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Artemisia Gentileschi: woman, mother, painter, heroine

A new National Gallery exhibition in London, supported by Intesa Sanpaolo, explores the work of a 17th-century painter long overdue celebration.

Rhiannon Edwards

19/11/2020

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In a version of the Bible story of Judith Beheading Holofernes, currently hanging in London’s National Gallery, the heroine is depicted dramatically poised over the general – while in the gory act of beheading him – as her maid holds him down.

“If you look closely, with one hand she’s holding his hair, and you can even see the tufts through her fingers, and with the other you really feel the force of the sword,” says Letizia Treves, curator at the National Gallery. “It’s denting into his muscular arm… it’s all about the physical struggle of this moment, it’s so vivid.”

The painting, part of a new show at the National Gallery, stands out for another reason: its maker was a woman.

Like Judith, Gentileschi was something of a heroine herself. Trained by her father among brothers who had automatic advantages over her, she managed to develop as an accomplished painter even though she was barely allowed to leave the house.

 

Left

Artemisia Gentileschi
Saint Januarius taming the lion and the bear in the amphitheatre at Pozzuoli, about 1635-37
Oil on canvas, 308 × 206 × 4 cm
Cathedral Basilica San Procolo, Diocese of Pozzuoli, Naples
© ph. courtesy of the owner

Right

Artemisia Gentileschi
Susannah and the Elders, 1622
Oil on canvas, 161.5 × 123 cm
The Burghley House Collection
© The Burghley House Collection

She was raped at 17. During the trial that followed she was subjected to ‘judicial torture’ in order to prove she was telling the truth. She gave birth to five children in five years, just as she was establishing her career as a painter. She lost four of them in infancy, but her daughter Prudentia went on to be a painter too.

In spite of all this, Gentileschi managed to become highly successful across Europe, attracting patrons including Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain. She wasn’t just a great female painter, but one of the best painters and storytellers of her time.

“If you look closely, with one hand she’s holding his hair, and you can even see the tufts through her fingers, and with the other you really feel the force of the sword”
Letizia Treves, curator at the National Gallery

The Judith and Holofernes depiction is one of two made by Gentileschi that sit side-by-side in the London show. The first iteration, usually housed in Naples, was painted in Rome, soon after her horrific attack. The other, later variant was created in Florence, possibly as a showpiece for none other than Cosimo de’ Medici – the most famous Italian patron of the arts in history.

Left

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith beheading Holofernes, about 1612-13
Oil on canvas, 158.8 × 125.5 cm
Napoli, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte (Q378)
© ph. Luciano Romano / Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte 2016

Right

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith beheading Holofernes, about 1613-14
Oil on canvas, 199 × 162.5 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
© Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi

Intesa Sanpaolo is sponsoring Artemisia at the National Gallery as part of its “Progetto Cultura” initiative, which represents the bank’s deep and long-standing commitment to protecting and preserving Italy’s arts, culture and heritage at home and abroad.

“Progetto Cultura is one of the most ambitious arts and cultural programmes established by a financial institution worldwide and has become increasingly international,” says Laurence Aliquot, Director of Promotion, Marketing and Cultural Partnerships at Intesa Sanpaolo.

 

Listen to the podcast to hear art critic Alastair Smart, Letizia Treves and Laurence Aliquot discuss highlights from Artemisia, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK.

“Progetto Cultura is one of the most ambitious arts and cultural programmes established by a financial institution worldwide and has become increasingly international”
Laurence Aliquot, Director of Promotion, Marketing and Cultural Partnerships at Intesa Sanpaolo
Proceedings of Agostino Tassi’s trial for the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi
Manuscript, about 1612-13

Tribunale del governatore_Processi_sec XVII_104, f.341v.-f.342r.
© Archivio di Stato di Roma

The National Gallery is closed from Wednesday 4 November until 2 December due to lockdown restrictions. The Artemisia exhibition is then open until January 24, 2021.

COVER
Artemisia Gentileschi
Self Portrait as a Lute Player, about 1615-18
Oil on canvas, 77.5 × 71.8 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Charles H. Schwartz Endowment Fund (2014.4.1)
© Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

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