Sunday, 6 July 2014

ART SUNDAY - ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI


“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is a part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” - Hermann Hesse

Artemisia Gentileschi, was born 1593, in Rome, and died in 1652/53, in Naples. She was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, who was a major follower of the revolutionary Baroque painter Caravaggio. She was an important figure, not only as a woman in what was then a man’s domain, but also was a second-generation proponent of Caravaggio’s dramatic realism, which during her time was still raising eyebrows with its unconventionality.

She was first a pupil of her father and later of his friend, the landscape painter Agostino Tassi. At first, she painted in a style similar to her father’s somewhat lyrical interpretation of Caravaggio’s example. Her first known work is “Susanna and the Elders” (1610), an accomplished work long attributed to her father. Artemisia was raped by Tassi, and, when he did not fulfil his promise to marry her, Orazio Gentileschi in 1612 brought him to trial. During that event she herself was forced to give evidence under torture. The trial lasted seven months at the end of which, Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. The trauma of the rape and trial impacted on Artemisia’s painting. Her graphic depictions were cathartic and symbolic attempts to deal with the physical and psychological pain she had suffered.

Her father arranged her marriage to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence shortly after the trial. They moved to Florence where she joined the Academy of Design in Florence in 1616. While in Florence she began to develop her own distinct style. Her colours are more brilliant than her father’s, and she continued to employ the dark shadows and dramatic lighting made popular by Caravaggio long after her father had abandoned that style. Although her compositions were graceful, she was perhaps the most violent of all the followers of Caravaggio; she illustrated such subjects as the story from the Apocrypha of Judith, the Jewish heroine, beheading Holofernes, an invading general. Many of her paintings affirm the moral strength of women (eg. Judith), their integrity of character (eg. ancient Roman Lucretia), or mental prowess (eg. Clio the muse).

Artemisia Gentileschi was in Rome for a time and also in Venice. About 1630 she moved to Naples and in 1638–39 visited her father in London. There she painted many portraits and quickly surpassed her father’s fame. Later, probably in 1640 or 1641, she settled in Naples, but little is known of the final years of her life. After her death, she drifted into obscurity, her works often attributed to her father or other artists. Art historian and expert on Artemisia, Mary D. Garrard notes that Artemisia “…has suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her calibre.” Renewed and overdue interest in Artemisia in recent years has recognised her as a talented seventeenth-century painter and one of the world’s greatest female artists. The first book devoted to her, “Artemisia Gentileschi - The Image of The Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.” by Mary D. Garrard, was issued in 1989; the first exhibition of her works was held in Florence in 1991. A TV documentary, a play and, more recently, a film have advanced her visibilty as an important artist.

The painting above, “Esther before Ahasuerus” is in the Metropolitan Museum of (oil on canvas 208.3 x 273.7 cm). This painting, among Artemisia’s most ambitious, recounts the story of the Jewish heroine Esther, who appeared before King Ahasuerus to plead for her people. She, thus, broke court etiquette and risked death. She fainted in the king’s presence, but her request found favour. The story is conceived not as a historical recreation but as a contemporary event. Initially Artemisia included the detail of a black boy restraining a dog—still partly visible beneath the marble pavement, to the left of Ahasuerus’s knee.

Agnès Merlet has created an excellent, albeit controversial, film about Artemisia’s life called “Artemisia” and this examines the circumstances of the life of a woman who seemed to be ahead of her times on many a score. Well worth seeing this film!

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