Artemisia Gentileschi has suffered the unkindest fate of all in a media age. She has grown more famous than her work. The heroine of more than one bad novel, she has provoked even art historians to re-imagine a pioneering woman artist.
A challenging retrospective tries to save her from the hyperactive imagination—but at the risk of snuffing out her own imagination, too. Scared of turning her into a starlet or feminist icon, the Met offers up the dutiful daughter and suitor to her patrons. I hardly know which I like least, the sexism behind the fears or the Met's tamer fiction.
Somehow, though, whatever the narrative, she produces the thrills—and commands respect. The eighty-five paintings by her and her father also offer striking insights into the course of European art.
Actually another Baroque artist got there first—if not into fiction, at least into stardom. As soon as Jan Vermeer's life became a best-seller, publishers wanted more just like it. Still, at least in fiction, the heroine of Girl with a Pearl Earring upstages Vermeer, the reticent painter of sunlit interiors and quiet revelations. Artemisia Gentileschi, in contrast, might seem to make the perfect star of a depressingly post-feminist romance, an ideal mix of victim, sexpot, and independent woman. On top of that, I imagine romance editors thinking, she looks pretty good even with too much flesh for today's fashions. Those who skipped a day on the Stairmaster can keep reading without feeling too guilty.
Forget the clichés: this tough artist and determined woman deserves the attention. Raped by her teacher, she turned right around and sued him. (Well, okay, she sued him for not marrying her, but this is seventeenth-century Italy.) Married in haste to a nonentity, she came to live on her own, supporting herself as an artist. I can name few women before her in art history—and none before or after as glorious.
Again and again, too, her themes attest to the compromises of a woman's life. They dare one to connect her art to her life—or to separate the two. Susanna cowers as the elders whisper to one another and leer. Judith slays Holofernes in full awareness of her own violence and in close female conspiracy with her maidservant. Cleopatra maintains the beauty of the nude but also the tragic nobility of a woman who would rather take her own life than compromise. A Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting places a woman at the very center of a humanist tradition.
And she paints boldly, even for a generation that created a whole tradition, the Baroque. Her figures move with the gravity, swiftness, atmosphere, and depth of color of a new art. As in the self-portraiture and the fleshiness, they also share a breakthrough generation's frankness. The Renaissance had put God's dignity into nature. Now painters worked right from ordinary models for scenes from the Bible. The sitters still look eerily recognizable, as their faces turn inward rather than nobly toward heaven—and as their bodies sag, writhe, and bleed.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art gives her the show she deserves, of nearly three dozen paintings from every phase of her career. At the same time, it tries an unusual tactic to rescue her from the romance. It treats her not as a rebel but as her father's daughter. Orazio Gentileschi, not half as well known either to the public or in art history, gets almost twice as much space and most of the praise for breaking ground.
Does it work? Not one bit. Like Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun in the eighteenth century, Artemisia learned from her father, but she makes her father look second best, and she still has a disquieting story to tell. The exhibition also promotes the curators' private thesis shamelessly and, I think, shamefully. Yet it makes a wonderful introduction to two fascinating artists and the birth of the Baroque.
Start, however, with what makes the show possible. One cannot imagine it without the father, in support of the wiles of the Met's Keith Christiansen. Along with Judith Mann of the Saint Louis Art Museum and Rossella Vodret in Rome, he built the coalition needed.
When I hear of an exhibition from art history, I expect just the few, often minor paintings that made it into American museums. Or I expect a minor master, like Valentin de Boulogne, a contemporary of Artemisia's that the Met chooses to elevate to a kind of fame. This time Europe loans freely. The little I missed—wall paintings or that Self-Portrait, now in the British royal family's private collection—cannot travel.
The father makes the show possible in a kinder way as well. One truly cannot conceive of the daughter's independence without him. The Met reproduces a fresco by Orazio, with early portraits of himself, Artemisia, and the rapist, who worked in his studio. If she took up painting, she did it there. If she became the first woman to earn a living with her art, it had to take steady pressure from the master, meaning him. If she sued, she did so not just with his blessing but also in his name, for only men had standing in court.
As an artist, too, Artemisia definitely built on her father. He belongs to the first wave of the Baroque, before Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He introduced her to Caravaggio, its greatest innovator and her greatest influence. Orazio even testified on the younger man's behalf in a libel suit. Caravaggio had a reputation for trouble at least since keeping his landlady up at night playing guitar outside her window. He was to spend much of his short life in court or on the run from violent brawls and a murder rap.
Can one read Artemisia's life into her work? One should first remember, argues the Met, that circle of artists and the demand it engendered for a style and subjects. Caravaggio himself, in a painting now lost, started the fashion for Susanna and the Elders. Most likely, Artemisia's first version of Judith is a straightforward copy of her father's. With several works, including one of Cleopatra, historians still argue over which of the two should get credit. With this show, one can decide for oneself.
