Art, Art History, Art Museums, Museum Exhibitions, Women in Art

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Power, Glory and Passions of a Female Painter, The Musée Maillol, March 14 – July 15, 2012

Artemisia: Pouvoir, gloire et passions d’une femme peintre

The paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi (on show at the Musée Maillol from March 14 to July 15) are so expressive you can practically smell the blood and sweat. They also portray women as assertive beings, capable of giving themselves over to both crime and pleasure (often both at the same time), thus breaking away for the sexist conventions of the 17th century. Her work was shunned by patriarchal society for centuries; but finally the ‘forgotten’ daughter of Orazio Gentileschi is being recognized as one of the most revolutionary Italian artists of the Baroque period. This exhibition, at the Musée Maillol, reinstates Artemisia as a painting genius – and about time too!  TimeOut Paris

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as a Martyr Saint (Private Collection, New York)

In the catalogue’s introductory biographical notes, we read:

Born “Artemisia Gentileschi,” she was the daughter of one of Rome’s greatest painters of the Baroque period [Orazio Gentileschi].

In 17th century Italy, a woman was treated by society like a juvenile throughout her life: she belonged to her father, her husband, her brothers or her sons. However, Artemisia Gentileschi broke all those rules; she belonged only to her art. In her search for glory and freedom, she worked for princes and cardinals, earning her living from her brush and tirelessly creating a body of work. Such was her talent and creative power that she became one of the most famous painters of her time and one of the world’s greatest artists.

Judith and her Maidservant Slaying Holofernes, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

Her personal life and her career were both profoundly influenced by the rape that she endured in her youth, and the notorious court action brought by her father against her aggressor, Agostini Tassi. The scandal has also been a factor in the lack of recognition for her undoubted genius. As with Caravaggio, it has taken more than three centuries for her work to be fully recognised once again and to be universally appreciated.

On show for the first time in France, the exhibition at the Musée Maillol now provides an opportunity to discover the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis

In another biblical theme, this time from the book of Judges, Artemisia portrays a woman slaying an aggressor. Sisera was a cruel Canaanite leader who ruled the Israelites for twenty years. Barak defeated his nine hundred charioteers by a surprise Israelite attack. Sisera escaped and sought refuge in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave the terrified Canaanite sanctuary. However when he fell asleep, she drove a tent peg into his brain. The act fulfilled the prediction of Debora, prophetess and Israelite leader, who foresaw that a woman would slay Sisera.

Some see Caravaggio in the face of Sisera. Is this the end of Artemisia’s fallen idol? Caravaggio himself was often in trouble with the law because of his quick temper. He had killed an officer in a duel in Rome, escaped justice, fled to Malta, and was later jailed for assaulting a Knight of Malta. Is she declaring that she is superior to the man who so influenced her style, the man who was the long-time leader of Roman art? Or is this really Tassi, the perpetrator of Artemisia’s rape?

Another of Artemisia’s biblical heroins is Esther. Here we see the scene commemorated over the millenia by the Jews as Purim. The story tells of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) of Persia who dismissed his queen, Vashti, because she had offended him. The king held a nation-wide contest to find a suitable replacement, and he chose Esther, not knowing she was Jewish. Esther, an orphan, was ‘fair and beautiful’ and had been brought up by her cousin, Mordecai. The king’s chief minister, Haman, hated all Jews, and set things up so that all Jews in the Persian Empire would die. Mordecai found out about it, and asked Esther to intercede with the king. This was not as simple as it sounds. To enter the king’s presence without being summoned was forbidden on pain of death, even to the queen, but Esther, having dressed in her finest robes, took her courage in both hands and entered the royal chamber. Ahasuerus held out his golden sceptre to signify that he would receive her and Esther, now safe, swooned with relief. She invited the king to a banquet where she successfully interceded for her people. 

Esther Before Ahasuerus (Detail), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

We are fortunate enough to have this lovely acknowledgement of Artemisia as an artist by her contemporary, Pierre Dumonstier, who called it a drawing of the hand of “the excellent and wise noble woman of Rome, Artemisia.”


Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush, Pierre Dumonstier, Black and red chalk, 1625, British Museum; Photo courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And in yet another of Artemisia’s self-portraits, she shows herself as an artist holding the brush and palette, and dressed as an elegant gentlewoman, albeit in three-quarter length, rather than the full-length which would have been reserved for the portraits of nobility and aristocracy.

Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting, The Royal Collection, London



2 thoughts on “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Power, Glory and Passions of a Female Painter, The Musée Maillol, March 14 – July 15, 2012

  1. Reblogged this on Anny Langer artwork and commented:
    I know I told I’m of to paint… But I really had to reblog this before “leaving”…

    Posted by Anny Langer | April 4, 2012, 1:01 pm
  2. Considering how lacking in opportunities women at the time had, we are I suppose fortunate that her work exists at all. As with Angelika Kauffman, she shows how much of that world we are missing. the last self portrait you have is extraordinary – painting at such a strange angle, and those wonderful details. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Barb Drummond | April 29, 2012, 5:44 am

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