LONDON — Artemisia, now finally open at the National Gallery after having been postponed from April by COVID-19, could not be a more timely or important exhibition. On a purely economic level, this blockbuster represents a shot in the arm for London tourism, yet the compelling and brutal story of this female artist’s survival and success, twinned with the practical and political difficulties that the museum must have overcome to actually get the delayed show open, chimes with a zeitgeist of struggle and endurance that is so particular to now.
Daughter of the successful Baroque painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia was raped by his friend Agostino Tassi in 1611 and endured torture during the subsequent trial to prove she was not lying (the extraordinary transcript for which is included in the show). It is an ugly episode that appears to have colored art history’s interpretation of her work; it is convenient to read her frequent depictions of the biblical figure of Judith, who beheaded Holofernes to save her hometown, as “revenge on canvas.” While her experience may indeed be inseparable from her art, curator Letizia Treves is at pains to point out not just her powerhouse technical ability — which abounds in each stunning piece — but some very canny choices in subject and composition. Gentileschi, Treves argues, often painted herself into her images, exploiting her unusual position of being female in a profession dominated by men as a means to stand out — far from simply using the canvas to exact revenge. In an era when society is beginning to acknowledge the work of women in its own right, this show does well to shake off the tired and lazy view of Gentileschi as a victim.
There are several indications that Gentileschi was focused on being ruthlessly efficient in her production and self-promotion. A series of self-portraits in the guises as a “Female Martyr” (1613–14), “Lute Player” (1616–18), and “St Catherine” (1615–17) are shown to be traced from the same design, having matching positions of face and arms, with Gentileschi adopting the roles of martyrs and musician. The several self-portraits perpetuate the mystery of the artist’s persona, and were also created as efficiently as possible. She revisits themes to revise and refine; there are three versions of “Susanna and the Elders” (1610, 1622, and 1649), each tweaking the same core composition of frontally faced Susanna leered at by older men at her bath in the background. Treves indicates where a piece has been reworked and redesigned on the canvas (visibly, in the 1622 Susanna), which smacks of an artist unwilling to just settle when a work isn’t coming right.
Nowhere is this resourcefulness more present than in two versions of the astonishing “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1612–13 and 1613–14). Both feature identical compositions except for the coloring: Holofernes supine on the bed with Judith above, gurning with brute force as she severs his neck. The later work is larger, and has noticeably more blood spatter. It was apparently created to win the patronage of Cosimo il de’ Medici, and one can see why she selected this composition, ramping up its gore, drama, and enough chiaroscuro to out-do Caravaggio, to impress the grand duke. In the same way, Gentileschi redoes Orazio’s version of “Judith and her Maidservant” (his 1608; hers 1614-15), showing Judith holding the severed head in a basket, by adding dripping blood and positioning her blade much more visibly.
Despite such technical showboating and consistent depiction of strong females, Gentileschi also cannily breathed sensitivity and character into her figures. A side-by-side comparison of Orazio’s “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” (1630–32) with her “Esther Before Ahaseurus” (1628–1630), which bear compositional similarities in having two groups of figures communicating across the plane, reveals a stylized, almost impassive stillness in the former and a dynamic, emotional flow in the latter. Notable also are such pieces as “Lucretia” (1620–25), another female she painted repeatedly, who writhes in a twisted awkwardness, clasping a dagger in one hand and her breast in the other, her expression anguished, with more than a resemblance to her own physiognomy.
Later works are a product of her immense success as the exhibition follows her progression from Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, and finally, London. She reportedly had many portrait commissions; a rare extant one here, 1622’s “Portrait of a Gonfaloniere” is no less assuredly technical, imbuing its sitter with quiet but strong dignity but which lacks the dramatic narrative or significant chiaroscuro of her previous paintings. Indeed, it is ironic that with increased success and commissions for topics outside her self-promoting catalogue of characters, she blends seamlessly with other jobbing Baroque painters, her individuality and vivacity muted. A larger commission such as her 1630 “Annunciation” expands her usual figure size to monumental scale, without adding further compositional details, resulting in large swathes of empty space. Similarly, works done in collaboration with other painters, such as 1635’s “Birth of John the Baptist” (as part of a series otherwise by Massimo Stanzione), are now just very, very competent Baroque large-scale wall decoration, with characters looking bored and generic. She has, by this point, become so successful that she is assimilated with her male contemporaries, and is painting by the yard.
It is the highest compliment when the choice and arrangement of pieces guides you through the curator’s argument, seemingly noiselessly, flowing naturally. Treves states that she set out to revise the art historical focus on her victimhood to present a more balanced view, a line which it treads well, given such loud, wildly dramatic work. Seeing here just how impressive and successful Gentileschi was in her lifetime, it is staggering that it has taken a show such as this — the first dedicated to her in the UK — to dispel her unfair dismissal by art history.
Artemisia continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London) through January 24, 2021.