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University of Chicago Press
The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People

The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People

by Mieke Bal


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 One of the first female artists to achieve recognition in her own time, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) became instantly popular in the 1970s when feminist art historians “discovered” her and argued vehemently for a place for her in the canon of Italian baroque painters. Featured alongside her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Artemisia has continued to stir interest—though her position in the canon remains precarious, in part because her sensationalized life history has overshadowed her art.
In The Artemisia Files, Mieke Bal and a distinguished group of contributors look squarely at this early icon of feminist art history and the question of her status as an artist. Here, Artemisia emerges more fully as a highly original artist whose work is greater than the sum of the events that have traditionally defined her life and reputation, such as her relationship to her father and her role as the victim in a highly publicized rape case during which she was tortured into giving evidence. The six essays in The Artemisia Files offer a new critical assessment of Artemisia’s work by devising a variety of approaches that amend past injustices and reconsider the artist and her work from many different angles, including the question of attribution, critical judgment, personal confrontation, Artemisia’s historical context, the exhibition of her work, and popular recastings of her story. The fresh, engaging discourse in The Artemisia Files will help to both revive the reputation of this artist on the merit of her work and establish her rightful place in the history of art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226035826
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/15/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 245
Sales rank: 99,065
Product dimensions: 7.84(w) x 5.24(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Mieke Bal is academy professor in the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and cofounder of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Her previous books include Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis; Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History; and Louise Bourgeois’ Spider: The Architecture of Art-Writing, the last two published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03581-9


Mary D. Garrard

Art historians who are normally careful connoisseurs seem to crumble at the alleged sight of Artemisia's face. The Portrait of a Female Martyr (fig. 1) is one of several paintings that have recently been attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi and identified as images of the artist herself. Another is the Portrait of a Woman Playing a Lute found at the Villa Medici at Artimino (fig. 2), presented in the 2001-2 exhibition entitled Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy and its catalogue as a self-portrait of the artist (Christiansen and Mann 2001). These two works are very different in style, however, and the faces somewhat divergent in physiognomy. The very possibility of recognizing Artemisia's image in a painting, it appears, must trump serious considerations of style and other factors crucial in the practice of attribution.

We may reasonably ask whether there are quite so many self-portraits and self-images as have been claimed. The compulsion to identify Artemisia herself in every woman's face she painted, despite the lack of consistency among the faces in these images, may well be influenced by gendered preconceptions. One is the cultural habit of seeing woman as object-to-be-looked-at, the site of scopophilic pleasure. A preoccupation with the female body in these terms led many early modern writers to fixate upon women artists as objects of beauty rather than as active agents, a way of thinking that has by no means disappeared in today's world. A related gender stereotype, female narcissism, lurks behind the suggestion that the young Artemisia, locked in a claustrophobic Roman household, became obsessed with her own features and painted them repeatedly. This was recently proposed by one art historian (Cavazzini 2001, 291). Such gendered assumptions are all the more dangerous when unacknowledged, because they silently buttress attributions presented as value-neutral and thus affect the defining of Artemisia's oeuvre and artistic identity.

As a way of challenging certain recent attributions on grounds that might help establish broader criteria, I propose that we turn away from faces, and look at hands, which have been an unexamined aspect of Artemisia's distinctive style. It is a tenet of traditional connoisseurship that the depiction of hands can be an identifying trait of an artistic "hand." Giovanni Morelli and Bernard Berenson argued that the hand ranked somewhere below the eyes and mouth in revealing the descriptive habits of individual artists. These connoisseurs focused, however, on the static details of fingernails, wrinkles, or the shape of a thumb. Max Friedländer, another eminent connoisseur, more astutely observed that "the hand speaks more through its movement than through its shape" (Berenson 1902, 134-36; Friedländer 1942; Vaccaro 1996, 148). Indeed, the hand speaks both through its movement and shape, but we in the twenty-first century are positioned to take this consideration further, for hands in art are shaped and move according to a variety of social preconceptions.

Like faces, hands have a gender dimension. They are the locus of agency, both literally and symbolically. In the early modern period, when the only female agency that signified was located in the womb, it is not surprising that some female artists, as if to compensate, depicted female characters with unusually strong forearms and firm hands, whose agility and grip express the women's power to act upon the world. Artemisia, above all, gives us such figures. It is through their hands that Artemisia's women take on the world and confront adversity. Looking at the Uffizi Judith (see fig. 24), we fixate upon the bloody decapitation, achieved with surgical skill by two coolly detached women, but we rarely comment on those supremely competent hands, wrists, and forearms that carry out the determined minds' command. In Artemisia's world, female figures hammer and paint, grab and hold, push and shove, with extraordinary ease. Their hands and arms are exceptionally strong, more than adequate for the job to be done. Lucretia, for instance (fig. 3), clutches both breast and sword with an anxious energy that doubles the tension shown in her face. The midwives in the Birth of St. John the Baptist (fig. 4) barely have faces, but they all have powerful forearms that move the basins around the space as capably as they got that baby born.

