Artemisia's Moment

After being eclipsed for centuries by her father, Orazio, Artemisia Gentileschi, the boldest female painter of her time, gets her due

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Orazio had stayed in Rome when Artemisia left for Florence and had gained a reputation as one of the finest painters in that city, winning commissions for important altarpieces and earning the patronage of the wealthy Savelli family. In 1621, at the invitation of Genoese nobleman Giovan Antonio Sauli, he moved to Genoa, where he embarked on the most significant phase of his career, painting a series of sensual compositions for Sauli: a Penitent Magdalene, a Danaë and the multifigured Lot and His Daughters. It was here that he also painted his masterful Annunciation. “These are stunning works of art,” says Judith Mann, curator of early European art at the Saint LouisArt Museum and cocurator of the current exhibition. “They make you gasp as you walk into the room.”


In Orazio’s Annunciation, a depiction of the angel Gabriel kneeling before the Virgin Mary, an opulent red curtain, crisp white bedsheets and the Virgin’s delicate gold scarf catch the light. Orazio’s formal arrangement of the figures infuses the painting with a devotional solemnity. The painting suggests the stylistic divergence between father and daughter after each left Rome. Orazio tempered the drama he learned from Caravaggio with his own sense of refinement. His more formal compositions emphasize color and an accurate rendering of surface and texture rather than dramatic gestures. Artemisia created a sense of immediacy and used telltale details—such as the elegant bracelet circling Judith’s murderous arm—as a counterpoint to her graphic depictions, thereby heightening the drama.


In Artemisia’s circa 1625-1627 Judith and Her Maidservant, a less grisly version of the death of Holofernes often cited as a case study of high Baroque, Judith and her servant pause, seeming to hear a noise outside Holofernes’ tent. The shadowy interior is theatrically illuminated by a single candle. Judith’s hand shields her face from the glow, drawing attention to Holofernes’ discarded iron gauntlet. The viewer’s eye travels to the object in the maidservant’s hands: Holofernes’ severed head.


“Paintings of what you can’t see, what you can’t hear, abound in 17th-century art,” says Keith Christiansen, curator of Italian paintings at the Met and cocurator of the exhibition. In a painting of the same theme done 20 years earlier, Orazio took a different tack. In his version, the women also look offstage, but their body language is more stylized. The folds of their dresses match, as do their profiles, as if the two assassins are in a dance. “Artemisia often takes the George Lucas route, aiming for theatrical effect,” says Christiansen. “She wants you to be thoroughly repulsed. Orazio communicates this psychological moment in a formal way, making even the ugly head beautiful. He favors fabric; she favors blood. He’s the soft shoe to her stiletto.”


Given Artemisia’s early trauma, many modern viewers see such works as Judith and Her Maidservant and, most particularly, Judith Slaying Holofernes, as revenge painting. But scholars disagree about the significance of the rape in her work. Wealthy patrons with a taste for violence and eroticism may have had as much to do with her subject matter as painful memories (and Judith was a popular subject with male artists also). Furthermore, as Mann notes, fewer than a quarter of Artemisia’s known paintings feature vengeful women. “We don’t give Artemisia her due if we see her in that rut,” Mann says. “We are probably missing a lot because of that expectation.” Also missing, alas, are most of the paintings on which her reputation as a portraitist was built. Only the Portrait of a Gonfaloniere (a civic magistrate) and a few self-portraits, such as La Pittura, remain. In Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, likely painted while Artemisia was in Florence, the artist, looking serenely beautiful, portrays herself as a musician in elegant Florentine dress.



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