Still, I see no getting around it. Like most people, I entered the show looking forward to her career. Like most, too, I left wishing that I could have reached it sooner, and I can understand why museum crowds have mostly headed instead for the Met's encounter with Surrealism. Yet Rome was not built in a day, and neither, around the turn of a century in Rome, was the Baroque. Together, Orazio and his daughter tell the story of what that took—and of all that it left behind.
The sixteenth century comes with a nasty warning label, Mannerism, a label that stuck even back then. In Italian, the Maniera sounds doubly dismissive. Besides overtones of mannered, it means simply a manner—the style of others. In other words, this art just copies the Renaissance without imagination, and when it tries for more, it gets worse. In the last century, however, art historians have had something else to say.
Starting as early as the 1920s, Arnold Hauser developed a "social history" of art. It saw the High Renaissance, with its shift to an ideal world, as already under pressure from religious and political upheavals. With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, things really got rough. No wonder one sees distended limbs from Parmigianino, oversexed ideal beauty, poetry as the art of love, and crowded scenes in which no one has a place to stand. Art loses even a center of attention, much less a nobility of human spirit.
In the 1950s, another German historian, Walter Friedlaender, gave this picture a personal, expressive side. He pointed to a first generation of Mannerism, in the 1520s. For artists then, the distorted poses, all but drugged expressions, and spaces like a hall of mirrors reflected a heartfelt gamble. And he named the end of the century, the birth of the Baroque, Anti-Mannerism, for its discovery of a human drama amid the chaos. At least one recent historian has sought to discard the very idea of Mannerism, and indeed artists such as Orazio—or Hendrick Goltzius up in Haarlem—consciously turned to the Renaissance for models and motifs while pushing its virtuosity to the limits. Yet the late Renaissance, even as a continuous narrative, will have to include real conflicts and disruptions.
Orazio Gentileschi, born in 1563, was a part of that discovery. Its origin, as more recent scholars have said, lies in a religious renewal. Ignatius of Loyola and others stressed an intimate relationship to God, helping artists find fresh respect for Leonardo's naturalism, the gravity of Michelangelo, and the darkness and artificial lights of some early Mannerism. In one of his first works, Orazio shows Saint Francis in the arms of angel, in the unforgettable pose of a dead Christ. A deathly pallor and an unclear relationship to foreground or background look old-fashioned, but a memory of the Renaissance had revived, and a transition had begun.
The Carraccis, two brothers and a cousin, play perhaps the first heroes in Friedlaender's narrative. About the same age as Orazio, among them they brought classicism, sweetness, and a touch of earthiness. Orazio learned from all that—although the Met's thesis makes his career no more than a struggle between Mannerism and Caravaggio. Colors grow lighter, landscapes more fully realized. A charming, close-up Madonna and Child looks back all the way to Raphael.
And then comes Caravaggio, a final wake-up call. His painting from models and greater drama enter such works of Orazio as a Mocking of Christ. One remembers the tormenters and even Jesus as individuals, and the rods of torture catch him as in a web. As an older artist, Orazio learns slowly, but he finally gets it. A late Annunciation, dated 1623, has the simple drama of Caravaggio's astounding Roman works from around 1600. As in Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin, painted in 1606 and now in the Louvre, light sweeps in from a high window, and the folds of lush, red drapery point down to the actors and to a special moment in time.
For that one moment, I can almost buy this exhibition. It comes too late. By then I could hardly overlook how much Orazio misses.
He misses Baroque depth and atmosphere. Figures have a hard-edge clarity of line, filled in with primaries almost like a coloring book. Caravaggio, in contrast, began in both underpainting and landscape with earth tones from his Lombard roots. These gave way to richer reds, purples, and greens—as a history of color points out, in entirely new mineral pigments.
He misses Baroque continuity of space. Backgrounds, when one can see them all, look all but interchangeable and two-dimensional. Tellingly, Caravaggio placed that high window out of the picture, suggesting a continuity of the seen and the unseen. Orazio, by comparison, has a stage set in place of a world.
Most of all, he misses Baroque drama and individualism. Caravaggio's unseen source of light invokes a miracle and his models a sense of terror. Orazio's tormenters may have posed for the occasion, but their placid expressions say little. An artist who replaces ideals with studio models may end up with amateur actors. Their rods only freeze the action in two dimensions and add to its rigidity.
