The first major UK exhibition of Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
The first major exhibition in the UK of Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi will feature around 35 of her paintings from public and private collections around the world. Gentileschi has featured in a previous National Gallery show, Beyond Caravaggio, as one of a series of artists contemporary to or influenced by him. She came into contact with Caravaggio through his friendship with her father Orazio Gentileschi, himself a well-known painter. Such connections gave the young Gentileschi the access to materials and the time to perfect her skills that would have been rare for a woman of the time; only a later accolade – becoming the first woman to attain membership to the artists’ academy, the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, in Florence – would allow her to purchase her own materials independent of her husband, a little-known painter himself.
Such matters were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges facing a woman painter in the early 17th century; in her unique position Gentileschi is able to paints the trials of womanhood, both her own and more generally, whether in self-portraits or reinterpretations of biblical scenes or classical myths, such as Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620), to show the brutal reality of rape, lechery and other common damages against women. Such scenes echoed those of her own life – in a well-publicised rape trial, of which a written record exists, we hear how the teenage Gentileschi was questioned and tortured with thumbscrews while the perpetrator of the crime, a painter who had been tutoring her, was let off because of the Pope’s appreciation of his artistic skill. Gentileschi’s words from the trial – ‘This is the ring you gave me and these are your promises!’, a reference to the thumbscrews and also a wedding ring she had been promised – display some of the character and resilience that comes through in her paintings.
Following her life through her exquisite and impassioned works, the exhibition covers her training in Rome and time establishing a name in Florence, a period at the court of Charles I of England, and finally her later years working from a studio in Naples.