Magazine article The Spectator

An Exile Rediscovered

Magazine article The Spectator

An Exile Rediscovered

Article excerpt

Less famous than his pupil and daughter Artemisia, Orazio Gentileschi has never had a one-man exhibition until now, 360 years after his death. Born in Pisa in 1563, he worked in Rome for 40 years and, like the elderly Pissarro falling under the spell of Seurat's revolutionary pointillism, was heavily influenced in mid-career by the tenyears-younger Caravaggio's naturalism and dramatic chiaroscuro. Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a brawl; five years later Gentileschi's daughter was raped by another painter, Agostino Tassi. But although Tassi was tried and briefly imprisoned, he remained a leading figure in the Roman art world - his next contribution to art history was to take on Claude Lorraine as a pastry cook and teach him to paint. So it was Orazio Gentileschi who found that his prosecution of the case against Tassi made it expedient for him to leave Rome. He went first to Genoa, then to Maria de Medici's court in Paris and finally, for the last 12 years of his life, to London as court painter to Charles I and Henrietta Maria.

The National Gallery's exhibition begins with a chalk drawing of Gentileschi by Van Dyck. Handsomely bearded, with a powerfully curved nose, fierce, deep-set eyes and broad, tight-lipped mouth, he looks more the aristocrat than the artisan. Indeed he seems to have mingled on dining terms with courtiers and ambassadors and was perhaps, like Rubens, employed as a part-time diplomat. On the other hand, Gabriele Finaldi, curator of this exhibition and editor of its excellent catalogue, doubts whether 'difficult, arrogant and vindictive' Gentileschi was entirely suited to the task. At any rate as a painter, by now emerging from his Caravaggism into a graceful, richly coloured and spaciously composed style of his own, he was a real discovery for his royal patrons and a wonderful rediscovery for Finaldi and his colleagues at the National Gallery and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, to which the exhibition moves in June.

The earliest painting on display was probably painted in Rome and certainly under Caravaggio's influence. Dramatically lit and tightly constructed into a vortex of limbs and gestures against a dark reeling landscape and storrmy sky, it depicts David about to decapitate Goliath with his own enormous sword. It is less gruesome than Artemisia's famous head-on painting of Judith bloodily sawing through the neck of Holofernes and contains no sexual element, but the discrepancy of scale and the shocking reversal of power between the giant armoured victim and his peasant-boy killer, gives it a sufficiently disquieting effect.

In fact, Gentileschi's later paintings, even his seemingly calm, clear, colourful London ones, are no less sensational, though more subtly so. In `Joseph and Potiphar's Wife' and `Lot and His Daughters', the Caravaggian darkness is pushed back, as it were, to the rear of the stage, behind a great scarlet curtain in the former, into the depths of a cave in the latter, while the softfleshed, sumptuously dressed figures in the foregrounds are bathed in light and generously spaced. There are only hints of overt violence: in the way Potiphar's half-clad wife stretches across her pillow towards the retreating Joseph with his discarded yellow coat still in her hand; or in the distant view from the cave mouth of burning Sodom and Gomorrah and the tiny figure of Lot's wife turned to salt on the sea-shore. But, lifesize in the foreground, the plump ladies with their bulging bosoms, the rich stuffs, the pewter flask lying on the floor of the cave with its last dribble of the wine that made Lot drunk enough to rape his daughters, the goatish gilt foot of Potiphar's wife's bed, even the prim little embroidered clockings on the evasive Joseph's pale tights all tell a couple of Bible stories which throb with erotic perversity. …

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