Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art