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Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting.

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting

By Jesse M. Locker

Yale University Press, 2015

When we think of Artemisia Gentileschi, what paintings come to mind? Perhaps the Susanna and the Elders of 1610 (Schonborn Collection) or the Judith and Holofernes of ca. 1620 (Uffizi). One of several depictions of Judith by the painter, the Uffizi painting is an iconic representation of Gentileschi's powerful heroic women. And Susanna and the Elders is one of the earliest, if not the first, anatomically correct image of a woman in European art, to say nothing of its powerful depiction of a young woman's fear for her life and reputation as she faces sexual assault. Later works such as The Annunciation (1630; Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte) or The Birth of St. John the Baptist (ca. 1633; Prado) may not come to mind. The Annunciation presents an acquiescent Virgin Mary bowing her head before Gabriel, while The Birth of St. John the Baptist depicts a group of women attentive to the needs of a newborn child with the babe's obviously exhausted mother in bed. In Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting, Jesse Locker considers these later paintings and how Gentileschi altered her style to address the interests of patrons, and what this circle of patrons tells us about the intellectual interests of the artist over the course of her career. Locker is curious about the ways Gentileschi "was immersed in the literary culture of her day" (5). The six chapters do not present Gentileschi's work in chronological order; indeed, a reader may puzzle over the book's organization and the contribution of some chapters to the overall theme. Nonetheless, the result is a valuable, beautifully illustrated, and intriguing study that contextualizes Gentileschi's paintings in a literary world that allows us to better understand the artist's interpretations of complex narratives.

Chapter 1 focuses on Gentileschi's patronage at the Spanish court in Naples, where she received commissions for paintings that entered the collection of Philip IV, King of Spain. Critical to her success there was the Duke of Alcala, a member of the academy of Francisco Pacheco in Seville, a pedigree that places Gentileschi within the sphere of contemporary cognoscenti. The Duke arrived in Rome in 1625 as Spain's first ambassador extraordinary to the papal court of Urban VIII Barberini, and shortly thereafter he met Gentileschi, from whom he acquired at least three paintings. In 1629 Alcala became Viceroy of Naples, and by 1630 Artemisia was in Naples, likely sent there by the papal court knowing the Duke's appreciation for her work. Locker presents formal analyses of paintings produced in Naples, noting that the compositional and stylistic archaisms point to Gentileschi's "turn to sixteenth-century works associated with the maniera devota as a guide" to her Spanish patrons' "requirements of simplicity, sweetness, pleasing coloring, and devout treatment of figures" (32). Locker concludes that Gentileschi was as much a pawn of Roman diplomats as a painter aiming to please her Spanish patrons, adding that "Artemisia and her art were instrumental to those in power--whether in Rome, Naples, Madrid, or Venice--as her talents were utilized in an elaborate series of favors" (43).


In chapter 2, Locker examines the literary world Gentileschi encountered in Venice, and considers works dedicated to the painter by Venetian writers between her arrival in 1627 and 1653, the publication year of two infamous mock epitaphs dedicated to the artist. Locker interprets a letter from the Venetian patrician, poet, and founder of the city's leading literary academy, Gian Francesco Loredan, as indicating his high regard for Gentileschi's opinion of literary matters, although he later authored a mock epitaph berating the painter for her promiscuity. Locker explains that the Accademia degli Incogniti, founded by Loredan, welcomed some women to their gatherings and supported the careers of Barbara Strozzi and Arcangela Tarabotti. "Yet even in this relatively open environment, a vast majority of the academicians were incapable of, and hardly interested in, suppressing erotic and misogynist impulses in their writings, and the writers' literary fascination with women as erotic objects tended to eclipse attempts to take them seriously on an intellectual level" (66). Locker contextualizes Loredan's texts--and Gentileschi's work--within the questione della donna debates of Venetian literary societies, adding that Loredan, "like the Incogniti in general famously adopted veiled, contradictory, and deliberately shocking positions on every subject ..." (66).

