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Artemisia and the Elders | The Nation

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Artemisia and the Elders

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In the vestibule of the superb exhibition of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 12), the organizers have installed a large colored photograph of the ceiling decoration, done in 1611 for the Casino of the Muses in the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. It shows a number of musicians--the Muses themselves--performing on a balcony around the room, and it is painted in the confectionary colors of some improbable Italian dessert--candied fruit in sculpted whipped cream. A handsome girl, elegantly dressed and holding a large fan, gazes out over the balustrade. It is said to be Artemisia Gentileschi herself, posing for Orazio, her father, who painted all the other figures as well, making music or standing about enjoying it. Artemisia would have been 18 at the time, and was already an accomplished painter. The illusional architecture was then painted by Orazio's associate, Agostino Tassi, a master of perspective, who had been engaged to teach that art to Artemisia. The whole scene, of an almost edible beauty, is an image of life at its sweetest--music, indolence and the pleasures of an attractive company.

The following year, Orazio, Artemisia and Agostino Tassi were to be caught up in scandal. Orazio brought suit against Tassi for having violently deflowered his gifted daughter, and Tassi denounced Artemisia as having had no virginity to lose at the time the two of them became lovers. The sensational record of the trial, which became the buzz of Rome, has inspired novels, a film and a recent play; and Artemisia--characterized by the art historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower as "a lascivious and precocious girl, [who] later had a distinguished and highly honorable career as an artist"--has become a feminist heroine. The degree to which her sexual trauma inflected her subsequent art remains a topic of debate. It has, for example, become something of an interpretive commonplace to read her gory depictions of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes as an act of revenge for having been raped.

The ceiling decoration, which serves as a kind of prelude to the exhibition, could not contrast more vividly with the dark violence typical of the Gentileschis' paintings. Father and daughter were both much under the influence of Caravaggio, and indeed it is as prominent caravaggisti that they were largely remembered in histories of the Italian Baroque before Artemisia was rescued by feminist art historians with a natural interest in forgotten and neglected woman painters. In Caravaggio, an uncanny light picks out scenes of violent conduct that would otherwise have transpired in a world of utter darkness. It is as though we see as with the all-seeing eyes of God the terrifying deeds that those who perform them might believe are hidden--murder and robbery, violation and revenge, torture and defilement. The consolation of Caravaggio's paintings is the assurance that every sin is known and registered. The soft bright world of the Casino of the Muses belongs to the taste of a gentler age than the Baroque, in which the Gentileschis, father and daughter alike, earned their fame for paintings of extreme drama in which, if anything, they went beyond Caravaggio in the ferocity of their protagonists. And they selected their subjects precisely as occasions for demonstrating their unflinchingness.

The Baroque in Italy saw a coarsening of culture, in which painters were enlisted to depict the spilt blood and broken bodies of the great heroes and heroines of the Christian faith undergoing their martyrdom. Blood was the emblem of redemptive suffering. Almost the first work one sees by Orazio is an immense altarpiece showing the Circumcision of Christ, in which God sheds the first blood of his human incarnation. Painting was the arm of Catholic revival against the threat of Protestantism, and the wounds and visible agonies of holy beings were designed to awaken sympathy in viewers. A splash or spurt of blood was as commonplace in Baroque painting as automobiles exploding in flames are in action movies. Artemisia was a painter of her time.

Agostino Tassi's injury to her was not so much the violence of his attack as the fact that he robbed her of her virginity and falsely promised marriage. It is after all not the standard response of raped women to want to marry their ravishers, but there is evidence of continuing affection on both sides after the incident, and Orazio emphasized in his petition of 1612 that his daughter had been known in the flesh many a time by Tassi. Artemisia, whose description of her forced seduction is recorded in some detail--the judge asked how she knew that she was bleeding from it, for example, and not menstruating. When she underwent torture, by an instrument involving rings tightened around her fingers by means of string, she called out to her betrayer, "This is the ring you gave me, and these are your promises!" She was a spirited woman, and it is worth comparing her version of Judith with Caravaggio's. Caravaggio's Judith is a young girl, with her hair braided in rings over either ear. She handles the sword to kill Holofernes, the general who had conquered her people, awkwardly, as something foreign to her, and she performs the action with a becoming squeamishness, as if repelled by the sight of blood, which spurts out in red jets. Caravaggio has composed the scene within a canvas far wider than it is high, in order to put as much distance between Judith and the victim as possible. Her servant is a crone, to show off Judith's innocence and inexperience. Artemisia's Judith is a femme forte. She handles the sword with the confidence and power of a fishwife dealing with a particularly large tuna, while her maidservant holds Holofernes down with both her arms. And the canvas is higher than wide, so that the full weight of the two women presses down. And the blood is there because--well, that's the way decapitations were represented in Roman painting circa 1613.

