London’s National Gallery acquires painting by Artemisia Gentileschi
A recently discovered, rare self-portrait by the most celebrated female artist of the Italian Baroque – Artemisia Gentileschi – has been acquired by the National Gallery, London.
Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, an oil painting from about 1615–17, will undergo conservation treatment before going on display in early 2019.
Hannah Rothschild CBE, who in 2015 became the first woman to chair the National Gallery Board of Trustees, says:
“The acquisition of this great painting by Artemisia Gentileschi realises a long-held dream of increasing the National Gallery’s collection of paintings by important women artists. Gentileschi was a pioneer, a master storyteller, and one of the most progressive and expressive painters of the period. One of a handful of women who was able to shatter the confines of her time, she overcame extreme personal difficulties to succeed in the art of painting. This picture will help us transform how we collect, exhibit and tell the story of women artists throughout history.”
The £3.6 million acquisition has been made possible thanks to the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust, Art Fund (through the legacy of Sir Denis Mahon), Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, and Hannah Rothschild CBE, and other donors including those who wish to remain anonymous. The conservation of the painting has been made possible with Art Fund support.
Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most accomplished painters among the followers of Caravaggio, whom she must have known personally through her father Orazio. In an era when female artists were not easily accepted, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence and she had a truly international clientele, including the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Charles I of England, and Philip IV of Spain.
Artemisia faced challenges in both her professional and personal life: famously, she was raped by painter Agostino Tassi and was subjected to gruelling questioning and physical torture during the trial that ensued. Her biography has long overshadowed her artistic achievements, but she is now recognised as one of the most talented painters of her generation.
Of the sixty or so paintings attributed to Artemisia, the majority feature a strong female heroine as the main protagonist. Many of Artemisia’s paintings have been read as autobiographical and there is no doubt that her personal identity is closely intertwined with her artistic production. This is especially true of the paintings she produced in Florence (where she lived 1612–20), in which she repeatedly used her own image; perhaps as a vehicle for self-promotion (much as Rembrandt did in the Netherlands).
The tightly cropped composition of ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ shows a female figure turning towards the viewer. A halo is visible just above her head, indicating that she is a saint. Her left hand rests on the top of a broken spiked wheel; the symbol associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian saint martyred in the early 4th century AD. Sentenced to death by the Emperor Maxentius, Catherine was bound to revolving wheels studded with iron spikes and nails. She escaped this instrument of torture through heavenly intervention but was later beheaded.
The only two other known easel paintings in this country by Artemisia Gentileschi are ‘Susannah and the Elders’ in the Burghley House Collection, Stamford (which was recently on display in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition), and her ‘Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)’ in the Royal Collection.
Letizia Treves, The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century paintings at the National Gallery say:
“Artemisia is without question one of the most celebrated painters of her time, and we have long wished to acquire a painting by her for the national collection. The fact that this is a self-portrait adds enormously to the painting’s appeal and art historical significance. We are fortunate to have one of the strongest collections of Italian Baroque paintings but, with the exception of Caravaggio, no Italian artist of the 17th century surpasses Artemisia in terms of fame and popular appeal. Following conservation treatment and reframing Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will find a natural home alongside other works by Italian Baroque painters, including Caravaggio and Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi.”
National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, says:
“The National Gallery’s remit covers Western European painting from around 1250 to 1900. However, for a great deal of this period women were largely denied the same opportunities that were afforded to men. Therefore, works by women artists of this time are very rare compared to works by male artists, and our collection reflects that historical fact. However, although it is far more difficult for us to purchase great works by women artists, the National Gallery regularly works with women artists for its exhibitions and other programmes – most recently with Tacita Dean. We have more exciting plans for the future that we will be announcing over the coming months.”
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on 8 July 1593, the only daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. She began her artistic training with her father in 1608–9, and her earliest dated painting is from 1610. The following year an event took place that changed the course of Artemisia’s life and shaped her reputation, not just in her own times but in the centuries which followed: she was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi, a collaborator of her father’s.
An infamous seven-month trial followed, during which Artemisia was subjected to gruelling questioning and torture – every word of this case survives in a detailed court transcript that shines light on the lives of artists in the early 17th century. Tassi was condemned to choose between a punishment of five years’ hard labour or banishment from Rome (he opted for the latter, though this was never enforced). Artemisia was swiftly married off to a minor Florentine painter, Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and left Rome for Florence.
Artemisia lived in Florence from 1612 to 1620, and it is from this period that Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria dates. Although her reputation must have preceded her arrival, Artemisia was clearly appreciated in Florence and her stay there marks an important phase in her personal and artistic development. Her paintings were both commissioned and acquired by members of the ruling Medici family. In 1620 Artemisia returned to Rome, beset by creditors after running up debts, and remained there for 10 years. By 1630 she had settled in Naples, where she ran a successful studio. In 1639 she travelled to London, to assist her ailing father Orazio in painting the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich. By 1640 she had returned to Naples, where she remained until her death in or shortly after 1654.
Although Artemisia was greatly admired during her lifetime – with her works being avidly collected by the leading rulers of the day (including Cosimo II de’ Medici in Florence, Philip IV in Madrid, and Charles I in London), she was only really reappraised in the 20th century. Today Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most important female artists of the Baroque period and she continues to inspire novels, films, and documentaries.