London’s National Gallery Lends a $4.5 Million Masterpiece to a Women’s Prison

It was the latest stop in an unconventional tour that has brought the Artemisia Gentileschi painting to a school, a library and a doctor’s office

Artemisia visits a prison | National Gallery

Last year, Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi became the first work by a female artist to be acquired by the National Gallery in London in nearly 30 years. The gallery paid £3.6 million (around $4.5 million) for the painting and, in recent weeks, has been sending it on an unconventional tour around the U.K. The artwork’s latest stop? HMP Send, a women’s prison in England.

The portrait, in which Gentileschi depicts herself as the martyred Saint Catherine, was on display at the Surrey prison between May 20 and 22, the National Gallery revealed. During the painting’s stay, a National Gallery educator delivered three workshops for up to 30 inmates, which included discussions about the painting and Gentileschi, along with “creative exercises” inspired by the work.

Previously, the painting visited Glasgow Women's Library in Scotland, a doctor’s office in Yorkshire, England and a girl’s school in Newcastle. Its final stop is at the E17 Art Trail, an art festival in London through June 16.

National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi told the BBC that the goal of the tour was to bring the painting to people who might not be able to see it in its permanent home. Susan Foister, the gallery’s director of collections, explained to Bethan Kapur of the Museums Association that when selecting destinations for the tour, the gallery selected “places that we thought might connect with [Gentileschi’s] story and how she dealt with adversity.”

And in that respect, HMP Send was a poignant choice. Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria is a painting of a victim of violence by a survivor of violence. “Seventy-two per cent of women in custody have suffered some form of abuse,” Carlene Dixon, the prison’s governor, tells Jonathan Jones of the Guardian.

Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593, showed early skill as an artist and was apprenticed to the painter Agostino Tassi when she was 17. Tassi raped her, and when he refused to marry her, Gentileschi’s father brought him to trial. Gentileschi was tortured during the court proceedings, in what was considered a means of testing the veracity of her claims. She did not relent, however, and Tassi was ultimately found guilty—though his punishment of exile from Rome was never meted out.

In subsequent years, Gentileschi became the first female painter accepted into the Academy of Arts and Drawing in Florence, and won support from powerful patrons, including Cosimo II de' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Some of her most famous works, notable for the unique agency they bestow upon female subjects, pulsate with violence and vengeance—themes that some scholars have connected to the artist’s difficult personal history. In Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, for instance, Gentileschi assumes the persona of a martyr who was sentenced to death on a spiked wheel, which broke when she touched it, prompting her pagan oppressors to behead her. But Gentileschi’s portrait tells a story of defiance: her subject stares straight at the viewer, clutching the broken instrument of her torture.

The painting’s visit to HMP Send marked the first time that an Old Master work from a U.K. national collection had been displayed in a prison. And according to the Guardian’s Jones, who reported from the prison, it resonated with the women there. “Strong lady,” one inmate said, according to Jones. “Like the girls where I’m from.”

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