Why a Long-Awaited Artemisia Gentileschi Exhibition Is So Significant

The Baroque painter is the subject of the London National Gallery’s first major show dedicated to a female artist

Self-Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1615-1617
Self-Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1615-1617 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For the first time in its 196-year history, London’s National Gallery is set to dedicate a major exhibition to a female artist, reports Joanna Moorhead for the Art Newspaper. The show—which runs from October 3 to January 24, 2021—centers on Artemisia Gentileschi, a Baroque painter described by BBC News as “the Beyoncé of art history.”

Postponed for six months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the long-awaited “Artemisia” has already earned rave reviews: The Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke deemed the exhibition a brilliant showcase of “the queen bee of female empowerment,” while the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones characterized it as a “blood-spattered thrill ride into vengeance.”

Per a press release, the National Gallery’s December 2018 acquisition of Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17)—the first Gentileschi work to enter a public collection in the United Kingdom, as well as only the 21st painting by a woman to join the museum’s holdings—inspired its Baroque blockbuster. In addition to Saint Catherine, the show features such works as Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638–9), Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1620–25) and two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c. 1638–9 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At a virtual press conference held earlier this week, the gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, said the challenges curators faced when organizing the exhibition in some ways reflected Gentileschi’s own life story.

She “overc[ame] difficult situations through sheer willpower and talent … and I think there’s some element of that in the way we worked on the exhibition,” Finaldi said, as quoted by the Art Newspaper. “I hope people will come and see the exhibition and use it as an opportunity to sense that we can get through the Covid crisis.”

Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi’s first art instructor was her father, Orazio. A renowned artist who served a court painter for Charles I of England, Orazio recognized his daughter’s talents early on, writing in 1612 that she “has in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer,”

Many of Gentileschi’s contemporaries came to admire her skill, and in 1616, she became the first woman to join Florence’s Academy of Design. But the artist’s personal life was marred by misfortune. When Gentileschi was just 18 years old, one of her mentors, Agostino Tassi, raped her. A long, grueling trial in which the artist, not her attacker, was subjected to brutal torture followed. But Tassi was only sentenced to a “brief period of exile, which he ignored” outright, writes Rebecca Mead for the New Yorker. (An original transcript of the 1612 court proceedings will be on view for the first time in the exhibition, according to a statement.)

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1612–13) casts the artist as the biblical heroine and her rapist as the Assyrian general. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Aspects of Gentileschi’s life often informed her paintings. Her earliest known work, for instance—Susanna and the Elders (1610)—depicts a woman who rejects two men’s demand for sexual favors despite the threat of blackmail, notes Alex Greenberger for ARTnews.

The artist’s paintings are known for depicting multifaceted female subjects who possess a full range of emotions. Sometimes her characters cower; other times, they are relentlessly violent—particularly when trying to avenge great wrongdoing. In the better-known version of Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1612–13), the biblical heroine and her servant hold the eponymous Assyrian general down as they decapitate him.

Though this famous scene has been depicted countless times throughout history, Artemisia’s portrayal is singular: As viewers look at Judith’s vise-like grip and the sanguine arcs of blood spurting from Holofernes’ neck, they feel her rage viscerally.

Many art historians and critics view the brutal painting as a reflection of Gentileschi’s own traumatic experiences, with Tassi cast as Holofernes and the artist as Judith. As Katie White points out for artnet News, “Artemisia used herself as the model for this particularly steely depiction of Judith, a figure often … said to embody female rage.”

“In a world of 17th-century art which was dominated by men patrons and men artists, Artemisia found a way to have her own voice heard, to have success and autonomous success on her own,” Finaldi tells BBC News, “and she achieved that through extraordinary talent, extraordinary invention but also through very clever connections with patrons and with supporters.”

Artemisia” is on view at London’s National Gallery from October 3 to January 24, 2021.

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