Gentileschi’s immense talent is often overshadowed by the story of her rape at the hands of her art tutor, and the subsequent trial that followed. Such cases rarely went to trial, and when they did, it was only when the victim was a virgin. As part of the proceedings, she was tortured with thumbscrews to test the veracity of her claims, and although her assailant was prosecuted, the sentence was never enforced.
Following the trial, Gentileschi’s paintings became fierce acts of rhetorical revenge. Not even Caravaggio’s violent biblical scenes could compare to the fury and strength of her version of Judith slaying Holofernes (1614–20). In a great many of her works, the female protagonist – whether saint or slayer – is portrayed, as strong and defiant, looking out of the canvas, directly at the viewer, unflinching. This was a world away from the the women in paintings by her male contemporaries.
In spring, 2020, the National Gallery is mounting an exhibition of Gentileschi’s paintings, the first monograph of her work to be staged in the UK. The show’s centrepiece will be her Self Portrait as the martyred Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615–17), acquired by the gallery in 2018 for £3.6 million. The painting is currently touring the UK, stopping off at some unusual places en route, including a girl’s school, a GP surgery and Glasgow’s Women’s Library. But when it arrives at its final home in London it will be accompanied by around 35 works loaned from collections around the world.
This exhibition is not to be missed. Artemisia achieved the near impossible, becoming a highly successful painter in the face of overwhelming odds. She was a formidable talent, who lent a woman’s perspective to man’s world.
|What||Artemisia, National Gallery|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|