A Holy Family shows Orazio at his best and worst. Caravaggio had immersed his cast in a woodland of surpassing warmth, its leaves gleaming with moisture. Orazio has a rather colder brightness and obvious backdrop, like painted stage scenery. Caravaggio brings figures together, too, into an organic pyramid projecting forward. Orazio's figures spread incoherently across the shallow stage. Mother and child sit contentedly to one side, while Joseph lies flat, well apart and parallel to the picture plane.
And Caravaggio had made them majestically human. His Joseph, though a mere mortal, shares in the joys and holds out a score, a sign of learning, for the music-making angel. Orazio's Joseph lies asleep, head thrown back, a little too rigid and a lot too limp. His pose may foretell Jesus's suffering and death, but even that bows all too clearly to traditional ideology. Certainly it returns Joseph to a drunk, a figure of fun. By the time Orazio fully catches on to the Baroque, I had had one too many in quite another way.
Orazio's clumsy, dogmatic side sure stands out next to his daughter. Her intense color, coherent spaces, sweeping forms, and freedom of drawing, leave him entirely behind. So do her taut dramas and personal connection to her characters' experience. No wonder she cries out loudly and clearly today through such artists as Anna Ostoya. Ironically for the Met's theme, the contrast is the exhibition's most lasting contribution.
Tellingly, her achievement comes with a distinct conception of women as heroines. As early as 1609, her Madonna and child reach around each other. Her father's figures try for tenderness, but they point every which way. Moreover, Artemisia's use of gestures shifts the painting's focus toward their intimacy—and away from Mary's exposed breast. In her father's version, that focus of religious doctrine—and male stares—sticks out like it hardly belongs to her anatomy.
Artemisia's Danaë, penetrated by Zeus in a shower of gold, shivers with excitement. Her father sticks Danaë's hand out. One can no longer tell if Danaë welcomes the advance or repels it. Either way, it reduces a mortal woman's sensual experience to clutching after money, in effect turning her into a whore.
Judith offers Artemisia her triumph—a theme she repeats often. Her father's version has avenger and servant poised in opposite directions. Maybe it intends a threat from all sides, but it diffuses the drama, leaving the women blank or helpless in confusion. Artemisia's women act in concert and very much at risk. They have a fluidity of motion that implies the power to act. And they represent the frightening vulnerability that comes with it.
They also show how much better than her father she grasped Caravaggio, who first showed not just the horror but also the sheer physical difficulty of killing anyone. Caravaggio, near the end of his short life, turns a slain Goliath into a self-portrait, giving hero and villain alike a disturbing moral ambiguity. His Judith, painted in 1598 and now in Rome, combines an uncanny focus with a deeply troubled expression. She can see the sheer enormity of the deed, and so can the viewer. Blood spurts from Holofernes, his outstretched arms pressed in agony and desperation against the sheets. His bulging eyes tell of pain.
Almost fifteen years after her first version, Artemisia brings the three figures still closer together to share in their moment of truth. Blood dribbles with implacable weight, and Judith's terrible determination dominates the scene more than ever before. Brilliant white sheets and a plush mattress set off the deed. They also offer a chilling reminder of how man and woman meet in a different kind of physical embrace. When, after another eight years, the painter copies her own treatment all but exactly, its tonal complexity only increases.
Caught up in a great painting, one can easily forget that Artemisia has injected the sexual hint into an old tale. Judith took her revenge not on a personal enemy, but on behalf of the Jewish people. The artist alone had undergone rape. Is one wrong to recall one life in facing the other?
Well before the novelizations, people have looked for artists in their work. Like Jackson Pollock, Artemisia's personality may well make it on film, but it does not take Hollywood to look for clues. Mary D. Garrard, in her volume on Artemisia, makes the feminist case admirably. She taught me to see Judith and her female servant as gaining strength from one another. From her I learned the self-portrait's confluence of humanism and an artist's self-possession. A woman is no longer muse but muser, and the artist is no longer craftswoman but part of a hallowed tradition of classicism and learning, able to compete with the greatest of the academies.
Obviously Christiansen is not buying. One senses that he does not quite get all the fuss about this painter anyway, when Orazio led the way. What romances people will read into art!
He is not alone either. An older, book-length study of Artemisia considers all the gossip an anachronism. R. Ward Bissell, the author, sees no place back then for feminist rebellion. Any painter had to please patrons—and male patrons at that. Much as the Met, a fine-arts institution, shifts the creative impulse from artist to fine-art tradition, Bissell shifts it from artist to viewer.
The Met supports his interpretation. Take just one example from the show here. Another version of Susanna, from a British estate, blunts the men's brutal pursuit, defines their shadows less, exposes the young woman's flesh more, and gives her a more submissive, upward gaze. Did Artemisia really paint it?
