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This Artemisia Gentileschi Painting Spent Centuries Hidden From Public View

The 17th-century portrait of Lucretia is set to go on view at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles

Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, c. 1627 (J. Paul Getty Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia depicts a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Painted around 1627, the portrait shows its subject, a legendary heroine of ancient Rome, directing a dagger toward her bare chest just seconds before stabbing herself.

Like many of Gentileschi’s works, Lucretia has long been overlooked. Soon, however, the Baroque masterpiece is set to return to public view after spending centuries hidden in private collections.

As Nancy Kenney reports for the Art Newspaper, the Los Angeles–based Getty Museum, which recently acquired the painting for an undisclosed price, plans to display the striking scene upon its reopening. The museum has yet to announce a set date but plans to begin welcoming visitors “in the coming weeks,” per Jessica Gelt of the Los Angeles Times.

Lucretia is a powerful and compelling example of Artemisia’s most significant type of subject, the representation of dynamic female figures [who] appear in control of their own destiny,” says Getty curator Davide Gasparotto in a statement. “[B]ut with its lyrical and sophisticated expressivity, its creamy impasto and vibrant brushwork, the painting is also suggestive of new directions in her artistic itinerary.”

Caroline Goldstein of Artnet News notes that Lucretia resurfaced in 2019 after “languishing” in a private collection in Lyon, France, for decades. The work sold at auction for $5.3 million, setting a world record for Gentileschi and surpassing its estimate sixfold. (The artists’ paintings are incredibly rare: Just 40 or so of her canvases are held in public collections, and of these, only a handful reside in the United States.)

The tragedy of Lucretia, a noblewoman whose rape and subsequent suicide are traditionally said to have sparked the rebellion that laid the foundations for the Roman Republic, was a popular subject for 16th- and 17th-century painters, with artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Sandro Botticelli and Titian offering their own takes on the tale. Gentileschi—a survivor of sexual violence herself—returned to the subject “with some frequency,” painting multiple versions throughout her career, writes Jesse Locker for Art Herstory.

Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi’s first art teacher was her father, Orazio. A well-known painter in his own right, Orazio realized that his daughter had artistic potential at an early age: According to Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker, he wrote in 1612 that she “has in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer.” Other contemporaries also began to applaud Gentileschi’s abilities, and in 1616, she became the first woman to attend Florence’s Academy of Design.

Though the precocious artist achieved a number of professional milestones, her personal life was marked by hardship. When Gentileschi was just 18 years old, one of her mentors, Agostino Tassi, raped her. Because women were barred from pressing rape charges at the time, Orazio acted on his daughter’s behalf, detailing the decline in “bartering value” caused by her loss of virginity, as Sarah Cascone wrote for Artnet News in 2018.

In the years that followed, Gentileschi was forced to undergo a lengthy, exhausting trial. She was even subjected to torture to prove the reliability of her testimony. Ultimately, Tassi was sentenced to a “brief period of exile, which he ignored” outright, per the New Yorker.

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Beheading Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“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—and which is palpably present in Lucretia’s suicide, and other of her paintings where the central protagonist is a wronged or abused woman,” says the Getty’s director, Timothy Potts, in the statement.

Potts adds that the newly acquired painting “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.”

Many of Gentileschi’s paintings touch on similar themes. Susanna and the Elders (1610), for instance, portrays a woman who rejects two men’s demand for sexual favors despite their threat of blackmail. Other canvases, like Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1612–13), show women actively redressing wrongdoings.

Countless artists have depicted the biblical tale throughout history—but none of their works emanate violent energy quite like Gentileschi’s: In the scene, Judith and her servant restrain the eponymous Assyrian general as they saw off his head. Crimson arcs of blood spring forth from Holofernes’ neck as the women hold him down.

Paintings like these—and the newly resurfaced Lucretia—may help Gentileschi scholars better understand the artist’s oeuvre.

“With the discovery of new documents and the emergence of new paintings, our understanding of Artemisia’s art has become much more complex and nuanced in the last twenty years,” says Gasparotto in the statement. “This recently rediscovered work sheds a new light on a crucial and hitherto overlooked moment of her career.”

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