Artemisia – the art of self-defence

Artemisia Gentileschi at The National Gallery, London.

Artemisia: Judith beheading Holofernes (1613-1614) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Last week I went to the new exhibition at London’s National Gallery. It is the first major exhibition in Britain of the magnificent Baroque paintings by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654), who, still relatively unknown in this country, is increasingly regarded as one of the great 17th century Italian Baroque painters who is now mentioned in the same awed breath as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), known simply as Caravaggio as she is remembered as Artemisia. The show is to use a vulgar term, a wow.

I was wearing my surgical mask, of course, because of the gallery’s pandemic precautions, but it might have been essential if some of Artemisia’s goriest pictures had been enacted there in reality. One of Artemisia’s specialities was showing heroic women killing bad guys. Maybe her most famous and most sensational painting is the Uffizi version of her biblical-themed, Judith beheading Holofernes, which allows us to reimagine, if we have to, what it would be like, quite literally, cut off the head of a struggling man. Holofernes is the Assyrian general whose army is besieging the Jewish city of Bethulia and, Judith, a rich Bethulia widow, with her equally heroic maidservant, saves the day and, of course the city.

Caravaggio: Judith beheading Holofernes (c. 1598 -1602) Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Artemisia’s painting challenged her great predecessor, Caravaggio, at his own game with her version of the same moment of horror. For Caravaggio the focus is on the agony and terror of the dying general, but Artemisia, no shirker of gore, puts the emphasis on the two women and the brutal reality of the assassination. In both pictures we are on the dramatic, even operatically bloody high ground of Italian Baroque. The Artemisia, in another difference from the Caravaggio, promotes the maidservant from a worried elderly observer into a co-conspirator and we realise that killing enemy generals is hard work if you are Caravaggio’s frail Judith instead of Artemisia’s muscular widow who looks like she knows how to wring out a wet blanket or two.

Artemisia: Judith and her Maidservant ( c.1614-1615) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Artemisia, and her audience of admirers, couldn’t get enough of Judith – there are more than a few versions of this story, including the no less dramatic painting of Judith and her maidservant, Abra, about to escape from Holofernes’ tent and out through the enemy army’s camp. The dead general’s head is now turning a ghastly, and very dead, green and. the basket is dripping blood as the two women face the next set of dangers in their mission. Judith, her body still flexed for action, rests the sword on her shoulder, prepared to fight herself out of danger.

I don’t think I am being insensitive to the dilemma portrayed in these wonderful paintings if I stand back from the blood and admire the art in both works that show Artemisia’s mastery of colour, lighting and the human form. She allows her artistry to engage. fully rather than run away from these scenes of horror.

Artemisia: Jael and Sisera (1620) Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

She’s at it again with another of her biblical heroines, in Jael and Sisera, a strangely gentle picture considering its subject. Sisera was a commander in the Canaanite army and Jael was a woman from the rival Kenite tribe in another of those Old Testament battle stories that I was taught at school. It’s another scene inside a tent, this time it is Jael’s, she has invited Sisera in with the promise of drinks, dinner and other more intimate refreshments. When he falls asleep, after the fun, I assume, she gets a tent peg and hammers it into his temple with obvious results. As a small schoolboy, I was given nightmares by this story – even to the point of thinking campsites were extremely dangerous places to sleep in. Artemisia’s painting almost lulls us into the calm state that Jael manages with Sisera. For a moment, before the hammer finds it mark, there is a sense of tranquil meditation that is particularly reflected in Jael’s expression. Could she have enjoyed their liaison too, I wonder. Sisera, I hope, died peacefully in his sleep, as they say in local newspapers’ ‘births, marriages and deaths’ columns. Maybe Artemisia was contemplating her relationships, good and bad, with the men in her life. There is almost a mood of forgiveness and tenderness, perhaps, in this painting – but that hammer did descend to do its work.

So, why are we drawn to these pictures of heroic women killing men? Murder is murder, after-all. I have tried not to mention Artemisia’s biography on this as it is so often quoted as an explanation. Maybe it is enough to acknowledge that there was a market, mostly male, for these kinds of paintings and Artemisia knew what would sell. It has to be told though that in her late teens she was raped by a painter friend of her artist father Orazio Gentileschi, and as part of the rape trial she was in interrogated by torture. It is important, of course, to recognise this horrible event but not to see it as the basis of Artemisia’s genius. She was, first and foremost, a great artist who could use her own experiences, even the most traumatic, to inform her art.

Susannah and the Elders (1610) Kunstammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden

Her rape has often been quoted in reference to her earliest masterpiece, Susannah and the Elders, painted when she was still only seventeen or eighteen years old. She was taught by her father, who may have advised her, but no one knows for sure. The story of Susannah and the Elders is from the Apocrypha. Susannah, a young wife, is bathing in the garden when two old men see her and try to seduce her. She refuses their advances and they threaten to accuse her of adultery if she doesn’t submit to them. She still refuses and it is only in court that she is vindicated. It doesn’t take a Miss Marple to see the significance of the story to the young Artemisia.

