Mary Magdalena in Ecstasy – 1620 – 1625
All too willingly, I fell into a love affair with a woman who lived centuries ago. Artemisia (don’t you just love that name?) Gentileschi, born 8th July 1593, was, until now, rather unknown to me. Always a love for the Baroque, time of a favourite, Carravagio, and plenty of grandeur, I only recently had the honour of being introduced to this accomplished, fiery, independent and the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di arte del Disegno in Florence.
Of course I could pepper you with dates and academic information, but this is not what draws her to me. I could never paint like her, create the passionate, vivid and intense scenes in oils like she did, and that leaves me at … genius. Talent such as hers leaves me breathless. In a time when women could not even walk alone in the streets of Rome or Florence, or any other city or town for that matter, let alone become a master painter, which was very much a man’s privilege, Artemesia and her brilliance as a painter, became the favourite of courts and kings. She travelled to England, taught herself to read and write many years into her adulthood, refused to stand back to sexism and convention.
At the tender age of 17, Artemisia was being tutored by the Agostina Tassi, a man deemed suitable by her father Orazio, also an acknowledged painter of the time. Tassi raped her. Dishonoured and victimised, Artemisia continued sexual relations with Tassi, in the belief that he would marry her and so restore her dignity in society. Not only did he refuse to atone for his crime, but was later found to be bedding his sister in law, and planning to kill his own wife. All supposition I suppose, what with not too much evidence on that score, but what was amazing, was that her father, realising that no good would come of this scoundrel, decided to take him to court for rape.
This in the 17th Century. Artemisia would be subjected to the worst kind of scrutiny, ridicule and slandering for standing up for her own rights – and now we wonder what has changed – and was subjected to torture, yes, had thumb screws applied to test if she was telling the truth, until truth won out. The scoundrel was exiled but nothing else much happened to him, and Artemisia was married to Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence. Artemisia went on to paint in the court of the Medici family, had five children of which only two survived. So mum and artist, and lover of Francesco Maria Maringhi, a wealthy nobleman. All the while producing exquisite works of art. What is not to love?
Many academics and art historians have hinted at the fact that many of her works of Art, are reflections of her private pain for being assaulted at such a tender age. A way of manifesting her anger when she was not able to verbalise. Some of her paintings, like the young Susanna and the Elders, explores the vulnerability of the young woman bathing and being leered at by invasive, lecherous men.
Above, Judith and her Maidservant, the latter carries the head of Holofernes, just recently slayed by Judith. A number of art works with this theme exists, some showing him being beheaded, blood spurting from his neck. Artemisia would often return to a single work of art, and create more with the same vision.
Unlike her father, who preferred a more idealised form of painting, Artemisia embraced a sense of naturalism. Her vivid colours and costumes portrayed, were part of her later education at court.
Seldom are so many of her pieces displayed in one venue, and this is where I was very fortunate, to see such a wonderful collection at the National Gallery last week. Before the gallery, like so many other museums and galleries, were closed, once again, due to the pandemic. I hope others get to partake in the splendour and the hard work it has taken the National to bring so many pieces together.
My simple story about witnessing such intense and profound pieces, dating back to the seventeenth century, and in particular, one incredible female artist, does little justice to the actual exploration of her work, and her life. There are many articles written about this, and I left the bookshop with one such story, by Alexandra Lapierre, entitled ‘Artemisia, The story of a battle for greatness.’ I cannot wait to read it.
A woman to love. Strong, individual and greatness in a time when female artists were few.
If only I could paint but one, tiny aspect, and create such drama, colour and intensity, but perhaps I shall have to go to Italy and even that is an enchanting thought.