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Artemisia Gentileschi, Praised and Reappraised

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2020

Painting of Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

For the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead writes about the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose work has been growing in stature and popularity in recent years.

Increasingly, Artemisia is celebrated less for her handling of private trauma than for her adept management of her public persona. Throughout her career, she demonstrated a sophisticated comprehension of the way her unusual status as a woman added to the value of her paintings. On a formal level, her representation of herself in the guise of different characters and genders prefigures such postmodern artists as Cindy Sherman. Unlike Sherman, however, Artemisia had few female peers. She was not the only woman working as an artist during the early seventeenth century: a slightly older contemporary was the northern-Italian portraitist Fede Galizia, born in 1578, whose father, like Artemisia’s, was also a painter. But Artemisia must often have felt singular. In a series of letters written to one of her most important patrons, the collector Antonio Ruffo, she wittily referred to her gender: “A woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen,” and, regarding a work in progress, “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” In 2001, the scholar Elizabeth Cropper wrote, “We will never understand Artemisia Gentileschi as a painter if we cannot accept that she was not supposed to be a painter at all, and that her own sense of herself — not to mention others’ views of her — as an independent woman, as a marvel, a stupor mundi, as worthy of immortal fame and historical celebration, was entirely justified.” On art-adjacent blogs, Artemisia’s strength and occasionally obnoxious self-assurance are held forth as her most essential qualities. She has become, as the Internet term of approval has it, a badass bitch.

An exhibition of Gentileschi’s work is set to open early next month at the National Gallery in London and is getting rave reviews. Man, I’d love to go see this in person!

BTW, when reading Mead’s piece, I kept stopping to search for the art she referenced and I recommend you do the same. It’s a) frustrating that the New Yorker doesn’t use hyperlinks for this purpose in the online version and b) still wondrous after all these years that this fantastic art is available to view online with a few quick clicks and keystrokes. Imagine reading a piece like this in 1989 and wanting to look at the art - it would take a trip to the library and then probably hours of searching.

Oh hell, I’ll just do this quick…here’s every painting referenced in Mead’s piece:

Viewing, comparing, and contrasting these paintings is a great little tour through one brief moment in the long history of art. Have fun!