If any of Artemisia's paintings refer to unwanted sexual attentions, it would be her first known work, the amazing Susanna and the Elders, the story of which even refers to a trial and a vindication. But the painting antedates the trial of Tassi by two years, according to the experts. Artemisia was 17 when she painted it, and it would compel our astonished admiration even if there were not the subsequent whiff of scandal. Pure, beautiful Susanna sits naked in her husband's garden, waiting for her maidens to bring a basin of water and some oil, when the horny elders, who have no business there, attempt to blackmail her. Either she yields to their lust, or they will say that they saw her in the arms of a man. But the wily Daniel establishes her innocence by examining the elders separately, and showing that their stories do not jibe. It was a fairly popular subject, and it is not difficult to see why. The viewer is given an eyeful of Susanna's nakedness, with the excuse that the story after all is from the Bible--and there is the added benefit that one can condemn the prurience of the elders while enjoying Susanna's discomfiture, unable to cover herself with the towel that the artist always makes just too skimpy for purposes of modesty.

The question remains of why this particular subject would have recommended itself to Artemisia. My own thesis, probably not entirely original, is that it was important to potential patrons to know that a painting that dealt with embattled sexual innocence was by a woman, who presumably knew the problem from within. Susanna and the Elders was the ideal subject for showing that, all the more so when there was the added possibility that it was the artist's own nakedness that one was seeing--that the artist painted her own breasts, ruled out in the case of Rembrandt or Ludovico Caracci or Lucas Cranach or Veronese or Tintoretto or the many Old Masters who found the subject irresistible.

Artemisia belongs to this great company by virtue of her artistic achievements, but it was her gender that defined her artistic identity, in this case as in others. Being a woman actually helped in Artemisia's art world. One of the most interesting things I learned from the show's excellent catalogue was the fact that in 1636, when she was established and illustrious, Artemisia received payment for three quite different paintings (all untraced today)--a Bathsheba, a Susanna and a Lucretia--from Prince Karl von Liechtenstein, an avid collector who obviously associated these alluring female subjects with the famous female painter. There is an engraving, based on a self-portrait by Artemisia, in which she is identified as "Artemisia Gentileschi, Most Famous Roman Woman [romana famosissima], Painter of the Academia Desiosa." In the self-portrait, Artemisia showed herself in an opulent, low-cut dress, in lace collar and jewels, wearing an expression of almost aristocratic disdain and a wild, disheveled coiffure. She did not hesitate to bestow her own strong features on her passionate and heroic Judiths, her Lucretias, her Esthers. It was an age of great collections. It would be altogether desirable, in showing visitors through one's gallery, to be able to say, before a painting of this or that famous woman, that she had been painted by a woman no less famous--the great Artemisia Gentileschi--and to display the engraving as evidence that she had given to that brave and forceful figure her own mouth and eyes.

Of course, Artemisia was not famous at all in 1610, when she painted her Susanna. But the painting has a certain gestural authenticity that makes it feel like a personal allegory of a young woman's ordeal. The elders are shown leaning over the wall against which Susanna's back is almost literally pressed. It is as if her oppressors are crowded into Susanna's space, where they press down upon her like a dense cloud. They have already penetrated her person in a symbolic way by being much closer to her than decency allows, far closer than voyeurs, and are already touching her hair. Susanna is twisting her body to escape their touch and has raised her arms to shield herself from her tormentors--though we viewers get to see one of her breasts. There is a marvelous expression of anguish and disgust on her face. Her gestures are entirely convincing, and one cannot but infer that Artemisia knows from her own experience the way a girl would respond to unwelcome approaches.

A diary by Fernande Olivier, who was to become Picasso's mistress, has recently been published. She was a beautiful girl, and others could not keep their hands to themselves when around her. Fernande at first welcomed the attention as evidence of her attractiveness. But she had constantly to defend herself against sexual molestation. I don't think a male artist would know how to enact the bodily gestures that expressed this the way someone who had to deal with it all the time would do. And it would not have occurred to a male artist to ask a model to pose that way. Whether anyone had gotten as close to her as Tassi was to do, Artemisia conveys through her Susanna the bodily truth of what one might call the proto-rape that Fernande (who was brutally raped by her husband) describes so graphically. There is a question in connoisseurship as to whether Orazio had a hand in Artemisia's Susanna, but if my interpretation is sound, it was essentially her painting. You can check his picture of the same subject in the Met show for purposes of comparison. It is a fine painting, but it lacks the internal fire that came naturally to his daughter in dealing with the subject.

