T he most famous female painter of early modern Europe, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) was acclaimed within the male-dominated world of Baroque painting. Like virtually all professional women artists of the era, Artemisia was the daughter of a painter, Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), with whom she trained. Her career traversed the Italian peninsula and even included a stint in London; her patrons included kings, princes, cardinals, and grand dukes. Notwithstanding her outstanding ability and professional ambition, Artemisia faced unique challenges as a woman. She was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi and forced to undergo a humiliating public trial, during which she was tortured to “ensure” the veracity of her allegations.
Since the mid-twentieth century, Gentileschi has captured the public imagination, and recent focus on the history and historic neglect of women artists has further enhanced both popular and scholarly attention to her work. In 2020, Gentileschi was the subject of a well-received exhibition at the National Gallery in London and she headlines the current exhibition on Italian women artists organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Two important Gentileschi paintings are included in the upcoming Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I sale in New York at Sotheby’s. Both of these exceptional works portray female protagonists, a subject to which Gentileschi was especially drawn. And both incorporate small reflective devices that add nuance to our understanding of her ability and intellect.
George Wachter on Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders & Portrait of a seated lady
One of Gentileschi’s rare surviving portraits, Portrait of a Seated Lady (possibly Caterina Savelli, Principessa di Albano) (circa 1620; fig. 1) depicts a sumptuously attired noblewoman sitting in a red, velvet-backed chair. Even as the young woman’s resplendent costume of black and gold brocade dominates the composition, a ray of light hits the chair’s gold finial, drawing the viewer’s attention to the sitter’s likeness, reflected in profile (fig. 2). This fascinating detail recalls a similar element in Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (circa 1518; fig. 3), a work Gentileschi would certainly have known. By creating a pictorial resonance with Raphael’s triple portrait, Gentileschi inserts her painting into a lineage of self-reflexive portraits that celebrate their own making. The passage also showcases her painterly facility: the optical adjustments necessitated by the convex surface serve as a bravura demonstration of artistic skill.
The sitter’s reflection alludes to several art historical conceits. Chief among these is the paragone, an intellectual debate about the relative merits of painting and sculpture that emerged in sixteenth-century artistic literature. One argument for painting’s superiority lay in its ability to show multiple views simultaneously through the incorporation of reflective surfaces. By contrast, sculpture can only be experienced sequentially as the viewer moves around the object. In keeping with this dictum, the reflection in the chair’s finial reveals an alternative view of the sitter that otherwise would only be visible to someone within the notional space of the picture itself. Including the woman’s reflected profile perhaps serves as a further rhetorical gesture. According to the ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder, the genre of portraiture originated when a young maiden from Corinth traced her lover’s silhouette on a wall before he departed for battle—a mimetic moment that launched an entire genre of image-making.
The second painting of Gentileschi’s in the Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I sale, Susanna and the Elders (fig. 4), also includes a reflective mise en abyme—that is, a scene reflected within itself. Within the grand, multifigure composition is a still-life vignette. Arrayed on the heroine’s bench are the accoutrements of her toilette. In addition to Susanna’s comb, perfume or ointment jar, and a smattering of ribbon and fabric, a straw basket contains a small, framed mirror (fig 5). In its corner, one catches a glimpse of the bearded man’s red mantle. While mirrors were frequently included in bathing scenes to heighten an image’s sensual appeal, here the reflection of the transgressor reinforces the sense of shock at the men’s intrusion into Susanna’s intimate space.
“While mirrors were frequently included in bathing scenes to heighten an image’s sensual appeal, here the reflection of the transgressor reinforces the sense of shock at the men’s intrusion into Susanna’s intimate space.”
These “reflective” passages bring to mind Gentileschi’s proclivity for self-portraiture, for which mirrors served as essential creative tools. In Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (circa 1638–39; fig. 6), for instance, she likely used a pair of mirrors arranged at forty-five-degree angles to realize the vertiginous pose. Mirrors were understood not merely to reflect, but also to clarify and intensify. Indeed, the reflective passage in Portrait of a Seated Lady amplifies the artistic tropes at the heart of portraiture. By drawing attention to the very act of looking, Gentileschi invites the viewer to discover that, as one of Gentileschi’s contemporaries noted, her paintings really are “marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture.”1
1 Noted by the French artist Pierre Dumonstier II (also known as Dumonstier Le Neveu), who so annotated his drawing of Artemisia’s hand. British Museum, London (Nn, 7.51.3).