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Artillery Row

Feminist art historians get Artemisia Gentileschi wrong

Contemporary feminist art theory: little help in understanding a seventeenth century artist

Why have there been no great women artists? Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay of that title became a foundational text for feminist art history, but the question is hardly ever asked any more. In recent years it has lost its urgency, thanks to the rising reputation of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1654).

The first revival of interest in Artemisia actually predated feminist art history: in 1916 the great scholar and connoisseur Roberto Longhi gave her equal billing with her artist father, Orazio, in a long article on their intertwined careers entitled “Gentileschi Padre e Figlia”; and then in 1947 she was to get top billing for the first time when Longhi’s wife, writing under the pseudonym “Anna Banti”, made Artemisia the subject of an entire historical novel. But it is only in the last two or three decades that interest in Artemisia has become frenetic, with art dealers scouring old collections in the hope of recovering her lost works, and art historians fighting to stamp their own authority on her artistic territory.

Seventeenth-century Italian painting is, on the whole, well out of fashion; but Artemisia, like Caravaggio – and she has often been described as a follower of Caravaggio – has become a great exception who can be trusted to draw in the biggest crowds. And that is why London’s National Gallery, in celebration of its recent purchase of Artemisia’s Self-Portrait as St Catherine, now happily devotes an entire exhibition to her paintings.

As is also the case with Caravaggio, much of Artemisia’s popular appeal has to do with her biography. But her life was in fact more extraordinary than Caravaggio’s. After all, it was not so unusual that he, as a bohemian artist in Rome, went cavorting around, and that such behaviour led to quarrels and duels. The trials and tribulations faced by Artemisia, however, were quite different, having less to do with her personal proclivities and more to do simply with her being a woman who wanted to work in the man’s world of art.

Very few artists ever gained independence at such a young age

By far the most famous detail in Artemisia’s story is that in 1611 she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a sinister associate of her father’s (the two men had often collaborated on fresco decorations, with Orazio painting the figures and Tassi doing the scenery). Tassi had foolishly been trusted to enter the Gentileschi household to teach the girl about perspective. After the rape, Artemisia succumbed to a brief affair with her attacker, as he had promised a marriage to make an honest woman of her. But when it emerged that he was leading her on, Orazio Gentileschi was so angered that he pressed charges against his old associate. In court, Artemisia underwent humiliating physical examinations and was tortured with ties around her fingers, but she stuck to her story and was eventually believed. The legal case was won; yet Tassi seems to have escaped punishment, while the trial had cast such shame upon Artemisia that it was thought best to marry her off at once so that she, with her new husband, could move to Florence for a fresh start (the Gentileschi family, of Tuscan origin, was well connected there).

At this point Artemisia was still only 19 years old, which is important not just because it demonstrates what a turbulent start she had in life, but also because very few artists ever gained independence – or, indeed, had independence forced upon them – at such a young age. And Artemisia’s precocity is central to our understanding of her art. She had a long and successful career, painting until she was about 60 years old; but her most famous pictures – those which receive almost all of the critical attention nowadays – were made in her early years, while she was still in her teens or her twenties.

Modern critics concentrate on these early pictures for two simple reasons: firstly, because they are more dramatically effective, and closer to Caravaggio’s extremely popular example; and secondly, because they make use of subject-matter that can be interpreted to suggest that Artemisia was a proto-feminist.

It has become conventional to assume that in her paintings Artemisia was fantasising revenge on the men who had harmed her. As if, in strangely modern fashion, her art were conceived as a cathartic sort of self-expression. This idea especially has made her work seem more relatable to modern viewers who would already have wanted to sympathise with such a brave young woman fighting for her career against all the odds. But it may also have hindered our ability to recognise which paintings Artemisia herself actually made.

The critics and historians who see Artemisia as a proto-feminist want her paintings to be dynamic, spirited, confrontational – ballsy, we might even say. Thus they are suspicious of her milder pictures.

It is no coincidence that the authenticity of every single painting of the Madonna by Artemisia, including signed and documented examples, has been questioned at some point in the modern literature. In Mary Garrard’s groundbreaking book, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (1989) – which is full of good and provocative ideas, though some of its conclusions have been contradicted by newly discovered documents – it was even suggested that the authenticity of the Susannah and the Elders at Burghley House should be disqualified. That particular painting is signed and dated 1622, and it is anyway obviously one of Artemisia’s most elaborate and impressive works.

