Meet art's queen of violent emotion

Artemisia Gentileschi learned how to paint from her father, Orazio

she learned pain from her own life. The combination was combustible.


March 03, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

NEW YORK -- Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, the father and daughter team of 17th-century Baroque Italy, both painted big, splashy pictures of Bible scenes that look as if they could have come straight off the set of some Hollywood epic filmed in vivid Technicolor hues.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the Gentileschis are enjoying a moment of dizzy celebrity these days, a result of the major exhibition of their works that opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show, which brings together more than 80 paintings -- 50 by the father, 32 by the daughter -- runs through May 12.

But the buzz is only partly due to the fact that Orazio (1563-1639) and Artemisia (1593-1652) were both ardent artistic followers of Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio (1571-1610), the incorrigible scamp, street brawler and painter of genius who in the early 1600s revolutionized European art with a shocking new sense of realism.

Orazio and Artemisia not only talked Caravaggio's talk, they also walked the walk.

By all accounts an impecunious and surly man, Orazio was a third-rate painter working in a stilted, late Mannerist style when he first saw Caravaggio's paintings in Rome in 1600.

The experience transformed him. Not only did Orazio set about remaking his art according to Caravaggio's ideas of drawing from live models in realistic settings, he also joined the younger artist's inner circle, which included small-time criminals, pimps and prostitutes as well as other artists, and became its champion.

Orazio's devotion to the Caravaggist lowlifes helped change the course of European art; he became one of the artists most identified with the Baroque era's heady blend of social realism, theatrical gestures and brilliant stage lighting. But the father's attachments also had fateful consequences for his daughter, Artemisia, his most brilliant pupil, who from an early age demonstrated a miraculously prodigious talent for her father's trade.

A symbol for feminists

In the first decade of the 17th century, Orazio's pictures in the new realist style attracted a number of rich patrons, one of whom commissioned him and Agostino Tassi, a specialist in perspective, to paint a series of juicy frescos of female musicians.

While working on the project, Tassi, a competent painter but a scoundrel and a knave, used his access to the Gentileschi household to rape his partner's 15-year-old daughter. A celebrated trial that ensued vindicated Artemisia's honor but also enveloped her in an aura of notoriety that clung to her for the rest of her life.

Artemisia's story has been told in books, a play and a movie. She has become something of a feminist symbol, both because of her pioneering role as a professional artist at a time when women were viewed as little more than property, and because of the shocking facts of her biography, which fit neatly into present-day feminist critiques of male subjugation and sexual violence.

In her own time, everything Artemisia painted was seen in terms of her femaleness, and to an extent, this is still the case today. Whatever else Artemisia may have been, she has been enlisted into the ranks of the women's movement as a proto-feminist who fought back against an oppressive, male-dominated society with the only weapon she had -- her art.

Certainly there is evidence for this view; one need only cite how differently father and daughter portrayed similar subjects to realize that Artemisia's art was powerfully shaped by her experience of being a woman and that she was able to convey that experience with unprecedented intensity and directness.

Both father and daughter, for example, executed major paintings based on the story of Judith and Holofernes, which appears in the Apocrypha and which relates how the Jewish widow Judith saved her people from an enemy army commanded by the Assyrian general Holofernes.

According to tradition, Judith, dressed in her finery, went to Holofernes' camp at night with her maidservant, Abra, and dazzled the general with her beauty. Holofernes then invited her to feast in his tent, where he drank himself into a stupor; when he was helpless, Judith took his sword and cut off his head. Judith and Abra then escaped, their deed having turned the tide of the battle.

Orazio painted his Judith and Her Maidservant in 1608-9. It is a beautifully colored, theatrically lit canvas that portrays the immediate aftermath of the slaying. As Abra holds the basket in which Holofernes' severed head rests, Judith, still clutching the general's sword in her right hand, reaches out with her left hand to steady her servant's shoulder as the two women reconnoiter their escape.

Orazio's painting has a formality and decorousness -- really, a sense of contrivance -- that belie its violent subject. By contrast, Arte-misia's Judith Slaying Holofernes, painted in 1620, catches the action at its peak, at the moment Judith accomplishes her bloody deed.

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