Reflections on the Exhibit at Museo di Roma, Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Times

/ by Diane Joy Charney

Museo di Roma, 30 November – 7 May 2017


This is a quiz: What would you imagine to be the proper treatment of an 18-year-old rape victim?


A. Encouragement to speak out and denounce her attacker?

B. Heavy torture during her testimony in court?

C. Light torture because of her tender age?


The correct answer is C, limited to thumbscrews, but more about that later.


Perhaps I should have added that the guilty rapist had been hired by the girl's father to give her art lessons. I started to use the word "victim" in the previous sentence, but to call Artemisia a victim does not seem accurate. A woman ahead of her time in terms of feistiness and artistic ambition, Gentileschi went on to produce a muscular, impressive body of work that is, until May 7, being admired in Rome by visitors to the Palazzo Braschi.


I had heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, but it was from Jonathan Jones' review in The Guardian that I learned more about her personal story. Rape, torture, and public humiliation are not the first things one thinks of in connection with an exhibit devoted to the work of a woman artist, but Jones makes a convincing argument for the influence of these on the art that Gentileschi produced. While the phrase, "One must suffer for art" may well be true, it seems especially relevant in the case of this artist.


With time for only one Rome art exhibit before heading back to my university teaching post in the States, I had been torn between this exhibit and one at the French Academy celebrating "350 Years of Creativity: The Artists of the French Academy from Louis XIV to the Present." As a lifelong Francophile who lives in Italy when not teaching French or writing, I often feel like a traitor to France. And in this case, I once again found myself embracing la dolce vita instead of La Belle France. But enough preamble. Did I make the right choice today?

That question is not as easy to answer as "Would I want any of the paintings I saw today on my living room wall?" There was only one I would have liked to take home with me--a petite, delicate drawing Artemisia did in 1613 of herself as a young woman. Most of the other large, dramatic canvases by her and her contemporaries seem to revel in violence and sharp pointed objects. An exception is the large canvas by Simon Vouet,"Circumcision," where the artist chose to focus on the Christ child, and not to display the knife about to do the deed.

I found myself frustrated by the vagueness of much of the exhibit’s accompanying commentary. Although I had gleaned earlier that Artemisia's father stood behind her in the rape trial and in other aspects of her life and education, the curators allude to her return to Rome "where she would again have to deal with the fractious and what we now understand to have been a violent relationship with her father and brothers." I wanted to know more about this confusing situation, but perhaps more reliable information is not available. (I have read many conflicting stories about this artist’s life). Or maybe the curators, realizing that even the most dedicated museumgoers find it difficult to resist the distraction of salacious gossip, want to keep the viewer focused on the art itself?


And on the subject of distractions, while it was interesting to be able to see the work of Artemisia's contemporaries alongside that of her own, I found it hard to maintain my focus on her. It's true that the exhibit is called Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Times. But because she was so protean in what she produced while under the influence of various mentors, it was difficult for this viewer to gain a coherent sense of her own style.


She was trained in the style of her father, painter Orazio Gentileschi, whose work reflected the academic style, as taught at the Carracci Academy in Bologna, the leading painting school of the time. While in that vein, Orazio's paintings display more shadow and realism than Raphael's.  But also influential in the art of father and daughter were Caravaggio’s hyper-realism and theatrically-dramatic use of chiaroscuro, the play of light emerging from darkness, and the choice to depict the most dramatic, dynamic moment in a story. The Caravaggio influence can be seen most clearly in Artemisia’s later works, like her famous "Judith and Holofernes," inspired by Caravaggio’s work of the same title.


To return to the earlier question of whether the choice to devote the day to this exhibit was the right one, the answer is a qualified "yes." And the show will be "candy" for lovers of dramatic subjects like Lucretia's suicide, David and Goliath, Jael hammering a spike into the head of the sleeping Sisera, the Rape of Proserpina, Marsyas flayed by Apollo, and Cleopatra cuddling the asp to her exposed nipple. Fans of Judith beheading the head of Holofernes, however, have a special treat in store: the multiple depictions of this bloody event enjoy pride of place in this exhibit.


