Holofernes’ head is upside down. his face writhes in agony. Judith drives her knee into his rib cage as he fights wildly, pushing his fist against her maidservant’s breastbone. As Judith slices Holofernes’ neck, blood spurts from his throat and runs onto the white linen bedsheets.
Nearly 400 years later, even jaded citizens of the modern world are startled by this image—a painting of the key moment in the story of Judith, the Jewish widow who saves the city of Bethulia from attacking Assyrians by murdering their commander. To Italian art patrons of the early 17th century, with their taste for dramatic, even violent, imagery, the artist’s gender and notoriety only heightened the painting’s effect. Tarnished by scandal and hindered by a society that expected women to be either nuns or wives, Artemisia Gentileschi nevertheless became the most accomplished female painter of her time. She was, according to the inscription on artist Jerome David’s engraving of her, “A miracle in painting, more easily envied than imitated.”
These days, after centuries of neglect, Artemisia is everywhere. The New York Times called her “this season’s ‘it’ girl.” A popular new novel, The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, was published in January, and the following month, Lapis Blue Blood Red, a play about her, opened off-Broadway. (Several scholarly books, a catalogue raisonne and two other novels have also been writ ten about her, and one of her works even figured in the plot of the Masterpiece Theatre series Painted Lady starring Helen Mirren. In 1997, she was the subject of a French film, Artemisia.) Most important, an exhibition of her works—and those of her once more-celebrated father, Orazio—at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has gone a long way toward solidifying her reputation as a dynamic and original artist, one of the very few female painters of her time bold enough to tackle historical and allegorical themes.
“Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy” features 51 paintings by Orazio and 35 by Artemisia. On view through May 12 at the Met before moving to the Saint LouisArt Museum (June 14 through September 15), this first retrospective of the father’s and daughter’s works highlights their divergent responses to Baroque influences.
Though in Artemisia’s case the recognition is long overdue, the strong-willed self-promoter enjoyed considerable success in her own lifetime. Painter to dukes, princes, cardinals and kings, she was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Accademia del Disegno. “I have seen myself honored by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works, not only with great gifts but also with most favored letters, which I keep with me,” she wrote to her friend the astronomer Galileo in 1635. But her artistic achievements have had to compete with a real-life event. At the age of 17, she was raped by a colleague of her father’s. The subsequent trial, and the 300-page transcript of it that survived, have shaped history’s assessment of the artist.