Powerful Women: Artemisia at the National Gallery

Jael Killing Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

You can’t avoid it. The eroticism in Baroque religious art. All those biblical stories, many of them from the dodgier apocryphal or non-canonical scriptures. Salome, Judith, Susannah – all the Biblical heroines reinterpreted as lubriciously as possible, sleekly rendered in supple oil.

They really appealed to Baroque painters and especially to the followers of Caravaggio. The greatest of them being Artemisia Gentileschi.

When I went, the gallery was full of women, all ages, staring intently at the work of one of the greatest painters of her age. The only really famous woman painter. And she was famous. Although Artemisia* was not written into the art history books until relatively recently in her time, as the National Gallery’s exhibition shows,  she was truly illustrious.

From the first examples, made when she was only 17 years old, it is clear that Artemisia not only knows how to paint, but that she understands human psychology. She can depict what people want to look at, but she does not just give the viewer what they want: she unsettles them and makes them think.

Sex AND violence.

There’s plenty of violence in art; all those battle scenes. More than enough sex, too. Fleshy odalisques spilling out all over the place. But Baroque painting has to be about something. Ostensibly it’s about God. The Church and its servants paid. The Counter-reformation needed lavish imagery, understanding that visual communication is at least as powerful as any number of protestant preachers. They filled the churches and public places with astonishing art, turning cities into graphic novels full of passion and perdition. Chiaroscuro: as dark as the Plutonic underworld, with shards of heavenly light as sharp and painful as knives.

And sex. The glistening torso, the sweaty upper lip, the heaviness of flesh that is lived in, powerful and capable of every deed imaginable. Even so, it’s not really that often that both sex and violence appear in one image, an image so overwhelming that when you stand in front of it, you feel shocked and almost faint. And the only one who’s ever able to do that completely and without compromise was Artemisia Gentileschi.

discomfort and rage

She made her mark with one particular recurring theme,  Susannah and the Elders. As young Susanna bathes in her garden, two dirty old men come over and tell her that if she doesn’t give in to their lustful desires, they will denounce her as an adulterer. The narrative is included in the Book of Daniel, considered apocryphal by Protestantism (which is probably why Catholic painters were so keen to paint it). It’s also a great subject if you want to stay within prescribed biblical subject matter but paint lots of flesh, leering, lust and so forth. Most of the time, it’s simply an excuse to paint Susanna in the nude – see Guido Reni – and in most depictions, Susannah does not appear terribly upset at being leered at and blackmailed.

Susannah and the Elders, 1610; Pommersfelden

Not Artemisia’s Susannah. In her paintings of the subject,  beginning with the very earliest version,  Susanna is terrified, horrified and visibly disgusted at the creepy attentions of the older men slavering over her. You get the impression that Artemisia felt Susanna’s outrage. As a young woman in Rome, unable to have much autonomy to walk around the city independently without being harassed, she probably did.

The key story often told about Artemisia is that she was raped by her father’s friend, the painter Agostino Tassi. Tassi was convicted for raping Artemisia and for breaking his promise to marry her after the rape was disclosed. It is a terrible story, but the big question is whether we should consider it when we look at the paintings. Can we assume that her paintings are powerful and depictions of females overpowering men because of her treatment at Tassi’s hands? I think that gives too much power to Tassi (who, according to the court documents, was just a pure *******). Every evidence (such as the Susannah, painted a year earlier) demonstrates that Artemisia was already a vigorous strong-minded painter fully capable of taking on the powerful subject matter.

two versions of Judith

how hard is it to cut a man’s head off?

In the National Gallery’s exhibition, the most striking paintings are the pair that depict the biblical story of Judith. Another non-Canonical text claimed by Catholicism and decried by Protestantism.  According to Jewish legend Judith seduced the enemy general Holofernes in his tent. She beheaded him with the help of her maid. It was a popular subject for Baroque painters and was painted by Caravaggio, though his version is not convincing. His Judith is cutting the head as if she is slicing a loaf of bread. Cranach the Elder painted her, as did Giorgione, Klimt, Johan Lis and even Goya, among many others. But Artemisia’s is by far the greatest.

Judith Slaying Holofernes; Uffizi

She made two versions, one Judith in a blue dress and one in a yellow dress. The yellow is the masterpiece.** The heroine puts all of her human energy into slicing into the neck, bearing down with all her physical strength on the windpipe to kill the strong, powerful general lying helplessly on the bed. His blood spurts up and spatters her face and dress, a cruel echo of the ejaculation he had been expecting when she entered his tent. She shows us exactly what it takes to sever the head of a living man. It’s an absolutely terrifying image, but as horrifying as it is, you can’t help but admire Judith. You don’t even have to have any sympathy for the biblical story to think, “wow, this is a woman with serious courage”. Another picture shows Judith and her maidservant hurrying away with the head in a basket, like a grisly picnic.

Another picture (top) depicts the killing of defeated general Sisera by Jael, another Hebrew heroine from the Bible. In this case the weapon is a tent peg and we see her raising her arm, about to bring it down upon the man’s head. It’s a less bloody image than the gore-spattered  Judith, with some hints of  titillating chastisement.

Artemisia is actually working in an artistic tradition,  “Power of Women” (Weibermacht), though she seems to be the only woman artist doing it. These images show very powerful women, usually Biblical, sometimes mythological, committing violence against men. You can see something of this in Cornelis van Haarlem’s Massacre Of The Innocents (1590) where women are fighting back.

Artemisia’s self portrait as a lute player

I love her self portraits the most. Her strong, clear gaze here in her Self Portrait as Saint Catherine, or as a Lute Player. And the most magnificent self-portrait of all time, the Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting. I saw it first at Hampton Court. I was not expecting to see it, and it shocked me and I wept with emotion. (I have permanent Stendhal Syndrome when it comes to great art)

Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting /La Pittura

Sure not everything Artemisia painted is sexy and violent.  She lived a long successful life and painted hundreds of thousands of portraits of the great and the good. She even worked in London for Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I). According to the National Gallery, there are plenty of undiscovered Artemisias just waiting to be brought into the light.

I look forward to seeing them, But there can never be anything else quite like Judith.

* Artemisia Gentileschi is often referred to as Artemisia to distinguish her from her father, Orazio Gentileschi; but like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, does she even need two names?

** Why is yellow the striking colour for a killer’s dress? Both Jael and Judith wear it.


The National Gallery, London. Until 24 January 2021