Photographer: Ian Mcilgorm. Model: me
A friend I met soon after returning from Florence asked me whether I had seen Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings at the Uffizi. I am really interested in her, my friend said. I replied that yes, I had seen Artemisia's work but had not given it sufficient attention. I said that I did remember her from the days when I began to discover women artists but I had never really engaged with her work - I had not looked - and in my mind I kind of conflated her with Madame Le Brun, who lived a century later in France and was patronised by Marie-Antoinette. I felt quite ashamed at my ignorance. My friend suggested I should read Gentileschi's biography by Anna Banti, with a foreword by Susan Sontag. I ordered the book but I could not wait to get started, my curiosity having been piqued, and over the long weekend I dipped into Susan Vreeland's fictionalised biography, which I could download immediately, just to appreciate Artemisia a little better. Even though Vreeland injected her Artemisia with very contemporary thinking, I began to realise how wonderful she was, as a woman and as an artist. I also watched A woman like that by Ellen Weissbrod, a documentary about Artemisia lovingly pieced together, underpinned by much serious research into Gentileschi's artistic worldview.
I may be a latecomer to Artemisia Gentileschi's fan club and apologise to those readers that already know about her. I just think that for a woman who did not come from an aristocratic family to decide to earn a living from her art in the 17th century was an extraordinary feat. Artemisia's early life was marked by a very public trial following her rape and dishonouring - in 17th century Rome it was not so much the rape but the dishonouring that warranted legal action - by her father Orazio's friend and collaborator Agostino Tassi, also a painter. He had been hired to teach young Artemisia, whose talent was very obvious, the art of perspective. Tassi was acquitted but Orazio was compensated (for it was Orazio who had started legal proceedings, it would not have been possible for Artemisia to do so as she was a woman) and following the trial, Artemisia was hurriedly married off to a painter from Florence and moved away from Rome. A film that came out in 1997 by Agnès Merlet recounted her trial and the torture of the thumb screws she had to undergo to prove her innocence.
Artemisia insisted on carrying on painting, making her way to success in a totally male dominated world that viewed her with antagonism and occasionally, scorn, for being female.
Hers had been a marriage of convenience. She pursued patronage and was able to travel. She even came to London at the invitation of Charles I and Henrietta Maria to paint together with her father, with whom she continued to have a difficult relationship throughout her life, the ceiling of Central Hall, Queen's House, Greenwich (now Malborough House).
Artemisia Gentileschi: self-portrait. Royal Collection. Photo by Larry Brash
Artemisia is truly an inspiration for women, even today. Her doggedly determination to paint, her unwillingness to be defeated, are a great example to follow, even in these postfeminist times.
After her death, she suffered the ignominy of having her work attributed to her father or other male painters and she slipped into oblivion. It took a long time for her to be reinstated as one of the most remarkable modern painters of Europe.
Her Susanna and the Elders remains my favourite, painted when she was only 17. In it she captured the anguish of a young woman harassed by the lecherous elderly men.
Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. Photo: Larry Brash