Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting by Jesse M. Locker

I’ve mentioned Artemisia Gentileschi enough on my Bookstagram and blog, so it’s about time this book got a review! To begin with, it’s a gorgeous book: it has some stunning illustrations and the pages are thick and glossy. The cover exhibits a beautiful painting of Artemisia by Simon Vouet. 

Artemisia Gentileschi has exploded into fame over the past few years. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, she’s been the subject of plays, TV, and a whole host of other media. The Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery has contributed to this significantly, bringing together a collection of her best-known work. She’s become an art history celebrity.

However, the focus tends to be on the traumatic events in her personal life: her father’s friend, Agostino Tassi, raping her, and the trial that followed, where she was subjected to torture. While these events would undoubtedly have had a significant influence on her art, they do not define it. This tunnel vision is something Jesse M. Locker warns against, citing the issues with interpreting her work only through the lens of her trauma. He points out that early sources do not mention the rape: it wasn’t the focus when her works were initially received.

The book focuses on Artemisia’s life and art from the 1620s onwards. Artemisia was only semi-literate, but Locker unearths numerous sources referencing poetry by Neapolitan poets who knew Artemisia. The poems were full of praise for her and marked her out as a figure sitting in the heart of political and cultural power in Naples. Locker examines Artemisia’s reception in Venice, Rome, Naples, and Florence through both visual and literary evidence. It seems that she had close relationships with multiple leading cultural figures during her career. While her level of literacy wasn’t advanced, she was still well-educated through other avenues. The time she spent at the academies was most essential to her artistic development. Also much emphasised is the significance of the oral tradition in Baroque culture, which translated to Artemisia’s paintings.

The penultimate chapter observes the line between Artemisia’s true self and her self-portraits, where she dons multiple disguises as various figures and personas. The book ends with a chapter on Artemisia’s 18th century biographers, mainly discussing the artist Averardo de Medici’s biography on her, which seemed to be unaware of her rape and personal background.

This book was a detailed, nuanced, and fascinating exploration and analysis of Artemisia’s life and work. I learnt so much reading it and recommend it 1000%. The book is now out in paperback for those who want to nab it! I’d also highly recommend Jesse M. Locker’s article on ‘Artemisia’s Fame, Present, and Past.’


Artemisia Gentileschi in Art, Books, and Theatre

I fell in love with Artemisia and her work when I visited Florence in 2018. Seeing her painting ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ in the Uffizi was an incredible experience. The painting is huge and fills up an entire wall. It appears suddenly after exiting another room and its size, vibrancy, and gruesome subject matter makes its abrupt appearance quite a shock to the viewer. I stood looking at it for 20 minutes because there is just so much to take in.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Until the National Gallery exhibition, her ‘Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’ was tucked away in Hampton Court Palace. She painted a number of self-portraits, all of them draping her in a disguise – as the allegory of painting, or music, or as a lute player, or a female martyr, or as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Her features therefore differ in every painting, making it hard to know how much they actually resembled her. But the Allegory of Painting self-portrait holds a special place, since Artemisia’s chosen ‘disguise’ in this case is so integral to her identity. I really love this painting. It has a beautiful softness to it. She is totally focused, unaware of the viewer. The lack of background emphasises the look of concentration on her face. No distractions: just her and her craft.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c. 1638-9. Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In 2018 I saw the play ‘It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’ at The New Diorama Theatre. Written by Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett from The Breach Theatre, it depicted Artemisia’s experience of the 1612 rape trial of Agostino Tassi. Tassi, her painting teacher and a friend of her father, had raped her. The play used translated transcripts of the trial, staying as true to history as possible. This made for a harrowing viewing experience as Artemisia was bullied, belittled, and even physically tortured with a device called the sibille. The instrument was made up of cords that were fastened around each of her fingers and pulled tighter and tighter. A traumatic experience for anyone, but especially for a painter whose livelihood relied on the use of her hands. Was Agostino Tassi tortured to prove the validity of his statements? Of course not.

Ellice Stevens gave a poignant and intense performance as Artemisia, asserting the veracity of her account with the words ‘it’s true, it’s true, it’s true.’ The play was originally showcased at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I tried to get a ticket but it was totally sold out – and it’s easy to see why! The play was then broadcast on BBC 4 and is now available to watch on YouTube.

The books in the photo at the top are fantastic and I will review them all individually! Jesse M. Locker’s Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting is an incredible dive into Artemisia’s later work, which was ignored for a long time. Artemisia Gentileschi by Jonathan Jones is a very readable and succinct biography. The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland is a wonderful historical fiction novel delving deep into Artemisia’s thoughts and feelings. Reading it really felt like a window into her soul. Artemisia by Alexandra Lapierre reads like a combination of biography and fiction, and is a comprehensive and fascinating look at her life.

I still haven’t been to the National Gallery ‘Artemisia’ exhibition because I wanted to save it for the new year – and now we’re in lockdown! I so wish I’d gone while I still could. It’s meant to close on 24th January but I’m really really hoping that the National Gallery extends the exhibition dates. Luckily it is available online as a curator-led exhibition film for anyone who wants to see it during lockdown.