Artemisia- Good Triumphs Over Evil

by Terry Hogan

We all learned that good triumphs over evil, or at least we were taught that when we were young. Recent events in the corporate world with CEOs and CFOs walking away with millions of dollars while employees and shares holders see their plans and hopes shattered probably make us reconsider these early teachings.

But then there is a story of a young, sheltered 17-year-old girl who was protected from the outside world by her father. White she was temporarily left in the trust of her father’s business associate, the trust was betrayed, and the daughter was cruelly raped. The father gave his associate the opportunity to marry the raped daughter, but the associate declined and the incident went to public trial. The trial lasted eight months. Testimony revealed that she tried to defend herself with a knife after fighting and scratching failed to deter his efforts. Three hundred pages of transcript record the cruel event and subsequent conviction of the rapist. Unfortunately, the rapist received a very mild sentence, and that was not fully imposed.

But the young girl was an artist, a painter. Her father, also a painter, had taught her. He recognized his daughter’s ability. Perhaps she put this horrifying experience behind her by incorporating it into her art. Some good, perhaps a lot of good, may have come from a terrible evil. It would be naïve and unjust to suggest that such an even would not "color" her perception of life.

Sound like a current event? Perhaps something from a tabloid? How about a story appearing in the May 2002 issue of the Smithsonian magazine? Further, what if the crime was committed on May 6, 1611? It is a story about Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of Orazio Gentileschi. Both are world famous artists of the 17th century. The transcript of the trial remains today.

More important than the transcript, paintings by the father and daughter also remain, including a self-portrait by Artemisia as a Lute Player. So we know what she looked like. We also can see a painting done by her in 1610, before the rape occurred. It is entitled "Susanna and the Elders". It is the first known painting done by Artemisia. It portrays a nude young woman, attempting to resist the advances of two old men, who not only appear lecherous, but may also appear to be drunk. Some believe that Artemisia used herself as a model fro the painting, relying upon her own reflection in a mirror. If so, we have another view of her, one of a subject matter that was soon to become real to her.

Without going into the details of what is known about her personal life, it can be summarized by saying it was as troublesome as her art was brilliant. During her life, she was a female artist in a male artist world. But she gained success and overcame many of the difficulties of being female in the early 1600s. Her painting skills reached, and arguably, passed, those of her father. Contemporary art experts disagree on the origin of some paintings- Atemisia’s, Orzaio’s, or a joint effort.

Today, Artemisia has become a high class, modern folk hero. Particularly, she has found a home with the feminists. Her talent is indisputable, but it goes beyond that. Her life is reflected in a recent novel entitled "The Passion of Artemisia" by Susan Vreeland. It was published in January 2002. There is even an off-Broadway play about Artemisia, entitled "Lapis Blue Blood Red.

Perhaps much of her current revival can be fairly attributed to her painting in 1602 of "Judith Slaying Holofernes". The art is remarkable. The treatment of light and the folds of red cloth are excellent. But if it were a contemporary movie, it would be rated "R" for violent content. The painting portrays Judith, with the help of her maidservant, cutting the head off of Holofernes (a man) with a large sword. Blood is running off the bed and Judith holds the head with her left hand as she cuts away at the neck with the right hand. The nearly severed head, twisted back off the edge of the bed, appears to be looking at the painting’s viewer. Drops of blood are splattered on Judith’s right breast, and on the arms of her female servant who is assisting in the attack. It is what you may call a "shocker" of a painting. There is, I believe, a sense of feminist identification with this early painter who went where no earlier female painter had gone. It is a painting that once viewed by a husband, may cause him to sleep a little light after having an argument with his wife. Of course, we have had a more contemporary case where a wife had cut off a portion of a man’s anatomy, more private than his head, but to my knowledge, it isn’t portrayed in a magnificent work of art (yet).

So why is this being written up in the Zephyr, you may reasonably ask. The answer is simple. Artemisia’s work, or at least a bunch of her paintings, can be seen at a special exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum until September 15. As a bonus, you can also see many paintings done by her father, Orazio Gentileschi. He taught her what he knew and her talent and experience took her from there.

The Saint Louis Arm Museum is worth the trip, independent of this special exhibit. Located on the grounds of the 1904 Worlds Fairs, and within walking distance of the famous Saint Louis Zoo, it is in a great spot. The Museum is free, but there is a charge for admission to the Orazio and Artemisia special exhibit ($10/adult). However, if you visit on a Friday, the exhibit is free, thanks to Ford. This is art that can be appreciated by anyone. The treatment of light, color, the folds of cloth with their shadowing, is better achieved than with a Nikon. Arrive on a Friday, and see it free. On Saturday, you can come back and hit the Zoo, also free. But don’t delay as this special exhibit "goes away" on September 15, and you can’t go somewhere else to see it. Only Rome, New York and Saint Louis have the honor of the exhibit, and the exhibit has toured in that order.

It is worth the trip to Saint Louis, Take your spouse or a loved one (a little humor). You could even lose your head over it (even less humor).

Additional Information

May O’Neill. "Artemisia’s Moment" published in the May 2002 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Pages 52-58.

Susan Vreeland. 2002. The Passion of Artemisia. (novel) (images of paintings)

Aug. 19, 2002