Artemisia Gentileschi (b. 1593)
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, ca. 1615-1618
On view at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Artemisia Gentileschi, the greatest female painter of the 17th century, painted herself several times. But only three self- portraits have survived that are indisputably by her, and this is the only one where she appears as herself. (The others were presented as allegories.)
“Self-Portrait as a Lute Player” was discovered in a private European collection in 1998 and purchased by the venerable Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., in 2015. It was to feature this spring in an Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at London’s National Gallery, but the gallery was closed by the coronavirus pandemic before the show could open.
Gentileschi was trained by her father, Orazio. He was a friend and colleague of Caravaggio. Both father and daughter adopted Caravaggio’s “tenebrist” style: utmost physical realism within a stylized schema in which light picks out dramatic expressions and gestures from engulfing darkness.
The effect here is toned down — appropriately for the subject — but you can see here how limited patches of Artemisia’s face, neck and shoulders, bust, arms and fingers are vividly lit, while other parts of the painting — most arrestingly the entire right side of her face — are cast in shadow. The spotlighting effect lends the painter’s gaze a special charge of intimacy. To my eyes, it expresses wistful, frustrated yearning. She looks in love.
It’s possible she was. In 2011, a trove of letters was discovered, some written by Artemisia and some by her husband. They included love letters between Artemisia and a wealthy Florentine nobleman named Francesco Maringhi. Their affair appears to have begun in 1618; the date of this self-portrait is given as 1615-1618. So who knows?
Gentileschi’s costume, including the lovely blue with its fine gold embroidery, are characteristically Florentine. As an outsider, and especially a woman, Gentileschi had to fight to be recognized. By showing herself as an intelligent, cultivated artist in sumptuous local clothes, persuasively playing a lute, she was making a pitch: Employ me. I’m good. You won’t regret it.
Her willpower cannot be doubted. Evidence of it appears in a transcript from an infamous trial involving a teenage trauma that sticks to Gentileschi’s reputation even posthumously, coloring her forever as a victim.
In 1611, while working in Rome, Orazio asked a colleague, the painter Agostino Tassi, to tutor his daughter privately. She was 17. One day, drawing Artemisia in close to examine a painting, Tassi pushed her into a bedroom, threw her on the bed, covered her mouth and raped her. She resisted, scratching his face, even trying to knife him in the chest.
Afterward, to calm her, Tassi spoke of marriage and encouraged her to think of herself as his wife (for her, the only way out of her disgrace). Only when he reneged on his promise did Orazio take him to court.
The 1612 trial lasted seven months. Not only did Artemisia have to describe the assault; she also had the veracity of her account “put to the test” by a device called a sibille. As cords of metal and rope were gradually tightened around her fingers (a particularly cruel form of torture for a painter) she repeated her testimony.
“It’s true, it’s true, it’s true,” she said through her pain, at one point turning to Tassi and saying “This” — referring to the sibille — “is the ring that you give me, and these are your promises.”
She was believed. Tassi, a known criminal, was convicted. As a favorite of the Pope, though, he served little time, and thrived in his subsequent career. But so did Artemisia.