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.’