Artemisia: A Shining Gloss Over a Career of Great Light and Darkness

Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy', oil on canvas, 1620-1625
Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy', oil on canvas, 1620-1625

Artemisia: Curator's Tour

Virtual Event

National Gallery
Trafalgar Square

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Editor’s note: Artemisia: Curator’s Tour ended on 30 March 2020. However, there is a great deal of material on the exhibition (3rd October 2020-24th January 2021), including a fourteen-part video series with curator Letizia Treves, available on the National Gallery website.

Artemisia is the first UK exhibition dedicated to the Italian Baroque artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654 or later). A Baroque titan of Biblical proportions, Gentileschi is best known for her dramatic women protagonists, the exhibition reflects the artist’s exceptional talent, showing over half of her (confirmed) works, and expansive career. With its National Gallery debut penned for April 2020, Artemisia was permitted but a few months in the light, shelved and shortened by pandemic restrictions.

Like other museums, the National Gallery was quick to produce an online alternative. In just thirty minutes, curator Letizia Treves presents a whistle-stop wander through Artemisia’s works and life. Before setting off, she states her intention to focus on the woman as much as the artist, defying the tendency of traditional art historiography to exaggerate the artist’s biography in analysing her works.

Certainly, art produced by women is more often perceived through the lens of their personal experiences, unlike the comparatively ‘objective’ aestheticism afforded to works of men. Yet, as I argued in my radio programme on Artemisia, the assumption of any such ‘feminine perspective’ lacks nuance, in that it side-steps the fact that contemporary Baroque art was more a means of satisfying patrons’ desires, or displaying religious devotion – and not emotional or psychological expression. Moreover, both men and women artists often capitalised on their celebrity through shrewd advertising, producing self-portraits and holding open workshops.

Artemisia opens and closes with the two Susannas which bookmark the artist’s career. The changes in her style reflect her remarkable business acumen, and capacity to adapt her output to fit the tastes of her customers. Here was an artist who turned the existing, gendered market to her own advantage. Profitting thus, we might question how much she truly challenged the status quo. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Susannah and the Elders', oil on canvas, 1610
Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Susanna and the Elders’, oil on canvas, 1610
Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Susannah and the Elders', oil on canvas, 1652 (2)
Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Susanna and the Elders’, oil on canvas, 1652 (2)

I would have liked to have seen more about Artemisia’s expansive and challenging biography, as too much of the film is spent detailing Artemisia’s own history as depicted by her most infamous works, such as her brutal depiction of Biblical revenge in Judith Beheading Holofernes, in part a response to Caravaggio – her artistic influence – and his 1598 painting of the same name.

Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy', oil on canvas, 1620-1625
Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy’, oil on canvas, 1620-1625

Less well-known works, like ‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy’ (1620-1625), are unfortunately marginalised, downplaying the artist’s complex dialogue with the ambiguity of femininity.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Solinas 2011, Letter 20, Artemisia to Francesco Maria Maringhi. Rome, Paper, 1620
Artemisia Gentileschi, Solinas 2011, Letter 20, Artemisia to Francesco Maria Maringhi. Rome, paper, 1620

What we do see of the exhibition is remarkable. Noirish walls offer the ideal canvas for Artemisia’s deft chiaroscuro. High quality close-ups hint at the hidden details in their canvas. A selection of artefacts reveals Artemisia’s character, like the original transcript of her rape trial and testimony. The spelling and grammatical errors which pepper her early letters are symbols of her illiteracy, and defiance of her gendered treatment – indeed, Artemisia lived in a time when women were scarcely educated in literature or the arts. Even she was privileged to have practised painting within her father’s studio.

Artemisia Gentileschi, 'The Birth of St John the Baptist', oil on canvas, 1635
Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘The Birth of St John the Baptist’, oil on canvas, 1635

Even ‘a closer look’ – the final section – delves into but a handful of her most infamous paintings. ‘The Birth of St. John The Baptist’ (1635) is the only unexpected inclusion. A depiction of domesticity, Artemisia’s signature is found scrawled on a piece of paper, wittily littered on the cold floor. But even this complex piece is afforded but a meagre two minutes at the film’s close. Anyone familiar with Artemisia’s work is left wanting for more lingering shots and lengthy descriptions. And whilst the artist’s portfolio is comprehensively represented, her influences and those she influenced – notably Caravaggio – are absent. 

Perhaps this reflects the wider challenge of translating experience to screen, exacerbated by the time-limited loans of this exhibition. But the wave of exhibition tours even pre-pandemic – notably More2Screen’s Gauguin at the National Gallery – highlights that generous attention to both content and context is possible, when afforded enough time. Half an hour of hasty history is simply not enough. Indeed, the National Gallery’s ambitious fourteen-part YouTube series on Artemisia offers a considerably more detailed analysis of the artist’s remarkable career. But perhaps nothing can substitute for experiencing these full-bodied works, poring over their dark shadows and light wit, in the flesh.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (Twitter: @jelsofron) for this review. Their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms.

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