Chapter 3 speculates on Gentileschi's life and work in Venice during the years Loredan and other Venetian litterati were writing about female protagonists, including the subjects of Gentileschi's paintings. While none of her Venetian paintings can be securely identified, a survey of her later work indicates that the years in Venice were crucial for Gentileschi's turn from depictions of violence to representations of women contrasted with unexpectedly foolish men, such as Esther Before Ahasuerus of ca. 1627-30 (Fig. 1). This striking composition shows Queen Esther fainting into the arms of two maidservants as she approaches the king. X-rays indicate additional figures that connect the work to Veronese's painting of ca. 1570 of the same subject. Gentileschi's study and subsequent rejection of Veronese's composition indicates her lack of satisfaction with the more complex istoria in favor of "composing a concentrated dramatic Contrapposto ..." with a focus on the king and queen (76). For Locker, Gentileschi's depiction of the king as a comic, caricaturesque figure ennobles the queen, thus locating the painting securely within contemporary Venetian debates about the nature of women, "playfully invert[ing] expectations, setting up a witty contraposition between the queen and the unusually ignoble king" (83). "To what degree might Artemisia's presence in Venice have contributed to, or even sparked, the diffusion" of imagery concerned with clever women revealing the weaknesses of men, is a question that Locker admits cannot be answered. But the author presents a solid case for Gentileschi's interest in notorious, clever women at a time when Venetian writers and patrons were all invested in exploring such themes.

Locker returns in chapter 4 to Naples, where the painter lived from around 1630. Although contemporary writers reported that she was successful and influential, no Neapolitan accounts from the seventeenth century substantiate these claims of foreigners, and Locker turns to contemporary Neapolitan literature, in particular the work of Girolamo Fontanella and Francesco Antonio Cappone. Comparisons in poetry between Gentileschi and Aurora, the goddess of the dawn described by Ovid as rosy-fingered, suggest to Locker contemporary appreciation of Gentileschi's color palette evident even in the work of her followers in Naples. Using poetry as evidence of painting, as Locker points out, is problematic. But the author contextualizes the material and makes a case for Gentileschi's esteemed position within the Spanish court in Naples.

Chapter 5 is a consideration of Gentileschi's self-portraits "in light of her literary, theatrical, and artistic associations" (126), particularly the Self-Portrait as a Lute Player painted in Florence around 1615 (Wadsworth Atheneum) and the Neapolitan-period Self-Portrait dated 1630-35 (Galleria Nazionale, Palazzo Barberini). Following Elizabeth Cropper's study of Gentileschi, Locker takes the position that Gentileschi is present not only before her work, but within it, and in her costumed figures "the artist seems to, at times quite literally, embody her protagonists" (132).1 The Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is a case in point. Locker identifies the work as a record of the artist's theatrical role as a gypsy in the Dance of the Gypsy Women by Francesca Caccini performed for the Medici court in 1615. The Barberini Self-Portrait, on the other hand, shows the painter--wearing a laurel crown, richly dressed and bejeweled--at work on a portrait, likely of a patron. Gentileschi mentions her self-portraits in letters to patrons, and indicates her awareness of their intended destination, the patron's gallery. Building on the work of Marc Fumaroli on the seventeenth-century gallery "as a place for companionship, 'civil conversation,' and display of wit," Locker posits that Gentileschi created her varied self-portraits with such a gallery in mind (158-59). (2)

In chapter 6, Locker studies the 1792 biography of the painter by Averardo de' Medici. Believed lost, this biography recently was identified by Locker in a multivolume work on great men of Pisa, and is reprinted here in an appendix. Medici's work is important for the light it sheds on the painter's reputation as a still life painter and firsthand descriptions of several of her Neapolitan paintings. This chapter is interesting, too, as a meta-narrative about art historical research.

Locker writes in his postscript, "[s]ituating Artemisia's artistic creations within the context of broader cultural phenomena might at first appear at odds with the feminist agenda of recognizing the artist's singularity and particular genius, but it does in fact situate her much closer to the historical beginnings of European feminism" (182). Recognizing an "artist's singularity and particular genius" is not a uniquely feminist approach to art history, and an examination of "broader cultural phenomena" has been a concern of every wave of feminist art history. But Locker may here be situating his own work outside of or parallel to what he sees as "feminist" studies of Gentileschi. Locker adds much to our knowledge of Gentileschi's reputation during her lifetime and how she may have inserted herself within some of the most interesting circles of seventeenth-century luminaries. Future work on Artemisia Gentileschi will benefit from Locker's discoveries and thoughtful interpretations.

Marjorie Och is Professor of Art History at the University of Mary Washington. She has published on Vittoria Colonna, Properzia de' Rossi, and Giorgio Vasari, and currently is working on Vasari's accounts of cities in his Lives of the Artists.


(1.) Elizabeth Cropper, "Life on the Edge: Artemisia Gentileschi, Famous Woman Painter." In Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ed. Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2001), 263-81.

(2.) Marc Fumaroli, "La Galeria de Marino et la Galerie Farnese: Epigrammes et oeuvres d'art profane vers 1600." In L'Ecole du silence: Le sentiment des images au XVIIe siecle (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), 37-51.
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Author:Och, Marjorie
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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