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A Fuller Picture of Artemisia Gentileschi

The story of Susanna and the Elders, related in the Book of Daniel, was a popular subject for artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and no wonder. Susanna, a virtuous, beautiful young woman, is bathing in her garden while two older men spy on her. The men suddenly accost her and demand that she submit to rape; if she resists, they warn, they will ruin her reputation by claiming that they caught her with a lover. The tale offered painters an irresistible opportunity to replicate a similar kind of voyeurism. Tintoretto depicted the scene several times; in a version painted in the fifteen-fifties, which hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, he portrayed Susanna as serene and abstracted, towelling a raised foot and regarding herself in a mirror, unaware of a bald man who is concealed behind a rose trellis and peering between her parted thighs. In a treatment by Rubens from half a century later, on display at the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, Susanna is shown reaching for a shawl, realizing with horror that she has been exposed to two leering men. Sometimes the violence threatened against Susanna is indicated in the tableau: in a version by Ludovico Carracci that hangs in the National Gallery in London, one of the elders is tugging at Susanna’s robe, pulling it off her body. Giuseppe Cesari (known as Cavaliere d’Arpino) made a painting that enlists the viewer’s participation in the lasciviousness it represents: its naked subject looks almost seductively out from the canvas, coolly brushing her golden hair.

A very different Susanna is offered by Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593, and who painted the scene in 1610, when she was seventeen. In her version, two men emerge from behind a marble balustrade, violently interrupting Susanna’s ablutions. Her head and her body torque away from the onlookers as she raises a hand toward them, in what looks like ineffectual self-defense. Strikingly, her other hand shields her face. Perhaps this Susanna does not want the men to identify her or see her anguish; it’s equally likely that she does not want to lay eyes on her persecutors. In its composition, execution, and psychological insight, the painting is remarkably sophisticated for a girl in her teens. As the scholar Mary Garrard noted, in a 1989 appraisal titled “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art,” the painting represents an art-historical innovation: it is the first time in which sexual predation is depicted from the point of view of the predated. With this painting, and with many other works that followed, Artemisia claimed women’s resistance of sexual oppression as a legitimate subject of art.

As one of the first women to forge a successful career as a painter, Artemisia was celebrated internationally in her lifetime, but her reputation languished after her death. This was partly owing to fashion: her naturalistic mode of painting went out of style, in favor of a more classical approach. Seventeenth-century scholars barely mentioned her. When she registered, it was as a footnote to her father, Orazio Gentileschi, a well-regarded artist who specialized in the kind of historical and mythological scenes in vogue at the time. (Academics tend to refer to Artemisia by her first name, in order to distinguish her from her father.) Her work received little substantial critical attention until the early twentieth century, when Roberto Longhi, the Italian art historian, wrote a grudging assessment, calling her “the only woman in Italy who ever understood what painting was, both colors, impasto, and other essentials.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, Artemisia was reconsidered. A turning point was the inclusion of half a dozen of her works, among them the 1610 “Susanna and the Elders,” in a landmark survey, “Women Artists: 1550-1950”; curated by the art historians Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, it opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, later travelling to the Brooklyn Museum. Although individual works of Artemisia’s had been on view in museums, this was the first time they were seen as a group, their cumulative power recognized. In the years since, Artemisia has come to be counted among the most important Baroque artists, especially after a 2001 show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which explored her work alongside that of her father. This October, a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in London will bring together about thirty of her pieces, from museums and private collections across Europe and the United States.

Read entire article at The New Yorker