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Visual arts: Artemisia at the National Gallery

18 December 2020

Nicholas Cranfield sees Artemisia Gentileschi’s mastery of the theatrical

The Detroit Institute of Arts,  Gift of Mr. Leslie H. Green (52.253) © The Detroit Institute of Arts

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and her Maidservant, c.1623-5, on loan from Detroit. See gallery for more images

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and her Maidservant, c.1623-5, on loan from Detroit. See gallery for more images

THE Paris Hôtel Drouot is the oldest auction house in France and one of the busiest in the world, with more than 70 traders and auctioneers under one roof. It regularly hosts six or seven auctions daily.

In December 2017, the house auctioneer Christophe Joron-Derem brought down the hammer on Artemisia’s Self-portrait as the Martyr Catherine of Alexandria at €1,850,000, against an estimate of at €300,000-400,000.

Two Mayfair-based dealers, Marco Voena and Fabrizio Moretti, who bought it in syndicate, ended up paying €2.4 million but still turned a handsome profit seven months later, selling it to the National Gallery for £3.6 million.

After five months of conservation, the National Gallery unveiled it as a welcome “Christmas present for the Nation” (19 December 2018) — an expensive bauble for any tree, I might add. Throughout 2019, the new acquisition was touted around the UK in pop-up spaces, including a women offenders’ institution. It then returned to Trafalgar Square to await taking centre-stage in the first monographic show to be held in Britain of this Baroque artist.

That the National Gallery has been able to reschedule this major exhibition with so many international loans after a five-month delay occasioned by the pandemic is an exceptional achievement on all sides. It comes after the Paris-Milan show eight years ago (Arts, 22 June 2012) and the more recent display in the Palazzo Braschi (Arts, 7 April 2017), with both of which it will inevitably be compared, as many loans overlap. It has been well worth the wait.

The Saint Catherine had only been recently identified when it was sold by Nicolas Boudeville, who claimed (crucially) that it had been owned by his grandfather in the 1933-45 period; its provenance before that is not known. Three years before that, another newly discovered painting, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, turned up on the Paris market (26 June 2014). It, too, had been owned for at least two generations, by a family in southern France, and was estimated by Sotheby’s at €200,000 to €300,000. Seven bidders drove the price finally to at €865,500, at the time an auction record for Artemisia.

© Photo courtesy of the ownerArtemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Female Martyr, c.1613-14, from a private collection  

I was eager to view both pictures. The self-portrait dates from when she was safely, if unhappily, married and living in Florence, well away from Rome, where she had been raped by her tutor (a family friend), who was all too readily readmitted to the service of the pope after his trial, the transcript of which is here next to her earliest known work, a monumental Susannah and the Elders (Pommersfelden) painted in 1610 when she was just 17.

The Magdalene (is it an awkward self-portrait done with mirrors?) is, perhaps, five or ten years later than the National Gallery Saint Catherine, painted when she had abandoned her marriage and moved back to Rome, bankrolled by a wealthy lover whom she warned in one of her more intimate letters not to abuse himself in front of any portrait of her. I know which of the two I would have bought.

As our interest and knowledge of female artists in the Western tradition develops, more works associated with Artemisia have come to light. In the past couple of years, I have seen at least three offered in the galleries and auction rooms of St James’s and Mayfair; and, in November last year, a painting of Lucretia, bare-breasted, dagger in hand, found in a Lyon collection, made €4.8 million at Artcurial (Paris) and is now in British hands. Hiding in plain sight, her last dated work, Susannah and the Elders of 1652, loaned to this exhibition, hung for years in the National Gallery of Bologna as the work of Elisabetta Sirani (1638-65) and was correctly attributed only in 2008.

Like her older compatriot Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Artemisia initially had learned her art from her father. Portrait medals of male artists had been struck, either to mark their success or to promote their accomplishments, for the likes of Pisanello, the Bellini, Bramante, Michelangelo, and Titian; but it is not until 1559 that one was cast of a female counterpart, Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1535-1625). There followed others for Lavinia Fontana in 1611 and one for Artemisia after 1620, in which she appears quietly confident. Women artists had found their voice.

Seen alongside her earliest self-portrait (as an unidentified martyr) of 1613-14, the twenty-something variously portrayed herself as a lute-player (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford) and severally as St Catherine. None of these quite betrays the later quality of the spectacular Allegory of Painting (Her Majesty the Queen) seen in the last room, which she painted, when she was assisting her father at Greenwich, for Queen Henrietta Maria (1638/40).

From Tuscany, Artemisia had returned to Rome (1620-26), worked briefly in Venice for three years, and had then been invited to Naples (1630-38), where she began to paint altarpieces. She returned there from England, in 1640, and died there sometime after August 1654, when she paid her last tax bill.

© Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (1983.107)Artemisia Gentileschi, Lot and his Daughters, c.1636-38

This exhibition brings 29 works together to exemplify her at each stage, including her Saint Januarius, one of three from a series to which she contributed to hang over the choirstalls in the cathedral at Pozzuoli, all of which were salvaged from the 14 May 1964 fire. The background, of an amphitheatre, was painted in by Domenico Gargiulio (not wholly successfully), a collaborator who might also have assisted with her profoundly eucharistic Lot and his Daughters (Toledo) in which the daughters offer bread and wine to their widowed father as Sodom burns down.

But, as in Rome three years ago, I found myself all too often uncomfortably thinking of Germaine Greer’s much debated thesis in Slip-Shod Sibyls (1995). Artemisia certainly deserves an exalted place in the pantheon, but just how good is she?

Can I really be persuaded that her 1622 full-length portrait of the Knight of St Maurice and St Lazarus as a papal Gonfalonier is a “dazzling” likeness when all it does for me is to induce boredom? Just look at the hands. Compared with the ungloved hand of the Balbi noblewoman with the feathered fan next to him (Knights of Malta) or even those of the lecherous elders spying on Susannah from the same year (Burghley House), his are wooden.

One critic dismissed the Jael and Sisera (Budapest) painted in Rome in 1620 as “passionless, stilted and derivative”. I could not agree more: the awkwardness of the body of the half-drugged Canaanite commander is at odds with what she could paint. Witness the Lucretia, a painting appropriately enough owned by the Milan fashion house of Etro.

Whatever difficulties on the home front which Señor Salvador Salort-Pons might face as Director of the much-troubled Detroit Institute of Arts, whose collection was under threat of being sold off to pay the city’s debt, there is no nay-saying his recently cleaned Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.

It is a triumphant theatrical masterpiece with the palpable tension of being found out. Not shown in 2012 or 2017, it seems to proclaim “Arte mi sia” (“Let Art be for me”). I might have that inscribed on my tombstone.


Subject to any new Covid restrictions, “Artemisia” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 24 January 2021, and opening hours have been extended: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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