Jesse Locker —
2020 was, without a doubt, a terrible year for most of us; however, it was a very good year for the seventeenth-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The exhibition “Artemisia” at the National Gallery, London, despite being delayed for months and then interrupted by lockdowns, nevertheless sparked a new wave of interest in the artist and introduced her for the first time to many in the English-speaking world. The exhibition brought together many of the best-known and best-preserved paintings, from her early Susanna and the Elders, painted in 1610, when she was just 17, to her last signed work, also of Susanna, painted in 1652. While Artemisia is best known for her shockingly naturalistic and often violent portrayals of ancient heroines, she is equally famous today for a traumatic event of her youth: her rape, at the age of 17, by the painter Agostino Tassi, the subsequent trial, and the question of how, or if, these events might find expression in her art.
Since 2015, when my book Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting was first published, Artemisia has been transformed into a celebrity whose fame reaches far beyond the realm of art history. In the past few years, Artemisia has been the subject of countless features in popular media, two graphic novels, several plays, an opera, an homage by singer FKA Twigs, a write-up in Vogue, and a major television series currently in the works. For better or worse Artemisia has become, in the words of one critic, “the Beyoncé of art history.”
But there is a danger in reading her art in a purely personal vein, either as a cathartic response to trauma or an expression of revenge and empowerment: first, that we misunderstand the social and psychological gap that separates us from seventeenth-century Italy, and, perhaps more importantly, that we lose sight of the variety and power of her art itself. As one reviewer noted (to continue the rock star metaphor), “focusing mainly on the revenge stuff is a bit like saying you’re a Kate Bush fan but only ever playing Hounds of Love.”
As I show in my book, Artemisia was famous in her own day, but for very different reasons. None of her contemporaries seems to have been aware of the rape – or, if they were, they made no mention of it. Instead, they praise the artist’s wit, talent, beauty, and even, on one occasion, her singing ability. A 1625 drawing by Pierre Dumonstier in the British Museum portrays the artist’s hand grasping a paintbrush, with an inscription praising “the worthy hand of the excellent and learned Artemisia, Roman gentlewoman.” Simon Vouet’s marvelous portrait (Palazzo Blu, Pisa) portrays the artist as nothing less than legendary. He presents her in a swirl of yellow and white fabrics, holding a toccalapis (chalk holder) with her pinky elegantly extended and wearing a medallion portraying the Mausoleum, one of the wonders of the ancient world that was built by a namesake, Queen Artemisia of Hallicarnassus. But her contemporaries were also close observers of her painting, and poets in Venice and Naples marveled at her shocking fidelity to nature, her own presence in her paintings, and the artistry of her colors. Her tombstone in the Neapolitan church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini provides evidence of her renown through the simplicity of its inscription: just “HEIC ARTEMISIA” (“Here lies Artemisia”). “Perhaps,” mused her eighteenth-century biographer Averardo de’ Medici, “this extremely brief epitaph…was intended to indicate the repository of her ashes, [and] her name alone served as the most complete elegy to the eminent painter.” Or, as we might understand it today, she was a rock star.
Jesse Locker is associate professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art at Portland State University. His book, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting, is now available in paperback.