A recent acquisition by the National Gallery in London provides an exciting addition to the gallery’s collection of Italian baroque paintings. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a work of about 1615–17, is currently undergoing conservation treatment at the gallery. The acquisition promises to enhance the growing understanding and popularity of this painter, who has benefited in the past quarter-century or so from a sizeable number of fine scholarly publications and exhibitions.
Today Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–after 1654), daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, is the best-known woman artist of 17th-century Italy. During her own lifetime, although she did succeed in establishing a reputation and earning public commissions, she seems to have been far less appreciated, not receiving full biographical treatment by any Italian writers for a century after her death. She was born in Rome, a city that was not particularly notable for its receptivity to women artists. Some 24 women painters are recorded there during the 17th century, but most of them were quite obscure and are known today in no extant works. The art historian Patrizia Cavazzini has suggested that Roman painters did not often train their daughters to be artists, making Gentileschi also one of the few Roman women of the period to receive professional training from her father.
Roman reluctance towards women artists partially explains the discrepancy with Bologna, a much smaller city but one that offered many more opportunities to its women artists, who numbered at least 44 during the 17th century. Bolognese women such as Elisabetta Sirani (1638–65), who was also the daughter of a painter, benefited from the unprecedented enthusiasm of local biographers such as Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who in his Felsina pittrice of 1678 celebrated talented local women artists such as Sirani as one of the distinguishing features of Bolognese culture.
Despite a number of writers who wrote artistic biographies in Rome during the seicento, none of them matched Malvasia’s enthusiasm for gifted women artists. Giovanni Pietro Bellori included no women at all amongst his 12 artistic biographies in 1672; and other biographers, such as Giulio Mancini, Giovanni Baglione, and Giovanni Battista Passeri devoted relatively little attention even to the remarkable Artemisia Gentileschi. Although Jesse Locker has recently uncovered a trove of poetry from the late 18th century that celebrates the artist’s accomplishments, it is sobering to realise how limited such praise was for a century after her death.
Artemisia Gentileschi is also unusual in other respects. The only female follower of Caravaggio, as Mary Garrard first observed in 1989, Gentileschi assimilated many of Caravaggio’s methods of painting, including the practice of painting the figure directly from life and employing a dramatic sense of action and tenebrist lighting in many of her pictures. Her facial features have also been identified in a sizeable number of her paintings, some more plausibly than others, raising questions about just how often women artists such as Gentileschi chose to incorporate self-portraits into their works.
Since women artists were unusual – even in seicento Bologna, female painters constituted only about 12 per cent of all practicing painters in the city – it is not really surprising that many women artists produced more self-portraits than their male contemporaries. Female self-portraits had been popular as self-promotional devices in Italy since Sofonisba Anguissola initiated the practice during the mid 16th century. In acquiring a painting that both depicted a woman artist and was painted by that woman, collectors could obtain a dual curiosity. And during the 17th century, when the possibilities for approaching self-portraiture were becoming increasingly diversified, historicised self-portraits such as Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria enabled artists to combine the popular genre of self-portraiture with the intellectual imprimatur of history painting.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria enriches the painting collection of the National Gallery in several respects. In addition to adding a fine example of a great artist’s work, it augments a very small group of paintings by women artists and an even smaller collection of pictures by 17th-century women artists. At least one of this latter group is famous, an engaging genre painting by Judith Leyster; others, such as a signed still-life painting by the otherwise unknown Marie Blancour, are considerably less familiar. It is to be hoped that the Gentileschi acquisition will help to bring attention to this portion of the collection, as well as encouraging future expansion in this area.
Babette Bohn, professor of art history at Texas Christian University, recently completed a book on the women artists of Bologna.