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Keeping up with Artemisia

3 April 2020

‘Artemisia’, the first exhibition to be dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi in the UK, was due to open at the National Gallery on 4 April. Its postponement in mid March, due to global travel restrictions caused by coronavirus (the gallery itself is now closed), led art critic Jonathan Jones to dub Artemisia the latest ‘cultural victim’ of the pandemic. But while the paintings, objects and letters I had so carefully selected for the exhibition are not yet able to make their journey to London, there is nothing to stop Artemisia enthusiasts from satisfying their hunger elsewhere.

Though the exhibition may not be open, the catalogue that was due to accompany it is already available – and it will hopefully whet people’s appetite for what’s to come. As well as containing detailed catalogue entries of every object in the show, this generously illustrated book includes essays on a wide variety of subjects by leading specialists in the field: Elizabeth Cropper surveys Artemisia’s life and career; Patrizia Cavazzini discusses Artemisia’s personal and artistic relationship with Orazio, her painter-father; Francesco Solinas reveals what we can learn about Artemisia through her letters; Sheila Barker gives an overview of Artemisia’s critical reception over the last 400 years; the National Gallery’s Head of Conservation, Larry Keith, thoughtfully examines Artemisia’s painting technique; and the present author looks at Artemisia’s representation of herself in her paintings.

And there is plenty else to delve into. Jonathan Jones’s highly readable Artemisia Gentileschi is the latest in the publisher Laurence King’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ series, and the first in the series to focus on an artist from the early modern period – Artemisia’s story is published alongside those of Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Tracey Emin, a line-up that underscores how relevant Artemisia is to contemporary audiences. Jones gives a lively account of her life and career, and his enthusiasm for her work permeates his writing: the descriptive passages on her paintings are especially evocative, and I recommend reading them with decent-sized images to hand (most of which can easily be found online).

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1613-14), Artemisia Gentileschi.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1613-14), Artemisia Gentileschi. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

In a different vein entirely, but no less absorbing, is Gina Siciliano’s graphic novel, I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi (2019). The product of seven years’ study and hard work, Siciliano’s retelling of Artemisia’s story – meticulously drawn in ballpoint pen – is as gripping as it is beautiful. I am not an avid reader of graphic novels, but I was particularly struck by Siciliano’s skill at interweaving Artemisia’s biography with the broader social, cultural and historical contexts of her time. Artemisia’s paintings feature throughout and almost all of the objects in the National Gallery exhibition are included (without the author’s prior knowledge of the loan selection). The visual power of Artemisia’s artworks is brilliantly conveyed, even in monochrome (despite writers frequently commenting on Artemisia’s bold use of colour). The novel is clearly intended to appeal to a younger audience – its publishers describe it as a ‘gripping graphic biography’ that ‘serves as an art history lesson and a coming-of age story’ – but this beautifully produced hardback volume will hang on to its place on my bookshelf for years to come.

Susanna and the Elders (1652), Artemisia Gentileschi.

Susanna and the Elders (1652), Artemisia Gentileschi. Photo: © Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna

If it’s an Artemisia audio fix that you’re after, you can listen to the journalist Bridget Kendall discuss the life and work of the artist with Mary Garrard, Jesse Locker, Patrizia Cavazzini and myself by downloading or streaming Artemisia Gentileschi: The painter who took on the men, a BBC World Service programme available as a podcast and via the BBC website. Also still available is Gentileschi’s Revenge, a personal exploration of Artemisia’s career and influence presented by the painter Caroline Walker. And for a shorter, reflective piece listen to the author Sarah Dunant on A Point of View encouraging us to visit the Artemisia exhibition in our minds.

The internet can also provide some recompense for not being able to experience Artemisia’s paintings at first hand. Websites such as Wikipedia, Web Gallery of Art and Artcyclopedia provide links to a number of Artemisia’s works, and with the availability of high-resolution zoomable images on Google Arts & Culture and on individual collections’ websites (including those of the National Gallery and the Royal Collection Trust, to name but two) you can easily familiarise yourself with Artemisia’s paintings around the world. For more animated online content, I highly recommend the conservation videos produced at the National Gallery in 2018 that track the cleaning, relining, retouching and framing of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (#NGArtemisia on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel). In this series of 14 short videos Larry Keith explains the steps that the gallery takes to restore its paintings; the popularity of such ‘behind the scenes’ content is attested by the videos’ 1.5 million views, by March 2020, across social media. You can also view the journey undertaken by Artemisia’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria in 2019, visiting a series of unusual and unexpected locations across the UK, which included a school in Newcastle, a GP surgery in Pocklington and a women’s prison in Surrey (‘Artemisia Visits’ via the National Gallery’s website or YouTube channel).

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1615–17), Artemisia Gentileschi. National Gallery, London

Last, but not least, you can watch Breach Theatre’s acclaimed dramatisation of the rape trial in 1612 that saw Agostino Tassi accused of ‘deflowering’ Artemisia, streamed online on the website of the Barbican (where the play was due to be staged). Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of viewing Artemisia’s remarkable paintings at close range. But there are plenty of resources available to those who wish to explore her life and work further, in anticipation of this extraordinary woman’s moment in the spotlight.

Letizia Treves is The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, London, and curator of the upcoming exhibition ‘Artemisia’.