do. In fact, a lot of artists tend to retain the skin’s warmth and instead place emphasis on the dead weight of the deceased. Here, you just know.
Disclaimer: the above content was originally published as a 21-part series of Instagram posts in 2020. They have been reposted here due to popular demand and accessibility.