The reason Garrard gave for rejecting the attribution was only that, to her, Susannah’s demeanour in the painting seemed too conventionally “seductive” to have been worked up by the redoubtable Artemisia (to me this Susannah just appears frightened, appropriately for the subject, rather than in any way compliant).

Assumptions about Artemisia’s expressive range – about what we should regard as typical of her brush, and worthy of her brush – have developed in large part from over-enthusiastic readings of a single very celebrated composition of Judith Beheading Holofornes. But the composition is known in two painted versions. The one in the Uffizi was previously thought to have been the prime version, as it is signed “Artemitia Gentileschi”; but it is now agreed that the other, in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, must have been painted first, as X-rays revealed that the composition evolved there on its canvas. The Uffizi version was simply made using a tracing.

The National Gallery exhibition borrows both paintings, giving us the rare opportunity to compare them side by side. And this comparison should raise the question of whether or not it was really Artemisia who painted the Capodimonte version – the original version – because there is nothing to prove that she did. In fact, when the two were previously shown together, back in 2002 at the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi”, it prompted Raymond Ward Bissell, the scholar who had spent much of his life cataloguing the works of both father and daughter, to wonder whether he – along with everyone else – may have made an enormous mistake.

He then came round to the view that the Capodimonte version was the work of Orazio Gentileschi, not Artemisia. And he remembered a piece of evidence that he had previously discounted: in 1688, Luca Giordano – the most celebrated Neapolitan painter of his generation – had inventoried the Colonna collection in Naples, including a Judith Beheading Holofernes “by the hand of Oratio Gentilesco”.

Art history works slowly and, for better or worse, by consensus

Giordano’s note should be taken seriously, not just because it might be the earliest surviving reference to the painting in question, not just because Giordano was known as a great connoisseur (he had shot to fame as the most brilliant imitator of all sorts of older artists’ styles) but also – especially – because Giordano had worked for the Medici in Florence, so he would already have known Artemisia’s signed version of the same composition very well. And yet he did not assume, as would have been easier – and as is generally assumed now – that the two paintings were made by the same hand. It is even possible that his connoisseurship never came into it, if he was simply recording in the inventory what had been known about the authorship of the painting since its original acquisition.

A small caveat: it is impossible to prove that the painting to which Giordano referred is the same painting now in the Capodimonte museum. However, it was recorded in the same city, and there is no other candidate for a painting by Orazio of Judith Beheading Holofernes. And then, the stylistic evidence points towards Orazio too.

The two women who appear in it – whose faces are not quite the same as they are in Artemisia’s signed Uffizi version – are recognisable from other paintings by Orazio: Judith appears in Orazio’s Madonna and Child in the Galleria Corsini, Rome, and Abra, Judith’s maidservant, seems to appear in a very different mood as a Sybil in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The pattern of the folds on the women’s rolled-up sleeves in the Capodimonte version recurs quite precisely in draperies in other paintings by Orazio made between c.1605 and c.1615, while we see that the logic of that pattern has been lost in Artemisia’s Uffizi version, despite her having made it with a tracing.

The way the figures in the composition have been submitted to the geometry of the rectangle, and interconnected, is typical of Orazio, whereas Artemisia – to judge by her secure later works – seems usually to have focused on one figure at a time, piecing her multi-figure compositions together as if by collage (many Caravaggesque painters of her generation worked this way).

The application of the paint is also different on the two canvasses. In the Uffizi version, the colour has rather been superimposed onto the tonal scheme, so the jumps down from the lights into the brown shadows are more abrupt and irregular. Whereas in the Capodimonte version, the brighter colours – the red and the blue – are built up, and modulated to tie in with the tonal scheme, thus producing a thoroughly consistent light effect (by contrast, the light in the Uffizi version seems to strobe from all angles).

And the colour scheme has changed completely between the two paintings. Currently, art historians believe this is because Artemisia painted the Uffizi version some years later, when she had been influenced by more decorative Florentine tastes. But it is quite possible that Artemisia had forgotten or simply never knew the original colour scheme, if she had worked her painting up just from a charcoal tracing that had remained in Orazio’s studio long after his version had been sold.

