FORGOTTEN MASTER; His Daughter Became a Feminist Icon, but Orazio Gentileschi's Important Role in the History of Art in England Has Been Forgotten - until Now. Terry Grimley Reports

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The image on the cover of my edition of the Oxford Companion to the Arts is a 17th century painting of a young woman playing a lute.

Obviously chosen because it links music and the visual arts, it also has great intrinsic charm in its subtle interplay of light and shadow, with the woman's white and gold clothing both beautiful in colour and elegant in line.

The painting, which is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is by the Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi. This week the first exhibition ever devoted to Gentileschi opened at the National Gallery, London - exactly 360 years after his death.

Gentileschi's obscurity is surprising, particularly in England. He was brought here by Charles I in 1626, when he was already 62, and made an important contribution to the court of England's most art-loving monarch, dying in London in 1639.

His paintings, including an elaborate ceiling scheme, decorated the Queen's House in Greenwich, a very important building in the history of English architecture on which he collaborated with the architect, Inigo Jones.

In modern times, Gentileschi has been overshadowed by his daughter, Artemesia Gentileschi. The first serious female painter in the history of art, Artemesia was naturally seized upon and promoted by the new wave of feminist art historians who emerged in the 1970s.

The fact that Artemisia was famously raped by her teacher Agostino Tassi in 1611, an event which resulted in a court case and Tassi's temporary imprisonment, further commended her to feminist revisionists.

It may be no coincidence that her best known painting is a particularly bloodthirsty treatment of Judith beheading Holofernes, which was bought by the Duke of Tuscany on the advice of no less a person than Galileo. This painting even turned up at the cen tre of a television thriller a few years ago, and novels have been written about Artemisia.

My own interest in Orazio Gentileschi was sparked by his painting The Rest on the Flight into Egypt , which has been in the collection of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery since 1947.

The grandest of at least three versions of the subject painted by the artist - one of which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna - it was painted in Italy in the late 1610s and only followed Gentileschi to England in 1841. It was owned briefly by the Duke of York before it was bought for Birmingham.

It is the only major painting by Gentileschi in a British public collection. Strangely, for an artist who spent so much time working in London, there is nothing at all by him in the National Gallery's collection. Even his David Slaying Goliath, which mys teriously turned up in a Limehouse confectioner's shop in 1935, was allowed to slip away to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Like many people, I used to find 17th century Italian painting unsympathetic. It took me years to succumb gradually to the subtleties of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt - the monumentality of its figures, combined with a lyricism in the linear treatmen t of their draperies, its wonderful quality of light and subdued colour, the low key dictated by the unglamorous brown of the crumbling wall.

The son of a Florentine goldsmith, Gentileschi was born in Pisa in 1563, the year before Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.

This seems startling when you compare the modern-seeming realism of Gentileschi's paintings with the stiff, doll-like portraits we associate with Shakespeare's England. Shakespeare, in fact, had shuffled off this mortal coil ten years before Gentileschi set foot on our shores.

His early paintings apparently showed limited promise, but his meeting with the most influential Italian painter of his day, Caravaggio, in about 1600 galvanised him. Caravaggio's style, with its macho realism and dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, generated such a horde of followers that a word, Caravaggists, was coined to describe them. …