Artemisia breathes life into London’s art scene

Only now, 400 years after Artemisia Gentileschi was revered by her peers, is the National Gallery hosting Britain’s first ever major exhibition of her work.

Art is back just in time for a nation greedy for both escapism and a way of seeing sense of this difficult time…

Trafalgar Square, normally bustling with tourists clambering over the statues, is empty. Covent Garden, where shoppers and street entertainers used to vie for space, is quiet. Bollards have been put up to manage crowds that simply aren’t there. Going into the centre of London is a surreal and rather depressing experience. I even miss the numpties who dared to stand on the wrong side of the tube escalator.

But the capital must not be written off. The green shoots of recovery are tentatively appearing, even in the sprawling concrete urban mass that is my home city. We might still be in the middle of the pandemic, uncertain of how much worse things are going to get, economic disaster might be on the horizon, but the arts have returned.

Until now, I never thought I could genuinely crave culture. I’m not some sort of maven, always at new gallery openings or with the hottest theatre tickets. But I think I am not the only one who has felt starved of something different; something which isn’t living in the ever-depressing now, staring at my own four walls silently screaming.

The theatres are still struggling to open – The Mousetrap’s plans to be back at the end of this month have been put back – while film companies aren’t yet ready to put their big releases, which need huge box office takings, into the cinemas.

But art, easily socially distanced, is back just in time for a nation greedy for both escapism and a way of seeing sense of this difficult time. Art won’t be the answer to our fears, its not going to solve anything, but it is the brain equivalent of drinking a hot chocolate on a cold day. It is soothing.

And thankfully this month there is lots of it. On Friday, I saw the opening of a show which is both pure dramatic escapism and brings to the fore the story of a painter unlike any other. For a start she is that rare beast in the world of painting; a woman. But she is also one who endured rape, a public trial in which she was tortured, marriage to a man she didn’t love, the death of her children and a reputation which brought her from Italy to the court of Charles I.

Only now, 400 years after Artemisia Gentileschi was revered by her peers, is the National Gallery hosting Britain’s first ever major exhibition of her work. And it’s replete not only with her stunning art – including the Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria which the gallery bought two years ago for £3.6million – but personal letters to her lover detailing the pain of the death of her children, portraits of her by fellow painters, and the transcript for the seven-month trial in which she was tortured as a way of proving she was not lying about rape.

‘We were really determined to show not only her art but also what she was like as woman and how she overcame convention,’ says Letizia Treves, who has curated the exhibition. ‘She poured all of her experiences as a woman into her art and by doing that she was able to give an almost unique perspective which became her calling card.’

Artemisia was born in 1593 in Rome. Her mother died when she was just 12 and she had to raise her three younger brothers. Her father Orazio Gentileschi was a renowned painter and he encouraged Artemisia to also work as his assistant as well as his pupil. Her father had determined that she should be a nun until he realised her prodigious talent. He admitted that she had, ‘become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer.’

So, he asked fellow artist Agostino Tassi to teach her more painting skills. But Tassi raped her instead.

In those times rape was far from uncommon and young women who had been attacked were forced to marry their rapists as a way of ‘saving’ their reputation. But when it emerged that Tassi was already married, Orazio took his former friend to court for the ‘deflowering’ of his daughter.

A very public seven-month trial in 1610 ensued. Not only did Artemisia have to describe her assault in detail in front of her rapist but she also agreed to undergo a form of torture called sibille, a process in which ropes were tied to her fingers and tightened progressively. This was a common practice to divine whether witnesses were telling the truth.

After being found guilty, Tassi was sentenced to five years in prison but never served time. Artemisia, meanwhile was married off to Pierantonio Stiattesi, who was related to her lawyer – possibly as a way of paying off legal fees – and left Rome for Florence.

Even before the court case had started, Artemisia had already painted the stunning Susanna and the Elders (also in the exhibition) depicting the Hebrew woman who was watched bathing in her garden by two lustful elders. In Artemisia’s picture the emphasis is on Susanna’s obvious distress, not the anticipated pleasure of the villains as usually evoked by male painters. The two men aren’t just peeping Toms, but are trying to touch Susanna too. The threat is ominous.

Once in Florence she started on a series of paintings about an Israelite murderess called Judith, who beheaded an army commander to save her city. The dramatic series established her reputation in Florence where she was soon able to set up her own studio, became a favourite of the ruling Medici family and the first woman to be made a member of the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disengo, following in the footsteps of Michelangelo and Vasari.

It was while she was in Florence that she began a passionate love affair with a wealthy Florentine nobleman called Francesco Maria Maringhi. Astonishing love letters from Artemisia were discovered within Maringhi’s family vault just nine years ago and they will be displayed, and transcribed, for the first time in Britain for the exhibition.

‘They’ve never been seen before in this country,’ says Letizia. ‘There is one where she’s tenderly addressing her lover and it’s a very, very sweet letter. In another one she writes about her huge pain after her little boy died. She talks about being ‘ripped apart’ by grief – she’s totally distraught and you can see that in the messy way that letter has been written.

‘In another letter she criticizes her lover because she’s heard that he’s been with other women. You get this huge sense of her passion. Even seeing her hand writing is extraordinary. Because she is completely self-taught her letters are full of bad spelling mistakes and grammatical errors but they feel extraordinarily spontaneous.’

By the 1630s her reputation among art lovers meant she was a celebrity. But she never had enough money and was always looking for new patrons. Great Britain’s Charles I, who already employed her father, started collecting her work and was determined to bring her to England.

Artemisia stayed in England for two years, leaving just before the civil war. There are tantalising clues about several works of art she made while she was in the country which have never been discovered. After she leaves London, the trail of Artemisia runs surprisingly cold.

For several centuries, the heavily dramatic Baroque art movement was deemed unfashionable and Artemisia was forgotten. She was rediscovered afresh by the feminist movement in the 1970s and now, post MeToo she is back in vogue with a play about her rape trial achieving critical acclaim in 2018 and now, finally, this huge retrospective. It has already been given five stars in a Guardian review and is likely to be the hottest ticket in a new winter season of exhibitions which also include the opening of the Royal Academy’s Summer (now Winter) exhibition and also the Frieze art fair which starts later this month.

While commerce and money are what have always driven London to its great heights, the cultural life elevated it to one of the greatest places in the world. It is still there: you just need to know where to look.

  • Artemisia is now showing at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery
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Nicole Lampert

Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist. A former showbusiness editor of the Daily Mail, she is also a best selling ghost writer, and now specialises in entertainment and opinion pieces. You can see her work in the Daily Mail, Drama Quarterly, Haaretz, The Spectator, The Independent, The Jewish Chronicle and Glamour.

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