Anyone is of course free to regard the Uffizi version as more successful than the Capodimonte version, for the greater sense of urgency it conveys – aided perhaps by that bright yellow dress, and the frighteningly accurate rendering of the blood spurting from the severed neck – or for whatever other reason. But if Artemisia did not invent the composition, then it cannot at all be seen as an expression of her personal identification with biblical heroines who took their revenge on men.

Bissell’s suggestion that the Capodimonte Judith Beheading Holofernes should now be re-attributed to Orazio Gentileschi was therefore inconvenient for many of his colleagues, and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, it has largely been ignored. Bissell surely did not help his cause by extending his argument even further: in the same article he went on to suggest that all of Artemisia’s other most celebrated early works – her supposedly “proto-feminist” works – namely the Susannah and the Elders from Pommersfelden, the Lucretia from the Etro collection and the Cleopatra from the Morandotti collection, were also, like the Capodimonte picture, painted by, or at the very least drawn by and corrected by, her father Orazio (rightly or wrongly, these pictures had actually all been attributed to Orazio at different times before).

Art history works slowly and, for better or worse, by consensus. So attempts such as Bissell’s, to make many fundamental changes to an artist’s œuvre all at once, will always be treated with suspicion, even where much less is at stake than it is in Artemisia’s case. If, however, Bissell eventually turns out to be right – at least about the Capodimonte Judith – then we have to wonder what should become of all the passionate writing that has directly inspired the new popular interest in Artemisia.

It is true that Garrard’s gendered approach to attributions has already fallen out of fashion; and the essays in the catalogue for the National Gallery exhibition cleverly avoid too much speculation about what could have been Artemisia’s secret motives. But that is not to say that all bias has been eradicated. And one particular aspect of the remaining bias now presents a real obstacle to a more thorough consideration of Bissell’s suggested re-attribution for the Capodimonte Judith: with this grand, collective endeavour to build up Artemisia’s reputation, it has become normal to denigrate the ultra-refined work of her father as something only “art snobs” could “affect to prefer”.

A reluctance to recognise Orazio’s own artistic qualities can still be read between the lines of much of much of the recent literature on Artemisia. It is perhaps best exemplified with reference to readings of the following three closely related paintings of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes.

The first is fully by Orazio. The second is usually also attributed to Orazio, but sometimes to “Orazio and studio” – indeed it has been suggested that the young Artemisia might even have had a small hand in it – because its details are so untypically abbreviated. Then the third painting, made some years later, is all by Artemisia herself, and it was conceived simply by sticking together the Judith from one of Orazio’s old designs with the Abra from the other. Yet the catalogue to the National Gallery’s new exhibition credits Artemisia’s version with a “greater psychological intensity”, while the catalogue for the Met’s previous “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi” exhibition had even called it “majestic” for its ”sensitive adjustment in the interpretation of the story”.

However many times art historians may imply that Artemisia’s version is superior, we can see that it is not

However many times art historians may imply that Artemisia’s version is superior, we can see that it is not. It offers little in the way of original expression. And despite the minor variations Artemisia made to the composition, this particular work of hers has the stilted feel of copy; it was evidently conceived on the flat – perhaps using partial tracings – and so it reads as rather flat too. How far apart are her Judith and Abra from each other? We struggle to detect a space between them, so the positioning of the basket with Holofernes’s head and the blood-stained cloth is confusing. Whereas in Orazio’s fully autograph version we can sense exactly how far apart the two women stand because, as the artist laboured to explain each tiny turn in each plane of each form in cross-sections, he gave us a constant measure through the picture.

Artemisia’s drawing is hardly so precise. Her brushwork is also larger and looser. She gives the impression of drapery without describing it; her marks jump in different angles, not quite following the folds. And so, through such uncertain shapes, her women’s bodies seem to lack real solidity – they seem deflated inside their clothes. Whereas in Orazio’s painting – as was always expected back in the sixteenth century, when he received his education – we can sense the anatomical structure of the women’s bodies completely, even through such rich clothes and dark shadows.

The flattening in Artemisia’s painting is also due to the harsher light: again it seems to flash, rather than flood. And again, the clothes have turned bright yellow. In this instance too, such effects may add a sense of urgency; but they do not make up for everything.

