Recently, the National Gallery announced that it had bought a rare work by the seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi for the record sum of £3.6m. Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615) is a striking image of female resilience created at a time when the idea of a woman reaching the artistic ability of Caravaggio or Titian was unthinkable. Staring out with a look of unshakeable determination, one muscular arm grasping a shattered spiked wheel whilst the other delicately lifts an ear of corn, Gentileschi’s arresting self-portrait is a forgotten masterpiece of the late Italian Renaissance.
Though a striking work in itself, the real power of Self Portrait as Saint Catherine comes from the story behind it. Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1590, the daughter of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. She was tutored by her father and, despite cultural taboos against women holding professions, found that painting came naturally to her. By her mid-teens Gentileschi was well on the way to following in Orazio’s footsteps as a professional artist.
It was during her training that Gentileschi underwent an experience that would radically alter both her artistic style and approach to life. Orazio hired a young painter named Agostino Tassi to help tutor his daughter, believing that once she grew old enough she would marry Tassi. However, Tassi soon began to harass his young apprentice, a pattern of behaviour that culminated in him raping the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi.
Horrendous as this experience was for Gentileschi, the response from both her family and the Roman authorities only worsened her suffering. Orazio largely ignored the fact that his daughter had been raped, convincing himself that her honour would be ‘restored’ once she married her rapist. He only sued Tassi nine months later, after Tassi called off the engagement and stole one of Orazio’s paintings.
The case was well documented. Tassi, being both male and a favourite of Pope Innocent X, was viewed by the public as a roguish character; an ill-mannered but ultimately forgivable rascal. Gentileschi, by contrast, was publically interrogated over whether or not she had been a virgin at the time the rape took place (Tassi could only be considered guilty if she had been).
The real power of Self Portrait as Saint Catherine comes from the story behind it.
As well as undergoing a humiliating gynaecological examination, Gentileschi was tortured in court by having her thumbs crushed with screws. Despite the pain she continued to state that her testimony was true. The court eventually swung in her favour, finding Tassi guilty of rape and numerous other crimes before giving him the reasonably light sentence of banishment from Rome.
Although her name was now muddied by scandal, Gentileschi continued to paint, eventually becoming the first female member of the prestigious Florentine Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. She would go on to produce a vast body of works and accept commissions from both the Medici of Florence and King Charles I of England. By the time of her death in 1656, Gentileschi was considered an equal of Caravaggio.
Yet for all her success, Gentileschi’s artwork remained closely linked to the violence she had suffered as a teenager. She identified with strong but victimised female characters, often painting herself in the title role. Perhaps her most famous example is Judith slaying Holofernes (c.1614-20), which depicts the biblical Judith sawing off the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whilst her maidservant pins him down. A gory and intensely physical work, Judith slaying Holofernes is considered by critics to be a clear portrayal of Gentileschi’s anger at both Tassi’s assault and the feeble response of the male authorities.
Gentileschi did not limit herself to biblical scenes. In Mother and Child (painted in 1612, the year after the trial), she portrays the horror of sexual violence through a hideously distorted image of maternal suffering. Here Gentileschi subverts the artistic trope of the mother breast-feeding her baby by showing the infant as having savagely bitten the mother’s breast. Most frightening of all is the baby itself. Despite its infant body it clearly has the face of an adult male, complete with thick black hair and sideburns. The monstrous child is almost certainly Agostino Tassi.
This deeper consideration of Gentileschi’s work brings us back to Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Here she presents the viewer with the broken spiked wheel: the Roman torture instrument which Saint Catherine is said to have destroyed with her touch. This symbolises both the physical and mental pain inflicted upon the artist, as well as her perseverance. Her stern gaze and powerful arms add to Gentileschi’s vision of personal strength, attributes rarely associated with women at the time.
“The purchase of Self Portrait as Saint Catherine may also signal a move towards greater representation of female painters”
The National Gallery’s decision to buy the painting represents a significant step towards the rehabilitation of Gentileschi’s work. After her death she was largely forgotten, with historians only gradually rediscovering her paintings in the early twentieth century. It was not until the development of feminist criticism in the 1970s that the sexual violence suffered by Gentileschi was linked to her work, with many commentators expanding on the themes of female solidarity and personal independence that appear throughout both Gentileschi’s art and life.
On a broader scale, the purchase of Self Portrait as Saint Catherine may also signal a move towards greater representation of female painters in public art. Gentileschi’s portrait is only the twenty-first painting in the National Gallery (out of 2,300) to have been produced by a woman. European art history is full of women whose talents easily matched and often outclassed their male peers but received little posthumous attention. Names like Lavinia Fontana, Mary Beale and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun remain virtually unknown beyond intellectual circles, despite the quality and quantity of what they produced.
There is some hope that the purchase of Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will set the wheels in motion to include more female artists in the National Gallery’s collection. A stunningly executed work, it holds the artistic power and historical significance to inspire a shift in favour of broader gender representation in visual culture.
Twenty-one paintings is a small step, but a step nonetheless.
Featured image courtesy of @NationalGallery via Twitter. First article image courtesy of David Short (image license here), second article image courtesy of virtusincertus (image licence here) via Flickr.
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