Friday, November 13, 2009

Quote of the Day (Artemisia Gentileschi, on Being a Female Artist in an Unsafe Time)

“I have made a solemn vow never to send my drawings because people have cheated me. In particular, just today I found...that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gata, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can't imagine it would have turned out this way.”—Painter Artemisia Gentileschi, letter to patron Don Antonio Ruffo, November 13, 1649, quoted in H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art, Sixth Edition (2001)

Fifty-six years old by this time, Artemisia Gentileschi (whose self-portrait is in the image accompanying this post) had arrived at a shrewd, hard-bitten appreciation for her work in the competitive world of post-Renaissance art. “By the grace of God and the Most Holy Virgin, they [clients] come to a woman with this kind of talent, that is, to vary the subjects in my painting; never has anyone found in my pictures any repetition of invention, not even of one hand,” she assured Ruffo, the patron toward the end of her life, in this same letter.

At the same time, the tribulations she endured for her art are only hinted at here. There’s a song from A Chorus Line called “What I Did for Love,” meaning love of the theater. Here’s what the Roman-born Gentileschi did—endured—for the love of her craft:

* Was rejected by art academies, even though her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was a painter himself.

* Was apprenticed to an artist who would allow her to study under him, Agostino Tassi, who happened to be a friend of her father’s. That association might, you might think, have given Orazio pause, since Agostino was a convicted rapist who had already served time in jail. It didn’t.
* Predictably, Agostino raped his student.
* Artemisia was forced to endure a public, seven-month trial in which she recounted the rape, then had to listen to testimony from a half-dozen Agostino witnesses who claimed that she was a whore and had posed as a nude model. (Artemisia had unknowingly anticipated the abuse she would endure with a painting produced two years before her ordeal, Susanna and the Elders, her visual retelling of the famous Biblical tale of a young woman whose unconscious sexuality excites the lusts and hypocrisy of her society.)
* But wait—as if this weren't enough, to make sure she wasn’t lying, the judicial procedure of the time required that cords of rope be tied around her hands and pulled tightly. This torture, of course, damaged her hands—rather important accessories for an artist, wouldn’t you say?—but she stuck to her story.

* After his conviction (practically pre-ordained, since he’d been caught out in one easily provable lie after another on the witness stand), Agostino was held in prison for only another eight months after the trial before being released by the judge.

* One month after the end of the trial, undoubtedly to salvage her reputation, Artemisia was married off. Though the marriage resulted in a daughter, it did not last, since future censuses listed Artemisia as “head of household.”

* Many artists of the time continued to mock her because of the trial and her work in a male-dominated profession.

* The manner of her death was not recorded—perhaps, according to art historian Charles Moffat, because she committed suicide.

* After her death in 1653, Artemisia tended either to have her achievements completely forgotten or have her best work misattributed to others, especially her father.

Nevertheless, Artemisia transmuted her suffering into art. A number of heroines in her religious paintings gain revenge on their male exploiters. (See especially Judith Beheading Holofernes.) Eventually, time has also increasingly vindicated her work, as feminism rediscovered and reclaimed her from obscurity. Thirty-four paintings now attributed to her survive.

One other painting has special meaning for me, because it depicts the patron saint of my parish: St. Cecilia. In contrast to the often violent imagery of the earlier work, this painting depicts the patron of music playing the organ. Perhaps the woman now acknowledged as the greatest female painter in Italy during her time saw in the Catholic martyr a sublime example of someone else transcending her pain through creativity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing about Artemisia.
Reincarnation of Artemisia.