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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
- Musee Maillol, Catalogue of the Exhibition “Artemisia: Pouvoir, gloire et passions d’une femme peintre”. Extensive biography of the artist and essays on Artemisia’s importance in art history.
- Artemisia: Her Passion was Painting Above All Else (The New York Times)
- Artemisia Gentileschi: The Art History Archive
- Websites for Artemisia Gentileschi
- Happy International Women’s Day! Artemisia Gentileschi, Chakaia Booker, Olga De Amaral, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (elliottingotham.wordpress.com)
- Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition in Paris (annylanger.wordpress.com)
- Art, singular, feminine (firenzemoms4moms.wordpress.com)
- Exhibition: Rome at the time of Caravaggio 1600-1630 (romeinfo.wordpress.com)
- ARTstor Is… Women’s Studies (artstor.wordpress.com)