Susannah is the heroine, along with Judith, most associated with the artist who painted both subjects repeatedly throughout her life. We are left in no doubt about the unpleasant character of the two elders as they insinuate themselves on Susannah and whisper between themselves like clients in a seedy stripclub. Susannah is naked and vulnerable. Why do so many women in Baroque art insist on bathing in semi-public places? It is like the women in vampire films who tend to undress in front of open windows. Artemisia’s Susannah though isn’t as vulnerable as we might think. She will defend herself in court, as Artemisia did, and she shows with her hand gestures that she is not going to be dominated by these men. Her gesture, sometimes criticised as awkward, shows her twisting her body one way and her arms the other. To me, this looks like an example of self-defence performed by a woman who knows the meaning of such movement..

As it happened, the evening before my trip to London, I had been at my weekly tai-chi class where I had asked the instructor, Neil Johnson, about a soreness in my knees which seemed to be caused when I practised certain tai-chi moves. We did the whole lesson on how these defensive moves should be performed in a way that protects the knees from twisting. The upper body turns but the lower body remains static and solid. I think this is what Susannah is doing when the old men come on the attack.

Tai-chi in my garden – the art of self-defence.

I have been practicing this movement in my garden, and my knees are already thanking me. Tai-chi might look graceful but it is, in fact, a martial art, the companion of my White Crane Kungfu style. A gentle friend of mine from that club was once attacked when he was teaching one-to-one in a prison. He used that move in self-defence and the attacker fell to the floor with a broken arm. So, well done Susannah, you and Artemisia, I believe, knew how to defend yourself. Maybe they too had to learn the hard way.

Artemisia: Susannah and the Elders (1622) The Burghley House Collection.
Susannah and the Elders (1652) Pinacotega Nazionale, Bologna.

Her later Susannah paintings, the last one painted over forty years later, may display her growing technique and maturity but, for me, that early painting catches something unique. It remains one of my favourites and stays in the memory after seeing so many of her great works at the wonderful National Gallery exhibition.

I was careful not to read too much biography into the pictures but, I was also fascinated by the powerful personality that most obviously lies behind her works. I don’t think we can ever ‘know’ Artemisia as a person but, maybe we can get some idea of her forceful character from the portrait by her friend and colleague, the French Baroque painter, Simon Vouet (1590 – 1649).

Vouet: Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi ( c. 1623 – 1626) Palazzo Blu, Pisa.

Simon Vouet also painted a portrait of Francesco Maria Maringhi (1593 – after 1653), a Florentine gentleman, the man that Artemisia loved with true passion and who became her life-long lover and financial supporter.

Vouet: Portrait of a Young Man (Francesco Maria Maringhi) (c. 1617-20) Musée du Louvre, Paris.

I am pleased that Artemisia’s biography isn’t just about the bad things – love and friendship were there too as was revealed when her letters to Maringhi were discovered as recently as 2011 – they are displayed at the London exhibition. Her rapid handwriting says it all, emotion, spelling mistakes and all. ‘Mio carisimo core” my dearest heart, “Io vorrei che Vostra Signoria venisse qui quanto prima” I would like your lordship to come here as soon as possible “Perché io non volio aspettare piu male che io mi abbia” Because I don’t want to wait more badly that I have.’ “afizionata” affectionately Artemisia.

Letter from Artemisia to Francesco Maria Maringhi ((c. 1618-1619) Archivo Storico, Florence

In Artemisia we have a passionate and intelligent artist who also happened to be a passionate and intelligent woman who managed to live as a respected and successful painter in a country that had no shortage of great artists. She had that terrible rape, she was tortured, she had an arranged marriage, all but one of her children died before adulthood, and money problems were never ever very far away., but she persevered with her work as an artist and her difficulties insured that she would become a truly great artist.

Artemisia: Madonna and Child (1613-1614) Galleria Spada, Rome.

Her early painting of the Madonna and Child shows a real mother and a real child – the tender focus on those baby feet is just one of the features that mark this painting out from the many similar works by her great male colleagues.

Artemisia: Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (c.1620-1625) Private collection.

Her Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy came to light in 2014 and, unfortunately, even though now lies hidden in a private collection, but it has become an instant hit with anyone who is lucky enough to see it. Her Magdalene is not a repentant sexual sinner but a woman transformed and inspired. I like to think Artemisia was painting a mental state that she knew well from experience. Artemisia, the woman of passionate sensitivity is there in her Self-Portrait as a Lute Player.

Artemisia: Self-portrait as a Lute Player (1615-1617) Wadsworth Atheneum of Art, Hartford.

She was, apparently, a good musician who had musician and as well as painter colleagues and who respected her as one of them – which, I am sure, she was.

I feel closer to her now after my encounter with her at this outstanding exhibition which had been postponed by the pandemic but is now fully open and will run until January 2021. I will end with the painting that I knew before coming to this show, her self-portrait as an artist – part allegory, part manifesto for a woman who knew that she was as good as if not better than the male artists around her.  She wrote to one of her many patrons “a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen…I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” It is still my favourite among all her works. It speaks to us all and states again as it keeps needing to be said, that art is not a luxury, it is a fundamental human need. It, like that tai-chi gesture, can also be our best self-defence.

Artemisia: Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (1638 – 1639) The Royal Collection.

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