Daughter Knows Best

Head Games: Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and Her Maidservant (ca. 1618-19).Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652) is a larger-than-life figure. Not only does her biography read like an opera, but she has become the matron saint of woman artists in Western culture. While a young and beautiful virgin, she was raped by a friend of her father’s and had to endure the subsequent trial of the rapist. She circulated among the great figures of the period: Galileo was her friend. As a young painter, she became her artist father’s disciple and struggled to emerge from his shadow. Against almost insuperable odds, she made herself an important artist – centuries ahead of her time – addressing subjects that today reflect powerful feminist themes. No artist has created a stronger or more determined heroine than her Judith, who unflinchingly decapitates the enemy general Holofernes while blood spurts in jets over her dress. Artemisia Gentileschi makes such a perfect cultural symbol, in fact, that one suspects she might be overrated as an artist.

The current show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy, provides a wonderful opportunity to assess her achievement. Organized by Judith Mann of St. Louis, Rossella Vodret of Rome, and Keith Christiansen of New York, the exhibit contains 51 works by Orazio and 32 by Artemisia. For much of his early life, her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was a journeyman painter. Then he saw the light – in the form of Caravaggio’s dramatic chiaroscuro – and became one of that master’s most resourceful followers. Scholars and admirers of Baroque painting will enjoy studying Orazio’s work and sorting out the many interconnections between father and daughter. But modern interest will inevitably concentrate upon Artemisia. Does she transcend the influence of her father and her contemporaries? Can she sustain the weight of our expectations?

The answer is that she can and did in her best work. Although Artemisia was susceptible to the cross currents of her period – and sometimes seemed to drift in and out of focus as an artist – she created a number of astonishing pictures that went well beyond her father’s style and placed her in the front rank. What distinguished such work was its personal urgency: It looked necessary, not just talented. In that famous painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, she presented Judith and her maidservant pinning down the soldier much as a rapist renders a woman helpless. Yet the picture’s power stems from more than this role reversal and reflection of her own experience. It comes from a deeper determination, finally moral in character, to see violence clearly – to stare down the hard facts.

Her treatment of the visceral was achievement enough, but the great surprise for me was that Artemisia has such expressive range. Other versions she did of Judith and Holofernes have a completely different mood. The handsomely painted and composed Judith and Her Maidservant, for example, more quietly honored the strength of women who join together in a noble purpose. (Judith’s full-throated neck, which sings with life, offers a wonderful contrast to the head of the decapitated Holofernes.) And Artemisia was not interested only in warrior women. In her versions of Susanna and the Elders, she composed scenes of women as the victims of gloating men. She did not shy from painting the nude and understood that the subject had many dimensions; she created both idealized images of the female body and more realistic assertions of the facts of the flesh. Not least, this purveyor of dramatic images of female righteousness took a pensive interest in female guilt. Artemisia painted several pictures of the repentant Mary Magdalene, including one where she has fallen asleep after her labors over Christ’s body. Often, the women she depicted bore some resemblance to her. In Self-Portrait As a Lute Player, a painting of lush and shadowy harmonies of color, Artemisia presented herself as a sexy but melancholy woman who has seen so much: She arches a questioning eye at the world as her elegant fingers strum the lute.

Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through 5/12.

Daughter Knows Best