I’ve known about Artemisa Gentileschi for many years and have admired the paintings which are in the collection at the National Gallery but I had no idea how prolific and successful she was. She was clearly a prodigious talent which found focus in art at an early age. She must have been a forceful and confident character who was content to use her own image in paintings representing saints or historical characters, as well as for sensitive self-portraits.
At the age of 17 she was attacked and raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist colleague of her father. She had the astonishing confidence and composure to endure a court case to establish her honour. Her resolve was tested, literally, by torture (cord wrapped tightly around her fingers) to prove the veracity of her accusation. She was adamant: ‘È vero, è’ vero, è vero’ she insisted. It is TRUE.
So it’s no surprise that she was attracted to biblical subjects which involve women exacting revenge on evil and abusive men. The most famous, and grisly, of these paintings are the two versions on show of Judith and Holofernes. His eyes are staring open at us, the viewers, as she calmly wields the sword and cuts off his head sending blood gushing in all directions.
Artemisia became a popular portrait painter – though few of these paintings survive, apparently- and her cleverly composed narrative painting were popular amongst patrons in her home town of Rome, Naples, Florence and even London (she was invited to England by Charles I).
I was particularly struck by a sensational painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (about 1623) It’s illuminated by the light of a single candle showing the anxiety on the faces of the women as they complete their murderous task and bundle the victim’s head into a bag before making their escape. Shades of Caravaggio in this one.
Another abused woman features in her interpretation of Susannah and the Elders. She shows the humiliation of the woman as the leering men gaze upon her naked body.
There is so much to enjoy in this spectacular show and I do recommend it. It was a huge treat to be back at the National Gallery after such a long time and it’s so good for the spirit to be able to see fabulous art like this in a beautifully curated show. It’s on until 24th January 2021.
For my ‘and finally’, here’s a detail from an enchanting painting of Madonna and Child. It’s so natural and full of tender affection.