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‘Artemisia’ at the National Gallery is violent, powerful and seriously brilliant Baroque painting

Art National Gallery , Trafalgar Square Until Sunday January 24 2021
‘Artemisia’ at the National Gallery is violent, powerful and seriously brilliant Baroque painting
Artemisia Gentileschi 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' (about 1615-17) © The National Gallery, London

Time Out says

Revenge is a dish best served cold, as the ancient proverb goes, and Baroque superstar Artemisia Gentileschi served it near freezing, over and over again. Delicious.

It’s a good story. Artemisia was the daughter of famed painter Orazio Gentileschi. She learned how to paint in his workshop before being apprenticed to Agostino Tassi, who raped her at the age of 17. Her father pressed charges, and young Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews during the trial to make sure she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and exiled, and Artemisia dedicated the rest of her life to painting men being beheaded by strong women, finding huge success in the process. Revenge.

It’s a modern feminist fable from the seventeenth century, and most of it’s true. The rape, trial and success all happened. But reducing Artemisia to ‘scorned woman who beheads men’ misses so much of her story, and ignores so much of her talent. 

So, yes, the show starts with two amazing visions of Judith slicing off Holofernes’s head. She’s dressed in aqua blue in one, searing yellow in the other. The lighting is all soap opera dramatism, big clashes of light and dark, and the faces are all stern, forceful determination. The later work, with Judith in yellow and blood spurting from Holofernes’s wound as she slices through his neck, is staggering.

And the rigid determination you see in Judith’s eyes appears over and over in this show. You can see it in Jael as she calmly but brutally hammers a massive nail into Sisera’s head, in Lucretia as she prepares to take her own life, and it’s in every self-portrait Artemisia painted. These are freight train women: figures with an unstoppable drive. 

But Artemisia’s later works – commissions for wealthy international patrons and churches – are just big, bold, brilliantly done, ambitious paintings. What you realise looking at the stumbling figure of Saint Januarius or the ludicrously luxurious fabrics of Ahasuerus is that Artemisia wasn’t just a woman, or just a painter of women, she was a painter. Full stop. And she could hold her own against most of the best of her era. 

There are some dud bits here – the crossed eyes of Saint Catherine, the muddiness of her ‘Judith and Her Maidservant’ compared to her father’s version nearby – but that’s okay. Because Artemisia wasn’t a fable, a myth, a good story to be used across the centuries. She was a painter. Just a painter, and that’s what we should be celebrating.


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