To end on a personal note, I have a hobby of writing letters to men of letters, and have written a book of that title in which some of these letters are collected. It doesn't matter that most of these men are no longer physically with us. They are always with me, and we have much to discuss. After seeing the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit, however, I have a sequel in mind to be called “Letters to Women of Arts and Letters.” I think Artemisia just may be my first recipient. In fact, here’s what such a letter might look like.


Dear Artemisia,

I have just seen your work on display at the Museo di Roma in an exhibit that was devoted not only to you, but also to the male artists of your time. There was actually no need to include the adjective "male," because when it came to female artists of the period, you were in a class by yourself.


I hope you don't mind if at this point I indulge in a bit of nostalgic time travel. Since you were born in 1593, what I am about to describe concerning the restrictions on women may come as a surprise, but I am not making it up. As an obedient baby boomer who attended college in the 60s, I never challenged the quaint restrictions to which we coeds were subject. In America, it was a time of parietal rules implemented by universities who saw it as their mission not only to educate us, but to act in loco parentis to protect our virtue (or perhaps themselves from law suits, should our presumed virginal selves come under attack.)


To this end, we observed the curfews set for us, and the rule that during the limited hours we were allowed to have male visitors, the door to our room had to remain open the width of a book. Of course the more clever "rebels" decided that a slender matchbook was, indeed, a book, and proceeded accordingly. The more emboldened also staged panty raids during which we girls were supposed to throw our underwear out the window in their direction. (The extent of my own rebelliousness was to wonder why I would throw good underwear out a window.) To spend a night away from school required a signed invitation from our hostess, who presumably would monitor and enforce rules like the aforementioned. Those were the days!


Perhaps it is because of this background that I have always been drawn to resourceful, pioneering women artists who had the talent and wherewithal to challenge successfully the status quo. Vaguely aware of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles you faced--you were of course excluded from traditional artistic training and apprenticeship--I was shocked to learn more details on the subject.


There were other barriers to your acceptance. Among the personal trials YOU had to endure during the trial of the man who raped you were invasive gynecological examinations (to determine whether you were a recent virgin or a distant one), and the "light torture" of thumbscrews during your testimony to test your honesty. That the accused rapist's past included incest with his sister-in-law and his plan to kill his wife did not stand in the way of his getting the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for what you testified that he did to you. And he gets to call you "an insatiable whore"! Furthermore, although it at first appeared that your father was standing by you, a closer look reveals that the priority was always the family honor.


Last year I wrote the review, "Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun and the Art of Seduction."It was of the New York Metropolitan Museum's exhibit devoted to the work of this 18th-century portraitist who, unlike most of those she painted, managed to keep her head on her shoulders during the French Revolution. Although a bit skeptical of her sincerity, I found her work easy to love, as did the clients of her flattering portraits.


I am still trying to get a handle on how I feel about your work. While I cannot help but admire what you achieved at a time when the deck was so stacked against women artists, I had a hard time discerning your own style as it evolved under the influence of your various mentors.


It is tempting to view your depictions of traditional Bible stories and myths as the revenge art of a wronged woman; however, that interpretation may do you a disservice. It is impossible to say how your body of work might have been different if you hadn't had to face the hurdles that you did. That you were a "quick study" is evident from the staggering strides you made from the young artist who painted this exhibit's staid, amateurish version of Judith slaying Holofernes to the later version of the subject by your increasingly accomplished self. If viewed side by side, it would be difficult to believe these two paintings were done by the same hand.


I also found it hard to believe that the same hand was behind my favorite piece of the exhibit – –a winsome drawing of yourself as a young woman.

Everything I saw in this exhibit attests to your being a woman of many parts. Another question comes to mind: Without you, would the seductive power of an Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun have even been possible?


Thank you for pushing this viewer to consider questions like this.

Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.