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Understanding Artemisia

Understanding Artemisia

Born in 1592, the Italian-Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was always ahead of the curve. An upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery in London, ‘Artemisia’, supported by Sotheby's, demonstrates that centuries on, the pioneering artist remains in the vanguard.
Born in 1592, the Italian-Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was always ahead of the curve. An upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery in London, ‘Artemisia’, supported by Sotheby's, demonstrates that centuries on, the pioneering artist remains in the vanguard.
Artemisia Gentileschi-Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), about 1638-9. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

L ater this year, London’s National Gallery is staging an exhibition that explores the life and work of one of the most accomplished and fabled Old Masters, Artemisia Gentileschi.

The show, instigated by the gallery’s 2018 acquisition of Gentileschi’s 1615 Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, joins a host of events celebrating the artist, including plays, books and even operas. “It’s her moment in every art form possible,” says Letizia Treves, the show’s curator, who has selected 29 key paintings from Gentileschi’s sizeable œuvre, as well as two by her father Orazio, from whose workshop her career began. These works, on loan from international institutions and private collections, chart the refinement of the artist’s style, beginning with her move to Florence at the age of 18 and continuing to her time spent in Rome, Naples and London. Her patrons included royalty across countries, with the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain among them. “She reinvents herself – she’s very adaptable to the cities in which she worked, [and] to the patron’s tastes,” Treves says.

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IMAGES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610 © Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden. Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player, about 1615-18 © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Among the exhibits are three different versions of Susanna and the Elders that Gentileschi completed over the course of her life – the first when she was 17, the second in the 1620s at the height of her career, and the final one at the end of her life in 1652.

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Orazio Gentileschi, The Finding of Moses, early 1630s © The National Gallery, London. The acquisition of this painting was brokered by Sotheby's Tax, Heritage & UK Museums.

Viewed together, they demonstrate her ability to apply fresh perspectives and techniques to old themes. “I think this is the endlessly fascinating thing about her, how she turns to her subjects completely fresh with each retelling and rethinks how to present the scene,” says Treves. He continues:

“She is a brilliant narrative painter.”

Such works are also a testament to Gentileschi’s sensibility for her female subjects – something that is conveyed in the visceral Judith Slaying/Beheading Holofernes paintings, circa 1610/1620. “She’s really championing her gender,” points out Treves. “She gets into her heroine’s mind.”

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IMAGES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, about 1623-5 © The Detroit Institute of Arts. Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuereus, about 1628-30 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Gentileschi’s own personality, meanwhile, is conveyed in letters written to her lover Francesco Maria di Niccolò Maringhi, the intimacy of which are heightened by phonetic spelling and slapdash grammar.

Through these documents, Treves hopes readers will discover the artist’s multiple identities: the pressured business owner, the worried mother, the jealous lover. “I want people to feel like they’re meeting her through her handwriting and entering into her most intimate thoughts and feelings.”

Artemisia Gentileschi at Auction

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