By Wilkin, Karen
New Criterion , Vol. 20, No. 8
These days, anyone with even a passing interest in old master art knows about Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), one of the very few women to become, against all odds, an acclaimed painter at a time when making art was an exclusively male province. Born in 1593 and motherless from the age of twelve, she grew up in the heart of Rome, in the studio of her painter father Orazio (1563-1639), apparently taught by him and displaying precocious talent. When she was seventeen, one of her father's friends and collaborators, a painter specializing in landscape and illusionistic architecture, raped her promised to marry her, but conveniently neglected to tell her until much later that his supposedly dead wife was, in fact, very much alive. A complicated, protracted, and now much-discussed trial followed, replete with false witnesses, counter-accusations, and even torture. The rapist was found guilty and sentenced to exile, although he didn't bother to leave Rome until he was convicted of some other offense a few years later. To save face, Artemisia was married off to an undistinguished Florentine painter, and she soon moved to Florence.
Astonishingly, she went on to establish herself as an artist to be reckoned with, gaining the support of the Medici as patrons and becoming the first female member of the Accademia del Disegno. She became part of the circle of the Medici court poet and a close friend of Galileo's--despite being virtually illiterate. Her success notwithstanding, Artemisia left Florence abruptly in 1620 and returned to Rome, where she also came to enjoy considerable private patronage. About a decade later, after a short stay in Venice, she settled in Naples, where she spent the rest of her life. When she died in 1652, she was known throughout Europe, in part, responsible art historians have pointed out, simply because of the outrageous novelty of being a woman artist, but still identified in the caption of a portrait engraving as a "celebrated painter ... a marvel in the art of painting." It's true that Artemisia never received a single public commission during her entire career, and it has been suggested that it was her notorious history, as much as her ability, that encouraged her male patrons to commission the images of violence and seduction, the Judiths, Lucretias, and Susannas for which she remains best known. Yet the very fact that she was taken seriously as a painter in an age when women were thought to be incapable of mastering any profession must command respect, all the more so when you take into account the number of important male artists at work in her lifetime.
Artemisia's current reputation, unfortunately, is bound up with her history of victimhood and triumph over difficult circumstances, oppressive cultural norms, and all the rest of it--a tale ready-made for feminists of all stripes, with special appeal, it seems, for aspiring female artists and art historians. In the 1980s and 1990s, I could expect at least three or four term papers on Artemisia out of any class of twenty-odd students allowed to choose their own topics. (Admittedly there were an equal number on Camille Claudel after the release of that film with Isabelle Adjani. Claudel, the complete victim, who was treated abominably by her mentor and sometime lover, Rodin, and committed to a mental institution by her poet brother, eventually became more popular among the gender-conscious than Artemisia, who was, after all, notably successful in her own day and "marginalized" only later, presumably because of the hegemony of dead white male scholars.)
Yet however poignant or inspiring Artemisia's biography may be, it is on her work that her place in history of art really depends, and if her story is familiar, her work is not. For many New Yorkers, I suspect, first-hand experience of her work is largely limited to the Metropolitan's peculiar Esther Before Ahasuerus (c. …