Heritage

More savage than Caravaggio: the woman who took revenge in oil

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Johnathan Jones for The Guardian

Two women are holding a man down on a bed. One presses her fist against his head, so he can’t raise it from the mattress, while her companion pins his torso in place. They are well-built with powerful arms but even so it takes their combined strength to keep their victim immobilised as one of them cuts through his throat with a gleaming sword. Blood spurts from deep red geysers as she saws. She won’t stop until his head is fully severed. Her victim’s eyes are wide open. He knows exactly what is happening to him.

The dying man is Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites in the Old Testament, and the young woman beheading him is Judith, his divinely appointed assassin. Yet at the same time he is also an Italian painter called Agostino Tassi, while the woman with the sword is Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted this. It is, effectively, a self-portrait.

Two big, blood-drenched paintings of Judith and Holofernes by Gentileschi survive, one in the Capodimonte in Naples, the other in the Uffizi in Florence. They are almost identical except for small details – in Naples Judith’s dress is blue, in Florence yellow – as if this image was a nightmare she kept having, the final act to a tragedy endlessly replaying in her head.

“This is the ring you gave me and these are your promises!” yelled Gentileschi as she was tortured in a Rome courtroom in 1612. Ropes were wrapped around her fingers and pulled tight. The judge had advised moderate use of the sibille, as this torture was called, for she was after all 18. Across the court sat the man who had raped her. No one thought of torturing him. Defiantly, Gentileschi told him her thumbscrews were the wedding ring he’d promised. Again and again, she repeated that her testimony about the rape was reliable: “It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true.”

Gentileschi was the greatest female artist of the baroque age and one of the most brilliant followers of the incendiary artist Caravaggio, whose terrifying painting of Judith and Holofernes influenced hers. She is one of the stars of Beyond Caravaggio, an epic survey of his rivals and disciples about to open at the National Gallery in London. With words and images, she fought back against the male violence that dominated the world she lived in.

Gentileschi achieved something so unlikely, so close to impossible, that she deserves to be one of the most famous artists in the world. It is not simply that she became a highly successful artist in an age when guilds and academies closed their doors to women. She also did what none of the other – rare – Renaissance and baroque women who made it as artists could manage: she communicated a powerful personal vision. Her paintings are self-evidently autobiographical. Like Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois or Tracey Emin, she put her life into her art.

And what a brutally damaged life it was. In the wild art world of Caravaggio’s Rome, artists were rich, arrogant and could do almost anything they liked so long as they stayed in the pope’s good books. Gentileschi must have met Caravaggio many times as a child: perhaps he even encouraged her to paint. Her father, Orazio, also a talented artist, was Caravaggio’s close friend. In 1603, Orazio and Caravaggio were up in court together after they scrawled libels about some enemy artist in the streets of Rome. In his evidence, Orazio casually mentioned Caravaggio coming round to his house to borrow a pair of angel wings.

This gives us a lovely snapshot of Gentileschi’s childhood: the great Caravaggio popping by for props. Born in 1593, she was 10 when that happened. When she was 13, disaster hit Caravaggio’s circle. He was always on the edge of danger – he carried a sword and was ready to use it – but in 1606 he killed a man who had friends at the papal court. He fled. Orazio and his daughter would never see their inspiration again.

Being the daughter of an artist was the only way a young woman could hope to learn the complex skills it took to paint professionally in the baroque age. It seems that Orazio had ambition for his daughter – after all, he gave her a striking, classical name. And as her skill developed, he hired an upcoming artist, Agostino Tassi, to give her lessons. Then, in 1612, Orazio accused Tassi of raping his daughter, as well as tricking her out of a painting from his studio.

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