by Roderick Conway Morris

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Forgotten Genius

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 January 2021
The Royal Collection/HM The Queen
Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638-39



'You are as beautiful as you are famous,' wrote the Neapolitan poet Giovanni Canale in a poem first published in 1667, a decade after the death of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Born in Rome in 1593, she achieved international renown during her lifetime. Yet when the painting of the Baroque era became unfashionable, the memory of her declined and she was all-but forgotten - a fate shared even by some of the great male artists of the epoch, such as Caravaggio.

Artemisia was initially rediscovered in the 19th century, when the graphic transcript of a notorious rape trial in which she was involved in 1612 came to light. It was a mixed blessing since this concentrated attention on her as a victim rather than an artist. But the gradual recovery and re-identification of her works, along with a growing wealth of documentation relating to her life, have at last led to her regaining her place among the finest of all 17th-century Italian painters.

The artist is now the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery, the first in this country to be devoted to her, and curated by Letizia Treves, who is also the editor of the splendid catalogue.

Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a goldsmith of Florentine origins, who had turned to painting in his twenties and, although eight years older than Caravaggio, fell so totally under the younger artist's spell that he became one of his followers. Artemisia lost her mother at the age of 12 and was thereafter expected to look after her father and three younger brothers. Her life was severely restricted, as she was seldom allowed to leave the house, but she somehow found time to learn to draw and paint from her irascible father.

The rape of Artemisia was in part due to her father's leaving her alone in the studio with his artistic collaborator Agostino Tassi, a ruffian who had already been sent to the galleys for a previous crime. Orazio brought the charge against Tassi in the year after the event, without consulting his daughter, more out of concern for family honour than the harm she had suffered, and seemingly in the hope of forcing Tassi to marry her and of extracting financial compensation.

The trial exposed her to a great deal of shame and public opprobrium but, as the court records reveal, she conducted herself with impressive self-possession and dignity. She agreed to be interrogated under torture, which involved having a rope entwined in her fingers and progressively tightened, though the transcript suggests that this crude lie-detector test was not applied as cruelly as it might have been, given Tassi's villainous character was well known and the court was inclined to believe the victim. The perpetrator was found guilty but the sentence of banishment was never enforced. The following day Orazio married Artemisia off to Pierantonio Stiattesi, brother of the notary who had helped with the family's case, and the couple immediately departed for Florence.

These events proved a turning point in Artemisia's artistic career, since she was now able to establish her own studio. Within a year of arriving in Florence, she had already executed her first independent masterpiece, 'Judith Beheading Holofernes'.

Despite giving birth to five children between 1613 and 1618 (only one of whom, Prudenzia, survived infancy), the artist managed to produce a steady stream of works, attracting important patrons, among them Grand Duke Cosimo II Medici. In 1616 she became the first woman member of Florence's Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. She also met a brilliant young aristocrat and administrator Francesco Maria Maringhi, with whom she began a passionate affair.

A precious clutch of love letters that Artemisia wrote to Maringhi, between 1618-20, were discovered in 2011 and have been richly revealing of her character and ambitions. She was barely literate until adulthood and they are full of errors of grammar and spelling, but references she makes in them to classical and Renaissance authors show how far her self-education had advanced, and they give lively expression to her impetuous nature and her unswerving determination to win recognition as an artist with distinguished patrons.

Her growing reputation was substantially based on her depictions of strong-willed, independent-minded women, inspired by Biblical, mythological and historical sources. Over half of Artemisia's known works contain self-portraits or physiognomies reflecting her own features, which clearly gave them an added cachet for many patrons.

This also applied to her numerous nudes, for which, in the early days at least, she almost certainly used herself as a model. Later in her career, she complained to the patrician Sicilian collector Antonio Ruffo, about the cost of hiring female nude models, writing that 'the expenses are intolerable because out of the 50 women who undress themselves, there is scarcely one good one,' - a remark somewhat undermined by the voluptuous and highly erotic nudes that she produced during this period. It was to Ruffo that she made her famous declaration: 'I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.'

The artist was handsomely remunerated by the time she was in her twenties, but habitually lived beyond her means. In 1620 she was obliged to evade her creditors, fleeing the Tuscan capital on horseback (she had by then learned to ride). This marked the beginning of a peripatetic existence that took her back to Rome, to Venice, Naples, London and then back to Naples.

The Spanish Viceroy to Naples Fernando Afán Enríquez de Ribera, 3rd Duke of Alacalá, who was already a collector of Artemisia's paintings, prevailed upon her to move to the city in 1630, which she did willingly to escape the plague in Venice.

Although commanding a thriving studio in Naples, it may have been the artist's chronic restlessness that led her finally, probably in 1638 to accept an invitation from Charles I to London. Her estranged father Orazio had already been there as a court artist since the mid 1620s, but his health was failing and she almost certainly assisted him in completing the ceiling canvases for the Queen's House in Greenwich (now at Malborough House in London).

Artemisia soon returned to Naples but she did leave behind one absolute masterpiece, still in The Royal Collection, 'Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting'. The figure is too young to be Artemisia at this age and the angle, in theory, impossible for a conventional self-portrait. Yet it remains the most beautiful and dynamic summation of her extraordinary career.

Artemisia; National Gallery, London; 3 October - 24 January 2021

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024