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Monday, November 1, 2010

An Artist's Gender

In today's art world, it is common to think first of an artist's work, then the artist.  Finally, both may be discussed in trying to wring some universal truth or ironic curiosity from what the artist has rendered. The artist's gender is mentioned only in passing unless it is in some way critical to the work's larger cultural context. Today, it's not politically correct to think in terms of an artist's sex, either positively or negatively with regard to an artist's career or life's work.

However, it is difficult to contemplate the work of Artemisia Gentileschi without the necessity to also contemplate her as a woman. In fact, given the times in which she lived and the indignities she suffered because of her sex, we might even go so far to say it was unfortunate she was a woman. Yet in terms of originality and the technical qualities, her paintings stand up quite well next to those of Caravaggio, Agostino Tassi, and her father, Orazio Genteleschi. Moreover, until recently, many of her works were attributed to these men, and others who lived and worked during the first half of the seventeenth century. She was an artist admired for her work and yet detested for the fact that she dared compete and succeed in what was otherwise a completely male-dominated world where art was concerned.

Allegory of Painting
 (Self-portrait as La Pittura),
1638-39, Gentileschi
The details of Gentileschi's life read like something from a supermarket tabloid. But the details of her paintings read like an artist consumed by her work to a degree unmatched by few artists in any era. Born in 1593, her mother died when she was twelve. Raised by her father, a disciple of the dramatic, baroque, chiaroscuro work of Caravaggio, her paintings are evidence of a careful tutelage under her father's watchful eye. Later in life, because of their widespread travel and work all over Europe, they were very much responsible for spreading Caravaggio's style, making it international in scope. Though she at various times lived in Rome, Florence, and Naples, she and her father also painted for Charles I in England and Catherine Di Medici in Paris. And, unlike Caravaggio, a surprising number of her works still exist--some 34 pieces, spread over the forty or so years of her career.

Artemisia nearly always painted strong women from history or mythology yet there is nothing feminine about her work. (Ironically, today we might call it feminist.) Her Judith Decapitating Holofernes is probably one of the most gruesomely bloody works of art ever painted--far more so than Caravaggio's handling of the same subject some twenty years earlier. In addition to Judith, she also repeatedly painted such figures as Bathsheba, Cleopatra, and Lucretia. Perhaps her best work however is that of another very strong woman--herself. Her self-portrait, La Pittura, painted in 1638-39, shows her wielding a tiny brush in one hand, palette in the other, against the backdrop of a huge blank canvas, dramatic lighting on her face and bare bodice, eyes turned upward, intent on studying the source of her inspiration. It's design and execution make it one of the most expressive self-portraits ever. She died in 1653, her passing little noted except for two epitaphs, one calling her an adulterer, the other a nymphomaniac. Neither mentioned her work.

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