To be fair to Artemisia, almost anyone else’s painting of the time would also look unresolved and impetuous next to that of her father. But, unlike Artemisia, the others were not working from Orazio’s own designs and thus inviting such direct comparisons. If Artemisia were not so famous, personally, then her Judith with the Head of Holofernes could usefully be described as a product of the workshop of Orazio Gentileschi; and that is not to do Artemisia down, but to put her in her proper context. It was perfectly normal for artists of her age to return occasionally to the designs of elder, more-established artists, while their own reputations were still developing. Indeed, of her same generation, Domenichino, who was to become for a time the most successful artist in all of Rome, right into his mid-twenties kept working to the designs of his master, Annibale Carracci (and there is ongoing confusion about the attributions between the two of them as well).

Critics and scholars should be allowed their personal enthusiasms; but all this exaggeration – this special pleading – in Artemisia’s case is truly a shame because, as it happens, there is no need for it. Artemisia’s talent was real and it is proven, undeniably, by the canvasses she painted in Florence and, later, in Naples, when far away from her father. Many of her Roman works are also obviously original, and exceptionally fine. The debate about her qualities has only become so fraught because those who seek to champion her, while disparaging her father, focus almost exclusively on the works she made in her father’s studio with reference to his designs – perhaps, we may say, his “proto-feminist” designs.

A likely new example of Artemisia’s independent work – very different from anything ever invented by her father – surfaced as a “sleeper” in an auction in Rome this summer, where it was described only as “Caravaggesque School”. It is not yet known to scholarship, so it is published here for the first time.

Perhaps the reason that Artemisia’s name was not associated with this St John the Baptist is just that she has been so emphatically characterised as a painter of female protagonists, while the figure featuring here is male (if that is how it happened, it would not be the first time: recently, scholars were also hesitant to accept the attribution of a painting of David, despite its conforming perfectly to Artemisia’s mature style, and even despite some documentary evidence; and then when the painting was cleaned her signature was discovered on the blade of David’s sword).

Artemisia’s nudes may have curves in some of the right places, but they do not appeal to the male gaze

The pose, with the Baptist shown from waist up in three-quarter view but with the head turning towards us – and the light emphasising the contours of the left clavicle – is typical of Artemisia, as it repeats from her series of what are assumed to be self-portraits made in the mid-to-late-1610s in Florence (a series to which the National Gallery’s own new Self-Portrait as St Catherine belongs). The Baptist’s face also bears a strange but striking resemblance to Artemisia’s own, as we recognise it from that series. So, might she even have used herself as a model here, and then imagined a darker complexion and a drastic, masculine haircut? If she were indeed the model, it would explain the odd lack of precision – the painterly fudging – around the Baptist’s chest. And it would also explain why the Baptist’s hand holding the staff is so much more conventionally drawn, and a little out of scale: that would have been her painting hand, which is more difficult to study from life in the mirror. But this then makes the posing of that hand especially interesting, as it so closely resembles a famous drawing of Artemisia’s painting hand – a drawing included in the National Gallery exhibition – made by a French draughtsman working in Rome named Pierre Dumonstier II.

As the new painting is so similar in pose and in mood to Artemisia’s Florentine works, it would be tempting to date it to the late 1610s. And the warm streak of heavenly light, at top right, is a decidedly Florentine touch too. However, the overall tonality is different – it is, as the auction house labelled it, authentically Caravaggesque – and this would suggest that the painting was more likely made in Rome, after Artemisia’s return there in 1620. A date of around 1620 would also be supported by the overall similarity here to certain works by the Frenchman Simon Vouet, who was then one of the leading Caravaggesque painters in Rome. It is certain that Vouet and Artemisia knew each other as he painted her portrait – that portrait is also included in the National Gallery exhibition – and they evidently influenced each other too, though the full extent of their artistic relationship remains to be charted.

Around this time, and right through the 1620s, Artemisia’s style began fluctuating to a degree that has bewildered art historians. But it is at least pretty clear that this was when she was doing her most ambitious work, probably because she was inspired by the competitive atmosphere of Rome. It must have been a shock to be back there, in the midst of it, after the comparatively genteel and conformist art scene of Florence.

The feminine view in the painting is simply the result of a female artist being at the peak of her powers

By 1630 Artemisia had moved to Naples, where she would live for the rest of her life apart from a short trip to England, in c.1638-40, to join her father working for the royal court there. In Naples, Artemisia would eventually settle into a more regular style; but at the same time the quality of her paintings began to vary wildly – some of them are beautiful, some merely curious, others deeply disappointing – partly because she was working more collaboratively, but probably also because she was not very happy in the chaotic port city and at times her work just seemed routine. However, in her first years in Naples, while her style was still evolving and she was making efforts to establish herself – to impress new clients – she did manage to create some of her most enduring images.

