by Roderick Conway Morris

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St Louis Art Museum, St Louis
Danai by Artemisia Gentileschi, around 1612

Story of a Passion

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 19 November 2011


A eulogist hailed Artemisia Gentileschi in 1625 as a 'prodigy of painting, easier to envy than to imitate.' By then she was well on the way to international fame, but to achieve it she had to overcome not only the professional challenges of pursuing a public career in a man's world, but also personal adversity and scandal.

Unlike her successful female forerunners Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, who both came from cultivated, prosperous and protective backgrounds, Artemisia, whose mother died when she was 12, was of lower class origin and grew up in a rough, sometimes violent, household. In 1612, at 18, she appeared in a sensational rape trial, which could easily have led to a lifetime of ostracism, making it impossible for her to win the aristocratic commissions that were essential if she were to make it as an artist.

Twenty years ago there was a small show devoted to Artemisia at the Casa Buonarotti in Florence, which has an early nude fresco by her hand. In 2001 a more extensive exhibition of Orazio Gentileschi and Artemisia Gentileschi, father and daughter, was held in Rome before traveling on to New York and St. Louis. Artemisia now has a substantial show to herself at the Palazzo Reale, of nearly 50 canvases spanning her career, curated by Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas.

A revelation of this exhibition is Artemisia's long-term love affair with the Florentine nobleman Francesco Maria di Niccolï Maringhi, witnessed by some fascinating autograph love letters on display for the first time, as notable for the artist's faulty grammar and idiosyncratic spelling as for her forthright expressions of passion.

Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593. Her father Orazio was the son of a Tuscan goldsmith. Artemisia learned to paint from her father and quickly mastered his style with such assurance that there has been no end of confusion as to the authorship of some works produced in her teenage years.

A key picture (not in this exhibition) is the brilliant 'Susannah and the Elders' now in the Graf von Shönborn Collection in Pommersfelden in Germany, painted when she was 17 and now widely agreed to be by her. For the nude figure, Artemisia clearly used herself as a model, as she was to do many times.

In May 1611 Agostino Tassi, an artist with whom Orazio was collaborating on frescoes at the papal Palazzo Quirinale, found Artemisia alone painting in the family studio-home and raped her. Afterward he promised to marry her.

Orazio had a number of unsavory friends - at least one other had tried to rape his daughter - but Tassi had a record of violent crimes committed in several other Italian cities and had been sent to the galleys for a time. Among the charges brought against him were incest and an attempt to have his wife, a prostitute, murdered. When it emerged that Tassi's wife was still alive and he was therefore in no position to marry Artemisia, Orazio brought the rape charge against him.

Initially, far from serving to restore his daughter's honor, it exposed her to numerous false accusations of immorality. Having lost her virginity while still unmarried she was regarded as dishonored and therefore not a reliable witness. But under torture by thumbscrew, she stuck to her story. Tassi was condemned to exile, but the sentence was never carried out.

Orazio, who had tried more than once to force Artemisia to become a nun, hastily married her off to an older man, Pietro Stiattesi, with whom she soon left for Florence.

In the period leading up to this, Orazio had come under the influence of the rising star Caravaggio, which in turn had a marked effect on Artemisia's canvases. But it is unlikely that Artemisia would have seen Caravaggio's 'Judith Beheading Holofernes' before painting, in around 1612, the first version of her still astonishing interpretation of the same scene.

The testimonies at the Tassi trial show that she was seldom allowed out of the house and Orazio was too fringe a figure to have any access to Rome's cultural elite.

In any case, Artemisia's picture differs markedly from Caravaggio's in depicting a dramatic struggle, in which Judith's maid plays an active part, holding the frantically resisting general down as the heroine's sword slices into the victim's neck, his blood running in rivulets across the sheets and down the head of his bed. That the extreme violence of the scene derives from Artemisia's responses to her rape, as has been suggested, is conceivable but unprovable.

The first and second version, from around 1620-21, of what was to become her most celebrated image are the opening and closing canvases, on loan from Naples and Florence respectively, of the current exhibition.

The move to Florence marked the beginning of Artemisia's independent life as an artist. Admiration for her talents overcame her humble social status and gave her access to intellectual circles such as the one that gathered at the Buonarotti house. There she met not only Galileo and other leading figures, but also Francesco Maria di Niccolï Maringhi, who became her life-long lover and financial supporter. In 1614, with the backing of powerful patrons and fellow artists, Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted to Florence's Accademia del Disegno.

Despite giving birth four times in five years, Artemisia displayed an unbending passion for painting. Her highly erotic nudes probably had an added cachet in that the figures bore a close resemblance to her own, as is the case with her 'Danae' from the Saint Louis Museum here, with its abandoned pose, silky white thighs and calves, dimpled knees and orgasmically clenched fist.

Heroic women, often nude, nearly nude or with generous décolletage - Susanna, Judith, Bathsheba, Lucretia, Cleopatra - were an Artemisia trademark. Her Mary Magdalens, such as the one here from Palazzo Pitti in Florence, were some of the most sensual ever painted.

Keeping up appearances and lavish living incurred mounting debts, which obliged Artemisia to flee to Rome in 1520 where, undaunted, she found new patrons. She took advantage of new opportunities to develop her reputation as a portraitist. Among the most striking here is of a proudly self-confident 'Lady With a Fan' from a private collection.

Artemisia was in Venice in the late 1620s. By this time her more distant royal patrons included Philip IV of Spain. She went to Naples in 1630, where the Viceroy Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera bought many pictures from her. She also received some substantial church commissions, among them one for the large canvases for the Cathedral of Pozzuoli on show here.

In the late 1630s she traveled to London, where Orazio had been court painter to Queen Henrietta since 1626. It has been assumed that she went there to assist her aging father in completing some ceiling paintings at the Queen's House in Greenwich, though it is perhaps more probable that she was invited on her own account by Charles I.

The first woman artist to run a large studio with many assistants, Artemisia was to spend much of the rest of her life in Naples, a city she did not much like, according to some of her letters. She died there in 1654.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023