The catalog agrees that one cannot trust the old estate documents in support of the claim. It also admits to a style and subject matter unusual for her. That just shows, it concludes, how she could adjust to the demands of buyers. Whether Artemisia's father, Caravaggio's dominance, or the market, somehow men still take charge. (To keep father and daughter straight, I have had to refer to a woman artist by first name, not without feeling that I, too, have condescended to her.)
Christiansen has been pushing his case for a long time now. Orazio hardly registers even on the map of many art historians, but not on his. Over fifteen years ago, in a show on the origins of the Baroque, he included four of the man's paintings and just one of Artemisia's. Long, tendentious wall labels here deride those who disagree, especially feminists, and the catalog tries only slightly for more balance. Those who know better may feel hit over the head with a sledgehammer. Alas, most museum visitors, expecting honest help, may never know what hit them.
I do not wish to deny the stifling sexism of past ages. I do not wish to ignore the limits that it placed on any artist, especially a woman. I just do not wish to sustain it in the present. Patrons have always had power, as in the increasingly institutional art market of today. I just do not wish to patronize an artist even further.
Take that catalog entry for the British Susanna, with which Bissell himself disagrees. It reminds me why often obscure, scholarly debates over attribution matter to anyone interested in art. By looking to the evidence, by learning who did what, one discovers their vision and their inconsistent successes. One is learning to see.
In this case, by dismissing both documentation and style, the Met is instead refusing to see. It does not suggest what could serve to disprove the attribution. At the very least, it could have claimed that she tried for her usual style and made a lousy painting. Artists do, you know. Or it could have connected her Self-Portrait, with its admiration for tradition, as part of the conservative nature of art institutions. Feminism, too, attests to conflicts, ironies, and risk.
Instead, the artist and whatever it takes to make her body of work vanish. No doubt any interpretation is a fiction, but the best ones lack pat endings. The Met's amounts to another romance with a cardboard heroine. It patronizes art more than the demands of the market ever could. It forgets what artists did have to contribute.
The avant-garde has to wait for Modernism, but thoroughly modern questions about ideology, rebellion, and authenticity haunted art long ago. Renaissance artists brought alive their own heartfelt belief, even as they conformed to the requirements of religious art. The Baroque then reflected divisions within the community of believers. It brought confusion, too, of an artist's career with the circumstances of a life. Early Baroque artists made a close-knit, controversial, violently divided circle. Think of that libel suit.
Nor should one think of patrons in the abstract, like some monolithic spirit of their age. Caravaggio had his greatest impact when he painted Roman churches on commission. However, he still saw more than one of those canvases rejected. On top of that, the rejected canvases then got snapped up by eager buyers. When it comes to ensuring buyers, the worst Whitney Biennial today has more clout than the establishment back then.
Painters took risks in their best work because they cared, and that risk came with bitter rejections and often-surprising triumphs. Artemisia ran a risk all her life. It may explain why, like Caravaggio, she ended her career in the south of Italy. Had she made her male patrons up north uneasy after all?
The turn south gives this twin retrospective an anticlimax. She kept growing, no doubt. The Spanish empire exposed her to fresh influences. Her late work uses thin, dark glazes. They show the influence of Spanish Baroque artists in the tradition of Titian, such as Jusepe de Ribera. Still, all too often, heavier poses, drabber lighting, and more conventional stories take over.
I see a false opposition between art's conventions and an artist's intentions. One cannot identify the latter with the work or separate them. Art and life never fold into a tidy unity—but then neither does art or a life. One cannot turn art or life into Enlightenment theater without unleashing a revolution. One may not avoid fictions about artists after all. But as artist and woman, Artemisia insists that the strangest, most honest stories carry the most weight.
Art-historical periods do not make for tidy niches. The Baroque did not simply turn back on older travesties and ideals. Mannerism had already introduced those great diagonals. For Pieter Bruegel, they meant the immersion of nobility and peasants alike into the cycle of life and the seasons. With the Baroque, people and the space that they inhabit had a fresh say.
Ironically, the idea of a revolution in art had already begun. The Renaissance, in its very name, claims to turn back, in rejection of the preceding generation toward a greater age. It made for yet another powerful romance. And yet I left the Met not with a straight line, from father to daughter, or even with two distinct acts in a drama, but with intricately overlapping arcs. One arc told of a Baroque unfolding not with Caravaggio's lightning bolt, but in wave after wave over the course of two lifetimes. Another told of the great but often unhappy course of a woman's life.
The Met sees Orazio as an older man groping to deal with Caravaggio. It thus assimilates the father to a daughter's preoccupation—and her greatness. It never lets on about other waves. Then again, maybe it took her to show her father what Caravaggio was all about and not the other way around. Whether in his beautiful Annunciation or the show's final room, Artemisia may get the last word after all.
"Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy" ran through May 12, 2002, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.