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A woman artist in her context

07 April 2017

Nicholas Cranfield on a female hand among the Old Masters

© Giuseppe Schiavinotto

Blessing the children: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me, c.1629-30, from the Arciconfraternita dei Santi Ambrogio e Carlo, Roma

Blessing the children: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me, c.1629-30, from the Arciconfraternita dei Santi Ambro...

THE neighbours across the street where I was living at the end of last year have a good family collection of paintings, assembled in the 17th century by an assiduous cardinal aesthete.

It holds works by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654/55) — who was born in Rome and who, for the first ten years of the 17th century, was brought up on the via del Babuino, where the Anglican church now is — and her Tuscan father, Orazio.

In her childhood, the Carracci were painting frescoes for the Farnese and Caravaggio was work­ing in two nearby churches, at S. Luigi dei Francesi and S. Maria del Popolo. For the jubilee year of 1600, many other artists came to the Eternal City.

Three of the paintings in the Palazzo Spada collection which came by marriage from the family of Pope Paul V include one of the earliest of her paintings (1610), which is a sympathetic Madonna and Child said to portray a family friend and child, and a three-quarter-length figure of a woman playing a lute — St Cecilia strug­gling with her music. Both are over­shadowed by the third of the paint­ings, the 1610-12 David with the Head of Goliath, usually hanging next to them, by her father.

Neither has been loaned to this significant retrospective, which brings together 27 of her works and three collaborative canvases along­side a further 60 or so by her contemporaries, associates, and friends, from her working life in Rome, Florence, Venice, London, and Naples.

The loss at least maintains the integrity of Cardinal Bernardino Spada’s collection, which years ago Anthony Blunt reckoned probably the most important group of Baroque paintings in any publicly accessible gallery in Rome, a short walk from the Palazzo Braschi, the other side of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, beside the Palazzo Farnese.

The Spada has loaned the David to the exhibition and, in exchange, shows the Braschi’s The Four Holy Crowned Saints, a commission from the company of marble-workers as an altarpiece for the Rome city church of S. Andrea in Vincis (demolished in 1929) which was once regarded as a work by Caravaggio himself. It probably is to be dated later (1620s), and is in striking contrast to Artemisia’s work.

Much like Caravaggio, Artemisia swam into wider public view in the 1980s, largely on the back of fash­ionable notoriety and an unhealthy interest in her not-so-private life.

If he was the bad guy of art, a kept boy of cardinals, a murderer and a thief, who jumped bail sever­ally —the very quintessence of the 1970s scene — she was the victim of a scandalous rape, by a colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi (1580-1604), who may have taken part in her training.

He had been tried for adultery the previous year (the case failed), but even this trial did not dint Tassi’s career; he was sentenced to five years in exile; within four he was back, working in the Quirinale palace for the pope, on a cycle of the life of St Paul and painting alongside Carlo Saraceni and Giovanni Lan­franco in the Sala Regia.

But the back story of a woman’s being taken advantage of gives Artemisia’s repeated paintings of Judith and Holofernes, Jael and Sisera, Susannah and the Elders, and Salome something of a vengeful twist. We often reread artists by our own lights so that each generation will necessarily form a different emotional response.

This is not to suggest that the gay community has relinquished its grasp of the Lombard rent boy since Derek Jarman’s biopic, any more than feminists with real insights will do more than despise this WASP cleric for seeking to review this show. But the dust has settled, and it is now possible to ask, as this exhibi­tion suggests we might, just how good she was, and how she com­pares with others, questions that would have been too bold even a generation ago.

Susannah and the Elders, now in Pommersfelden, is reckoned her first painting. It is an extraordinarily competent work that showed how much she had learned from her father and how much she could al­­ready strike out on her own. Dated 1610, it is a far cry from five years before, when she made her first communion at St John Lateran (12 June 1605).

If we think that the resurgence of church authority at the Counter-Reformation was inimical to the place of women in society or to the rise of a female artist, this canvas should cause us to think again.

Furthermore, only a couple of years after her painting, in 1612, the Spanish-born Giuseppe Calasanzio set up a school for girls (next door to the Palazzo Braschi, as it happens, in the former Palazzo de Muti), educating thousands out of poverty.

For a teenage girl to paint a bibli­cal scene with a full-length female nude requires breathtaking audacity.

Dr Judith Mann, one of the three curators of the show, explained to me that this was not something that Gentileschi’s father could or would have taught her. To what extent she may have relied on drawings is un­clear, but this is a woman’s ob­­servation of the female form, pre­sumably from a close study of her own body.

From her father, she undoubtedly gained insights into narrative paint­ing, and I don’t doubt that she could have painted a furry donkey or a bale of hay as well as her father; but that is not how she would have told the story of The Flight into Egypt (”Beyond Caravaggio”, Arts, 2 December 2016). Rather, we would have been con­fronted by the wearied face of a harassed refugee, a young mother, worrying that she has put too much trust in her ageing spouse, or had perhaps deceived herself about God’s plan for their future family life.