But for the legal wit of her attorney, Susanna, like Lucretia, would have been the victim of her virtue. Susanna placed virtue above life, since she knew she would be punished with death as an adulteress, which the elders would say she was if she refused them her body. And Lucretia, raped by Tarquin, had to erase the stain with her own blood--which is more or less the equation implied in cleansing sin with Christ's blood in the Christian theory of redemption. The attractiveness of Lucretia as a topos for painters is that, as with Susanna, it gives them a moral opportunity to display a woman's breasts in a narratively compelling way. She is almost invariably shown with a dagger pointed at her bared bosom. Artemisia seems to me to have posed for her Lucretia, executed 1623-25. I base this on the fact that she is shown with the knife in her left hand, which would be puzzling until we take into account the fact that it is probably a mirror image of Artemisia holding a knife in her right hand. But I don't think we are to read it as a self-portrait--a portrait of herself as Lucretia.

There is a difference between using oneself as a model and painting oneself as the personage for whom the model stands. We may be seeing Artemisia's flesh in her paintings of Lucretia or Susanna or Cleopatra, but I don't see her portraying herself as Lucretia or Susanna or even Cleopatra, whose self-administered death by means of an asp allows the same natural way to show bared breasts. I feel the same way about Artemisia'a depiction of Danae in a marvelous painting she did in 1612, the very year of the trial. Titian had painted a Rape of Danae and so, for that matter, had Orazio. The story was well-known. Danae's father was told that his daughter would give birth to his slayer, and he prudently locked her up in a tower. What he had not counted on was Zeus, who was stricken with Danae's beauty, and metamorphosed himself into a shower of gold, impregnating her. The child turned out to be Perseus, who indeed killed his grandfather. Danae is always shown nude, though there is reason to wonder why, if Zeus could get through stone walls, a nightgown would be much of an obstacle. In any case, Artemisia's Danae is clearly enjoying the experience. It is raining gold coins in her chamber, and she is in some sort of sexual transport, clutching the coins in her hands--though whether because of sexual or monetary greed is difficult to say. It is a nice piece of ambiguity for a young artist to have negotiated, and not far from seventeenth-century reality. But I cannot see the painting as a self-portrait of Artemisia as Danae.

I would, on the other hand, accept the possibility that the painting of Clio in the exhibition is Artemisia as the Muse of History, because fame was so integral to her artistic persona. Or that her Allegory of Painting is to be read as at least a symbolic self-portrait, since it would show her as one with the attributes of her art (it would be difficult to see it as a literal self-portrait, since the figure is heavily foreshortened). There are four Judiths (excluding those painted by Orazio) in the show, and I would willingly accept a conjecture that Artemisia identified with her, not on the grounds of paying Tassi back for having raped her but because Judith was a paradigm of a woman who used her femininity to achieve real goals. For one thing, Judith is described as being beautifully dressed, with jewels and a hairdo to enhance her desirability. Holofernes invited her and her maidservant into his tent, where he drank himself into a stupor. When Judith displayed his severed head, she so raised the morale of the Israelites that they overcame their enemy. Artemisia was a proud woman, as she had every right to be, as a recognized wonder of the age. Her letters are full of grumbles, since she was the head of a household, in need of cash since she had a daughter to marry off and no husband to turn to; the man she married after the trial had disappeared, and she did not know if he was even alive. But she had patrons in high places, her prices were respectable and she corresponded with Galileo. And being known as a woman was internally related to her success.

We must all be grateful to the Met for having put this show together, even if it has a particular relevance to specialists, still sorting out the attributions of the works. There will always be a nagging question of what was done by Orazio and what by Artemisia. This is by no means mere pedantry, since a lot of our readings depend on being clear on authorship, and even on getting the dates right (the Wittkowers thought Artemisia 15 at the time of the trial). But I am even more grateful to the feminist art historians who pulled Artemisia out of obscurity, and who did so much of the research needed to set the story straight. Too many great artists have been forgotten to get indignant because she was, or to explain it as the result of her being a woman. Think of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca, just for starters. There is a fringe benefit to this: Thinking hard about Artemisia helps us begin to appreciate the great painters of the Italian Baroque, her father included, who, like her, have been too opulent, too operatically passionate, too vehemently theatrical to appeal to our minimalist tastes. It helps to see her work through gendered readings, so long as we recognize that this does not entail seeing her as a victim.

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