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Esther before Ahasuereus’, about 1628-30. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, 1969 (69.281) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The most imposing of them all is the Esther and Ahasuerus, in the Metropolitan Museum. It is also the most intensely laboured painting of her whole career. The current scholarly consensus is that it was begun in the late 1620s, when Artemisia spent time in Venice – which would explain the debt here to Veronese – but reworked in Naples during the 1630s; and from the visual evidence this seems quite plausible.

The result divides opinion: for some critics it “lacks real compositional rigor”; but to me it seems to show off all of Artemisia’s best qualities. It has that rough emphasis on shapes in profile that can make Artemisia’s pictures seem more Renaissance than Baroque in spirit. It proves her ability to assimilate a very wide range of sources – Florentine, Venetian, French/Roman, and, by now, Neapolitan too – while indulging her love of rich fabrics. And, though it is not violent – it is not a Caravaggesque painting at all – it does confirm Artemisia’s special interest in stories with female protagonists.

Garrard has argued that Esther here has been made more masculine in pose and stature, to appear heroic. Maybe so; yet the feminine angle to this painting seems subtler than that, turning on where the artist has put her sympathy rather than how she insists on strength.

The figure of King Ahasuerus is unusually young, and so snazzily dressed that he appears more decorative than characterful. The three women, however, are full of agency. The woman at far left tries to catch Esther as she faints, and in doing so her face ends up pressed into Esther’s neck where we sense her hot breath and all the worried energy condensing in it. This strikes me as one of the most original naturalistic observations by any artist of the period, and it punctures the flamboyant staging of the scene with real pathos. The pointing of Ahasuerus’s finger then channels all the tension of the moment; and this was, as Garrard has already noted, a truly inspired adjustment to the narrative (a pentimento reveals that the index finger originally gripped the armrest, along with the other fingers).

The feminine approach is even more surprisingly effective in Artemisia’s mature depictions of the female nude

A male artist probably would not, and could not, have painted the subject quite this way. Yet the picture is not overtly “feminist”. The feminine view – or interpretation – so evident in the painting is only incidental; it is simply the result of a female artist being at the peak of her powers (in the National Gallery exhibition this painting of Artemisia’s has been hung, touchingly, with the best of her father’s late works, the Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife from the Royal Collection, beside which it easily holds its own). Here, Artemisia represented the sexes just as she saw them and as she related to them: nothing more, nothing less. And this is partly what makes it such a fascinating painting to study, perhaps for male viewers most of all. Because, as the man in the picture appears almost objectified, we do not hesitate to realise with whom we are supposed to identify. It happens naturally. Men have to look at this painting as women have to look at paintings by men. But it is not a chore; it makes for an exciting, and enlightening, change.

The feminine approach is even more surprisingly effective in Artemisia’s mature depictions of the female nude, especially her great reclining nudes which are her most extraordinary works. With these paintings Artemisia departed completely from all Baroque convention and, again, recalled sixteenth-century Venetian pictorial modes. But while she matches the Venetians in the sensuousness of her painting – and with her delight in luxurious accoutrements – her nude figures themselves can seem uniquely de-sexualised.

Artemisia’s nudes may have curves in some of the right places, but they do not appeal to the male gaze as Titian’s or Giorgione’s nudes would; they are monumental, rather than voluptuous. So what exactly is it that they stand – or rather, recline – for? I cannot say I am sure; and maybe as a male viewer I am destined to miss something in their meaning. To me they appear neither personalised, nor idealised in any conventional way. But perhaps what matters – and what makes them so impressive – is just how they seem to assert themselves, physically, like so many of the leading male figures do in paintings made by men. Artemisia’s nudes are, at base, powerful new emblems for women in art.