We cannot ignore the artist’s own personal tragedy; she was violated in May 1611, but it was not until the following Easter that her father sought justice against his colleague, thereby exposing his daughter to much publicity and making her less than marriageable.

Orazio was no stranger to the process of courts — at one point, in August 1603, he was cited alongside Caravaggio in a long-running libel case brought by another fellow artist, Giovanni Baglione — and may have hesitated on that account as well.

In the end, she was married off to a minor-artist friend of her father’s (the brother of a witness) in Novem­ber 1612, two days after sentence was passed on Tassi.

Much of her art is tense with anxiety and can be seen to repeat themes of vengeance. I would argue that she plays on men’s guilt delib­erately to make us all, men and women alike, see just how vulner­able we each are.

This in no way is intended to pour scorn on those who want art to serve a cause but is rather to ascribe a more universal dimension to it than hard core feminist appropria­tion has hitherto left available to us lesser mortals.

The exhibition opens up the rooms of the Palazzo Braschi, the last papal palace to be constructed for the family of a pope (Pius VI, under Napoleon) and offers views across the Piazza Navona. This makes good use of the space, which is encouraging as it now seems that the Scuderie della Quirinale are not going to be used for such shows in the near future, but is not wholly successful. But it is a major mistake to use the cramped corner rooms at all as this inevitably causes bottle­necks for visitors.

Its arrangement is chronological and was due to open with the Cara­vaggio Judith beheading Holofernes from the Palazzo Barberini, of which a much debated copy has recently surfaced in France and is now touted at the Brera Gallery in Milan.

Nicola Spinosa, who planned this exhibition three years ago, was rightly indignant and no little chagrined at the last minute change of mind.

Similarly, three weeks before the exhibition opened, the Bishop’s Council in Pozzuoli revoked the loan of two major works from the cathedral that Artemisia painted in 1635-37 when redecorating it after the destruction caused by the erup­tion of Vesuvius in 1631, where she worked with Stanzione, Lanfranco and others.

Whether Artemisia was able to see the Caravaggio is not known as its owner jealously guarded it, but the Counter-Reformation had popularised the subject and this exhibition includes no fewer than a dozen canvases including her own, from 1617 (a ruinous canvas, now in the Capo­dimonte Museum in Naples, that will join the exhibition in February) and of 1620/21, a work painted for the Grand Duke of Tuscany (Uffizi), of which she later wrote in 1635 to her friend Galileo Galilei.

It would have been tremendous to see the Caravaggio alongside, not least to see her personal animus at work. Women wielding knives recur in her paintings and, to some de­­gree, respond to the graphic descrip­tion that she gave at her trial when she recounted how she had sought to fight Tassi off with a knife. If she had failed to save her virginity by quick thinking, then she continued to celebrate her virtue in the manner of her painting.

Singled out by God to save his people, the young noblewoman Judith is bathed in a divine light as she hands the general’s head to her servant Abra, in a particularly tri­umphant depiction of the story by Giovanni Baglione (1610, from a private collection). Within a few years, Baglione used the same model to play Herodias as she tells Salome to present the head of the Baptist to Herod, whose misery at his oath-keeping is all too evident (Uni-Credit Art collection).

The Borghese Gallery Cigoli painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (1610), the Penitent Mary Magdalen of Giovan Francesco Guerrieri (1611), and Antiveduto Grammatica’s Death of Cleopatra (c.1610, courtesy Robilant + Voena) introduce us to other characters whom Artemisia frequently painted.

One room is hung with three different versions of the death of the Egyptian queen, and there is a later life-size depiction of her robed in blue and standing next to a table, which was on loan to the Musée de Toulon for years (as being by Guido Reni), and which the Galerie Sarti (Paris) showed in London in 2015.

This is identified here potentially with a painting from her time in London when she came to the Stuart Court when her father was taken ill there. If so, it is probably the painting from Charles I’s collection at Greenwich which was sold off at Somerset House by the Common­wealth, inventoried as ‘S[ain]t Laying h[er] hand on fruite, by Artamizia …’, 23 October 1651.
One hopes it will feature again in the forthcoming London show of Charles I’s collection.

Because Artemisia travelled so extensively, she came across a range of styles and very different demands from clients; but, whereas she could be thought a mere chameleon, the exhibition repeatedly shows her command of her own style, and those who can will come to see just what Artemisia’s fluent right hand, as captured by another artist in admiration (Arts, 11 November 2016), could achieve.

The couple had several children, but whether she found happiness in marriage is less clear, as she took a wealthy patron as her lover in the Medici court, and he sponsored her return to Rome when she found Tuscany too oppressive. Her later paintings, apart from perhaps those of the first years in Naples, lack some of the drive and discernment of her earliest work, but it would be mistaken to make biographical presumptions, as her circumstances had improved.


”Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Time” is at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi, Rome, until 7 May. http://en.museodiroma.it/

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