In the hands of artist Gina Siciliano, the story of Artemisia Gentileschi is more than a history of the most prominent female painter of the Renaissance, whose interpretations of the myth of Judith slaying Holofernes empower women. It is a densely layered tale of sociopolitical changes in 17th-century Italy, Spain, and England, of a mother and sexual assault survivor, and of a woman passionately committed to a life in art. Rendered in detailed pencil crosshatching, Siciliano’s graphic novel I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi, published by Fantagraphics, weaves together known facts of Gentileschi’s life with the politics of art patronage, as well as religious turmoil and the whims of contemptible men, including her patrons, her father and his friends, and her own husband.
The graphic novel format integrates Gentileschi’s paintings with descriptions and interpretations of her artworks, and a narrative of her life. Siciliano’s renditions of the paintings reflect the importance of copying as a primary means of artistic study in the Renaissance. She writes in the preface, “When we see her work on a page alongside images of events in her life and/or the sociopolitical landscape, our eyes absorb a more comprehensive picture.” This opening also reveals Siciliano’s history of sexual abuse. She recalls the first time she saw one of Gentileschi’s Judith paintings: “As Judith pulls the sword through Holofernes’ neck, I recognized the look on her face — a determined, vengeful rage, a feeling within many survivors, either suppressed, or embraced, or both.”
Gentileschi was raised primarily by her father, an artist who trained her to assist him. “With humanism came some renewed respect for women, but they were legally considered minors, owned by fathers and husbands, or else destined to spend their lives in convents,” Siciliano explains. Gentileschi grew up in this atmosphere, under the eyes of her father’s leering patrons. She was aware of her talent, but she also knew the danger of being an unmarried woman whose value was tied not only to the dowry her father could offer, but to her prized virginity. Siciliano captures the discomfort of these realities in her tightly packed spreads, replete with written accounts of historical context that fill the pages with text, with only a few visual scenes illustrated — making this history as visually oppressive as the events described.
One scene opens with a wide aerial view of Gentileschi, working in the studio when two of her father’s friends enter offering artistic advice. In the following panels, the frame darkens around them, and Siciliano zooms into their faces as they close in on the young artist and seize her body. “The power of your art is undeniable. Your skill is on its way,” one man coaxes. As they surround her, she pushes them away, proclaiming, “I will be great. But not if you keep distracting me.” And thus Gentileschi’s self-determination emerges, as she endeavors to achieve her full potential against men’s obstacles.
The scenes she painted, in the dark, shadowy tradition of Caravaggio, were unconventional, alluring, and sexual; she was unafraid to embrace women’s desires. One of her earliest subjects was the story of Susanna, a young woman who was attacked while bathing. “Susanna was often an excuse to paint a partially naked lady in a lush, suggestive Garden of Eden,” Siciliano writes. She juxtaposes this background with a full-page drawn copy of Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders” (1610), showing a fleshy woman cowering beneath two lecherous men. “Her gesture — awkward pain. The two elders bore the dark curls of Agostino Tassi and the balding sleaziness of Cosimo Quorli” — her father’s friends from the previous spread, one of whom would eventually rape her and sully her honor.
Siciliano illustrates the relationship between Gentileschi’s life and art. Over the years her portrayals of Judith would shift increasingly toward the friendship between Judith and her maidservant, and when Gentileschi was most concerned with making money to support her two daughters’ dowries, her paintings would be more demure and suited to patrons’ tastes. The latter shows an aspect of Gentileschi’s life that is hard for contemporary readers to grasp: the ways that women were inextricably tied to men.
Though the trauma of her rape is evident in the ever-darkening and more violent paintings of Judith’s story, her primary concern is saving her honor. After being assured that he intends to marry her, Gentileschi carries on an affair with the man who raped her, which eventually leads to a trial that includes Gentileschi’s torture (a common means of testing truthfulness at this time), and, despite a favorable outcome, her family’s dishonor. Siciliano illustrates the events of this months-long ordeal as Gentileschi paints another Judith. “Rape was not considered a violation of the body and spirt, but only a disruption of the family name and social status,” the text states, above details of the Judith painting and Gentileschi’s determined face at work.
The book follows the painter’s life, from her marriage and childrearing, through the deaths of her two sons and birth of an illegitimate daughter, the expulsion of her husband from Rome after reckless fights and unpaid debts, her efforts to gain patrons, her lovers, and her journeys to new cities and countries. But the most powerful spreads convey the internal struggles of a strong woman, eventually a mother of two daughters, determined to protect them from her own fate. In one panel she crouches down to her daughter’s level and says, “Palmira, how would you like to learn to prepare colors for me? I hope you’ll say yes.” And “Your mother is a famous painter and painting is sacred.” In the same scene she looks away and adds, “But … Palmira … A long time ago a man hurt your mother very much. He took something very important from me,” alluding to her rape and the torture she underwent as part of the trial.
This story is juxtaposed with yet another portrait of Judith, even more violent and bloody than the ones before, as Judith and her maidservant lean over Holofernes, whose head in the foreground spurts blood onto their bodies. As Siciliano writes in her preface, “A close examination of these parallels with the past can help us put our current struggles into perspective and overcome them.” Siciliano visually and textually confronts the trauma Gentileschi experienced, while demonstrating the painter’s strong will and passion. Without falling prey to the trope of artistic achievement through trauma, this intensely detailed visual biography does justice to a still undervalued artist.
I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi by Gina Siciliano (2019) is out from Fantagraphics.