All Hail the Renaissance of Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” c. 1612 (Public domain)

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Baroque masterpieces are all about the women. More specifically, they show women in action, actively asserting female agency and defying the alternately lecherous, murderous and feckless men surrounding them. Even in paintings lacking a male presence—for example, the 1615-17 “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” which finds the artist clasping a broken torture wheel as she offers viewers a defiant side-long stare—the subversion of gender norms is readily apparent, emblazoned on the very fabric of Gentileschi’s stunningly realistic, proto-feminist creations.

It’s no wonder, then, that Gentileschi has enjoyed a resurgence of attention as of late, with 2018 emerging as a particular highlight of this 21st-century renaissance. In July, London’s National Gallery purchased the aforementioned self-portrait for £3.6 million (roughly $4.7 million USD), setting a record for the artist and upping the museum’s measly collection of works by women to a grand total of 21 pieces. Conservation and restoration of the canvas took around five months, but as Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria” finally made its triumphant public debut.

Deemed a “Christmas present for the nation,” the Gentileschi painting, which went on view Wednesday, is scheduled to visit “unusual and unexpected” venues across the United Kingdom from March 2019 onward and headline a major 2020 exhibition featuring an anticipated 35 works by the Baroque Old Master.

Although much of the discussion surrounding Gentileschi and her prescient self-portrait has focused on the canvas’ landmark purchase price and its attendant implications for the representation of women in art, there may be a darker side to the National Gallery’s headline-making acquisition: As Javier Pes writes for artnet News, the museum has added the painting to a list of artifacts potentially looted by the Nazis during World War II.

Trustee meeting minutes obtained by artnet reveal concerns regarding documentation of the work’s provenance during the 1930s and ’40s. A Frenchman named Charles Marie Boudeville left the portrait to his teenage son upon his death in the early 1940s, but it’s unclear how he originally came into possession of it. In fact, Pes explains, the gap in provenance dates back as far as the time of the painting’s creation, making it difficult for scholars to trace the work’s journey from Gentileschi’s Florentine workshop to 20th-century France.

According to a spokesperson from the National Gallery, the museum has strong evidence to suggest the portrait was not purchased by Boudeville—a man of few means who showed no other signs of an aptitude for art—but rather inherited prior to 1933, when Nazi looting began in earnest.

Art historian and lost art expert Noah Charney tells artnet that the purchase of such a shadowy work by an institution of the gallery’s stature is “highly unusual and problematic.” Still, he adds that a lack of documentation does not necessarily make an object plundered art.

“Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria” initially arrived on the market in December 2017, when Paris-based auctioneer Christophe Joron Derem sold it to London dealer Robilant + Voena for the then-record price of €2.4 million (around $2.7 million USD). In July 2018, the National Gallery announced its record-breaking (again) purchase of what the Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, describes as a “spellbinding record of [Gentileschi’s] pain and courage.”

Jones writes that the canvas appears to act as a “direct allusion” to the artist’s infamous 1612 rape trial, which found the 18-year-old Gentileschi’s father, fellow painter Orazio Gentileschi, accusing his daughter’s art teacher, Agostino Tassi, of sexually assaulting her. (As Sarah Cascone explains for artnet News, women were barred from pressing rape charges at the time, so Orazio acted on Gentileschi’s behalf, detailing the decline in “bartering value” inflicted by her loss of virginity.)

Over the course of the seven-month trial, Gentileschi offered heart-wrenching testimony of her ordeal, even undergoing brutal torture to prove the reliability of her account. Jones describes this courtroom travesty in a separate Guardian article, writing that the judge approved “moderate use of the sibille,” or metal rings tightened around the fingers by strings. Despite this torture, the artist repeatedly declared, “It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true.”

The rapist—despite being found guilty—was never punished. Instead, it was Gentileschi who was left to cope with the scars, both physical and emotional, of her torture. This trauma is reflected in the artist’s portrayals of Old Testament villain Holofernes and his assassin, a young woman named Judith: Two versions of the scene survive —astonishingly brutal, they feature a determined Judith sawing through Holofernes’ gaping, bloody neck—and, as Jones notes, could very well double as renderings of Gentileschi enacting revenge on Tassi. While Gentileschi was functionally illiterate, scholars have suggested she used her artwork to relay her story—and, in this case, as Jones observes, even paint herself a new fate.

The Saint Catherine self-portrait, in comparison, is a more subtle meditation on its creator’s past, drawing on the iconography of the broken Catherine wheel to symbolize “suffering overcome … [and] violence endured.” But if you look into Gentileschi’s eyes, you’ll see steel staring back. As the artist herself once proclaimed, “You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman.”

(Smithsonian.com, December 21, 2018)


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