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Cleopatra’, about 1633-5. Private collection © Private collection / Photo Giorgio Benni

Here, for this later painting of Cleopatra, Artemisia chose to show the protagonist already dead, rather than in the moment of her tragic suicide (as would have been conventional). Plenty of male artists would still have used her exposed breasts, which are necessary for the telling of the story, as an opportunity for titillation, yet Artemisia exposes Cleopatra’s body like that of a fallen soldier whose armour has just been peeled away. Her flesh is pale, and turning cold as stone. She is statuesque, a whole new vision of the female “hero”. Yes, it is by her personal sacrifice rather than her action that Cleopatra proves her valour, but Artemisia shows us that a woman’s determination can be glorious just the same. Cleopatra is discovered by her female attendants, who already weep; and here the male viewer may start to feels like an interloper, not so much because of the exposure of female flesh but rather because of the exposure of such feminine feeling.

Some scholars question whether the painting was all Artemisia’s own work, or whether it was the product of a collaboration (and damage to its surface makes it harder to tell). However, there can be little doubt that Artemisia was at least responsible for its invention, as the pose of the woman poking her head around the curtain contains a distant memory of Orazio Gentileschi’s altarpiece of Sts Cecilia, Valerianus and Tiburtius which was made in 1607 and installed in a church in Como, Lombardy, where it is unlikely to have been seen by any other painter active in Naples in the 1630s. And at the same time that attendant’s pose also happens to recall Artemisia’s own Jael and Sisera, which was painted back in 1620 either in Florence or in Rome. Then there is the shape of Cleopatra’s body, here, with its typically solid shoulders and its prominent lower ribs beneath the breasts, surely betraying Artemisia’s own hand.

It has since become clear that Artemisia must have been an extremely prolific artist

When Longhi first brought Artemisia back to our attention her work was hardly known, and many of the attributions he suggested were wide of the mark (he even assigned to her what is now recognised as an early painting by Guercino). Much has been learnt since, yet Artemisia’s œuvre remains a mess: in the early years, due to confusion with – and about – her father’s work; in the middle years, due to her stylistic experimentation; and in the later years, due to a frustrating lack of information about the nature of her collaborations with various Neapolitan artists in her circle. And, difficult as the attributions may be, it is still more difficult to put her accepted works from these different phases in order – the chronology of her catalogue, as currently presented, makes limited sense. So the research goes on: when Garrard first published, there were only thirty or so authenticated paintings, but it has since become clear – even while discounting some of the more opportunistic recent attributions – that Artemisia must have been an extremely prolific artist.

How are we to assess her art historical significance now? Inevitably, the truth lies somewhere between the different accounts. As a specialist in female nudes and billowing embroidered fabrics, she was not quite as formidable a feminist as has sometimes been made out; but nor was she as blandly decorative, as “promiscuous”, or as derivative and inconsequential an artist as the older literature once claimed.

Longhi – his tone now seeming gratuitously sexist – saw Artemisia as the “distinguished midwife” to the birth of the most glorious painterly expressions in Naples which would be carried out by Massimo Stanzione and by his best follower, Bernardo Cavallino, as they were painters who possessed “more complete and, by definition, more masculine pictorial intelligences”. This verdict is still worth considering because, while no one nowadays would think to credit it to their sex, it is certainly true that Stanzione and Cavallino composed their pictures with a fluency that Artemisia never possessed, and so in this respect they have usually – at least until the last couple of decades – been considered artists of a higher calibre.

However, it is partly because Artemisia never quite mastered Baroque composition that her paintings now appeal so much, now that we, in general, according to the prejudices of modern taste, prefer the more elemental constructions of Renaissance art. But there is more to it than that. Stanzione and Cavallino, for all their brilliance, seem to us only artists of their time, because neither of them conceived of a painting like Artemisia’s Cleopatra which sticks in the mind forever and adds to our own imagination. So perhaps it is this, in our final analysis, that we should take as the mark of her greatness.

Through Artemisia’s words you sense all the enthusiastic simplicity that infuses her paintings and makes them stand out

And when you read Artemisia’s letters for yourself, you soon understand why modern critics and scholars have tended to get so personally involved with – and defensive of – this one painter who lived and died so long ago. Through Artemisia’s words you sense all the enthusiastic simplicity – the natural grace, and the total lack of studied graces – that also infuses her paintings and makes them stand out. Her letters were written as she talked, so you almost hear the crude and casual cadence of her Roman accent down through the centuries. And then you too might fall for her, the woman who, according to various testimonies given at her trial, grew up standing at the window of her father’s studio. The defence witnesses were insinuating that she stood there coquettishly; but she might just have been dreaming of all the art, outside her father’s four walls, that she was still to discover.

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