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In ancient Roman legend, Lucretia was a noblewoman who took her own life after she was raped by the son of the Etruscan King of Rome. As she brought a dagger to her chest, she pronounced an oath of vengeance against her perpetrator. The tragedy is said to mark the foundation of the Roman Republic in the sixth century BCE. “Lucretia” (ca. 1627), a sumptuous oil on canvas by Artemisia Gentileschi recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, depicts the heroine at the brink of death.
The 17th-century Italian Baroque master often rendered Lucretia and other female victims of violence, a recurring motif in her oeuvre that may reflect the artist’s own experiences. In 1611, when she was 18 years old, she was raped by a close collaborator of her father, a famous painter at the time. Though he was prosecuted and found guilty of the crime, Gentileschi was tortured during the trial to challenge her testimony, and her violator’s sentence was never enforced.
The work now in the Getty collection is a particularly outstanding example of Gentileschi’s painterly prowess, created at the height of her career. Emerging dramatically from a cavernous backdrop, Lucretia holds the blade with a tight, unyielding grip; her head, expertly foreshortened, is tilted back in a gesture that conveys both surrender and strength.
The canvas remained in private hands for centuries before it was recently rediscovered in a collection in southern France, unrecognized by its owners for 40 years. In 2019, it sold for €4.8 million (~$5.2 million at the time), a record for the artist, in an Artcurial auction in Paris. According to the Art Newspaper, the Getty subsequently acquired the work from London-based dealer Patrick Matthiesen for an undisclosed price.
“Her achievement as a painter of powerful and dramatic history subjects is all the more remarkable for the abuse and prejudice that she suffered in her personal life,” said Timothy Potts, Director of the Getty Museum.
“Artemisia’s Lucretia will open a window for our visitors onto important issues of injustice, prejudice, and abuse that lie below the beguilingly beautiful surfaces of such works,” he added.
“Lucretia” will be on display when the Getty reopens to the public in the coming weeks. (The museum has not yet announced a firm reopening date.)