Artemisia Gentileschi, “Lucretia,” oil on canvas, 133 x 106 cm (© Dorotheum)

On August 22nd, the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, Austria announced the sale of a significant painting, “Lucretia,” by the 17th-century Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. They issued a press release promoting the work as the highlight of Dorotheum’s October auction week. The Gentileschi oil painting has been in an “aristocratic collection” since the 19th century — why have its owners chosen to sell it now?

The auction catalogue has not been published yet, so it is unclear whether it is part of a larger consignment from the same estate. But if this were a single emergence from a long-standing collection it would lend even more weight to the notion that sellers — and certainly Dorotheum, calling Gentileschi “increasingly relevant” — are benefiting from a surging current interest in the artist. Her topicality is undoubtedly rooted in the current zeitgeist focusing on the voice of women and, somewhat inevitably, an association with the #MeToo movement.

This increased feminist-leaning sensibility has touched everything from equal pay in the museum and heritage sector (with the major auction houses scrutinized for their pay gaps), to programming. 2018 thus far has seen prominent shows on Anni Albers, Frida Khalo, Tacita Dean and women’s right to vote. In July, the National Gallery in London purchased Gentileschi’s “Self-portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria” (1615–17) for £3.6 million (~$4.7 million) from the London dealer Robilant + Voena. It previously sold for £2.3 million (~$3 million), more than ten times its estimate in 2017. The high profile purchase conscientiously increased the number of paintings made by women in the collection of 2,300, to 21.

Her “Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting” (1638–9) was a key highlight of the blockbuster Royal Academy exhibition Charles I: King and Collector. But what appears to have seared into the popular imagination is her dramatic, traumatic backstory. At 18, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father Orazio, and subjected to thumbscrew torture to ascertain she was telling the truth during the trial proceedings.

Dorotheum seizes on this backstory to underpin the significance of the work, which is a portrait of Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman whose rape in the 6th century BCE led to a popular uprising and eventually the fall of the Roman monarchy. The auction house wrote: “The artist’s subject matter reflected her own life … dramatic images in many of her paintings derive from her own powerful experience of violence and its aftermath.” Quoted in The Art Newspaper, Mark MacDonnell of Dorotheum considers its €500,000–700,000 (~$585,000–820,000) estimate cautious and unreflecting of a far higher commercial value.

There is another portrait of Lucretia available in the same sale, by Neapolitan artist Diana de Rosa. Even though the Gentileschi is far more rare and significant a piece in an art historical sense, it is the sense of survival, of triumph over personal adversity, that makes Gentileschi’s Lucretia so thrillingly desirable.

A current show of little-known Baroque female painter, Michaelina Wautier, at MAS in Antwerp, Belgium presented a similar dichotomy between such a need for a relatable backstory — there is almost none on Wautier — and appreciating her considerable talent independently of circumstance. Currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum is an exhibition devoted to Frida Khalo’s “life story, told through her belongings.” Kahlo’s work is defined by its cathartic function in exorcising her personal plight. However, to view Gentileschi’s artwork independently of her misfortune, or on the other hand, her frequent depiction of strong female figures in Pagan and Christian mythology as a similarly cathartic practice, is to overly simplify.

Given the near-ubiquitous #MeToo movement, it is difficult to consider Gentileschi’s artistic achievement independently of the backstory. Are we doing her a disservice by subscribing so closely to the importance of this adversity?

Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia trained under her father Orazio, so outshining her siblings that she was producing professional work by age 17. Following her rape, she moved to Florence and set up her own studio, becoming a successful court painter under the Medicis and gaining such success that she was eventually inducted into the Accademia del Disgeno, an enormous accolade to be awarded any painter in that era. It enabled her to buy paint and supplies without a man’s permission, travel by herself, and sign contracts.

The content of her body of work itself, however, is suggestive that Gentileschi not only survived and used to her advantage the scandalous incident but possessed an agency that exploited her “exotic” position as a female in a patriarchal society to further her own career. Of roughly 60 paintings attributed to her, around 40 feature striking female figures demonstrating strength and agency: Judith and Holofernes (Judith beheads an aggressive warlord); Saint Catherine (martyred on the wheel); and the allegories of Inclination. Her mastery of nudes and facial expressions, she combined with the chiaroscuro practices of Caravaggio (Orazio was a friend) and dramatic depictions of violence that were shocking coming from a female hand. Several self-portraits demonstrate less a portrayal of victimhood and adversity and more of a self-assured businesswoman as the creator of these bold and highly desirable paintings. She has overcome not just a single act of violence, but an entire patriarchal society.

John William Waterhouse, “Hylas and the Nymphs” (1869), oil on canvas, 52 x 7.7 in (image via Wikimedia Commons)

It is arguable that #MeToo has focused our attention so much on the violent acts against women as victims that this becomes an overarching, defining factor. (However, this comment is in no way meant to downplay the magnitude of those acts.) It is behind the topical market interest in Gentileschi, and obscures her wider achievements against a patriarchal society, under which #MeToo was constructed. It also is responsible for such heavy-handed instances of “debate” that it instead clouds with outrage, like a Manchester art gallery deciding to remove John William Waterhouse’s 1896 “Hylas and the Nymphs.” This was an attention-grabbing and not very productive way to discuss the male gaze, reducing the argument to whether to censor or not. More constructive would be to query the innumerable eroticized nudes populating the work of artists we protect as genius: Tate Modern’s blockbusters on Picasso and Modigliani this year had no problem splashing these bodies across its merchandise, bought by cultured “enlightened” folk in a year when shirts brandish the popular slogan “The Future is Female.”

Hats off to Bendor Grosvenor, who has gone one further, calling out Christie’s regarding Picasso’s extremely troubling 1905 image of a child prostitute, “Young Girl with a Flower Basket” which fetched $115 million at auction. A fundamental change is needed where historic, archaic attitudes towards women go un-scrutinized and, in actuality, continue. Censoring, or on the other hand, defining women simply through the prism of victimhood, is unhelpful in this respect. Gentileschi’s Lucretia is stirring market excitement because it directly alludes to her experience of sexual violence, where it should be recognized more as symbolic of an impressive and successful career in an unforgiving society.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...