Perhaps the most capable hands in all of Artemisia's oeuvre are those of Abra in the Detroit Judith (fig. 5). These large, strong hands lead us into the picture at its base, the viewer's point of entry into this large painting, establishing the theme of female power to be amplified above. Gently but firmly, and with an ease that bespeaks self-confidence, Abra's hands close the sack around the ashen head, indifferent to the blood that stains their fingers. Our eyes are led from Abra's hands through her arms and gaze, upward, to the most dramatic display of gestural rhetoric in Artemisia's art. Judith's flamboyant gestures are dramatic, but also subtle. With her right hand, she claims authority, gripping Holofernes's sword with unusual determination. The angle of her wrist echoes that of the defeated general's empty gauntlet on the table, as if to mock his loss of power and flaunt her gain of it. Judith's left hand sweeps expansively across her body, impelled by the blade-like curve of her shadowed arm; her flat palm rises rhetorically into strong light to shout, "Stop, I hear something." This arresting gesture dramatizes, not the women's power, but their vulnerability. It's a visual cry of alarm at a moment of danger.

Hand movements that sustain divergent aspects of the narrative are to be seen in other works by Artemisia. Lucretia, for instance, weighs her decision and its consequences through contradictory gestures: the raised left hand that holds the dagger introduces the dismal prospect of suicide, while the right hand that clutches her breast and palpates the nipple recalls the ongoing biological cycle about to be interrupted by the drastic action that patriarchal morality requires. And look again at Susanna and the Elders (see fig. 17) as a narrative completely mimed in the movements of the six hands clustered at upper center. Through gesture, the elders express male bonding, conspiracy, and silencing, while Susanna's two-handed gesture conveys her intimidation and desire to escape. Yet these hands do more, for while the resisting right hand next to the twisted head conveys Susanna's fear and aversion, her left hand springs upright, relieving the torsion and compression of the head and right hand, and hinting at a resurgence of will and autonomy that the story in fact doesn't allow.

* * *

Artemisia's women exert pressure with their hands. Their fingers grasp objects firmly and make a fist. They have full rotary motion in the wrist, and their wrists break backward to show the strain of exertion, just as men's wrists do. If, as seems likely, Artemisia modeled Judith's hand in the Naples and Uffizi pictures (see figs. 22 and 24) on the male figures in Orazio's Crowning with Thorns, this proved to be an effective strategy for empowering her women. For, more than anything, it's the breaking wrist that convincingly signifies both agility and agency, words linked by their common root, agere-to set in motion, to drive, construct or build. Orazio treats female hands differently. His women are typically given light work; they have a soft touch. With very few exceptions, Orazio shows women with hands that hang, relaxed and graceful, bend forward limply, or barely grasp a heavy object. His tendency to turn active figures into still lifes has been noted, but not the gendered differential that exaggerates this effect in his female figures. Artemisia's women have normal human hands that function as signs of female agency; Orazio's women have feminine hands, signs of female passivity.

In presenting women's hands as objects of beauty or signs of passivity, Orazio follows the lead of many a Renaissance artist-Raphael and Bronzino, for instance-who give us female hands that are white, smooth, and soft, their fingers long and delicate, tapering toward the tips, just as the cinquecento theorist Agnolo Firenzuola prescribes in his treatise on the beauty of women (Firenzuola 1992, 67). The self-conscious display of a woman's beautiful hands, sustained in the seicento by artists such as Guido Reni and Domenichino (fig. 6), was fueled by a literary tradition derived from Petrarch, in which the perfect woman is described through poetic tributes to the beauty of her body parts, itemized fetishistically. In art influenced by this tradition, when women do things with their hands, it must be ineffectively.

Orazio's Lute Player in the National Gallery (fig. 7) seems disposed for the display of one beautiful hand. What action we see is barely credible, for it's not easy to play a lute while supporting it lightly with a thumb on the back. Male lutists, whether seen frontally or, like Orazio's lute player, from the back (compare Paul Bril's Self-Portrait in the Rhode Island School of Design), typically grasp the instrument more vigorously and have actively moving, jointed fingers. The hands of female lute players, by contrast (e.g., see Carlo Saraceni's St. Cecilia and Angel in the Palazzo Barberini), are arranged to show off their beauty; they barely move, and they pose self-consciously. (One qualification: in the pictorial world of Roman Caravaggesque realism, "low-life" women often have strong hands, and they sometimes play lusty songs on lutes just like the men, but largely they do nefarious or shady things, like picking pockets or telling fortunes-female agency here is shaded by moralizing stereotype.)

Artemisia's Galleria Spada Lute Player (fig. 8) is another matter. In the context of gendered norms, this woman's hands are extraordinary. Firmly modeled, with knuckles and jointed fingers, these agile hands credibly play the instrument. They seem almost more alive than the woman's face. Jointed hands and articulated knuckles link the Spada figure with the newly discovered Villa Medici Lute Player (fig. 2), which is identified in the Gentileschi exhibition catalogue as a self-portrait of the artist on the strength of its presumed identity with an Artemisian portrait of herself playing a lute mentioned in a Villa Medici inventory of 1638 (see Christiansen and Mann 2001, fig. 57). The hands of these two lute players are not identical in shape and coloration, yet they share the qualities of mobility and agility that are relatively rare in images of female hands-one indication that the painting could be by Artemisia.

More troubling for the Artemisia attribution is the lute player's eroticized decolletage, something rarely seen in Artemisia's clothed women. In the Esther, or the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (see fig. 37), the neckline is as low, but the breasts do not heave out of it. Uniquely, the Naples and Uffizi Judiths (see figs. 22 and 24) display a sensuous, swelling curve in a single breast, yet this feature could refer to the seductive role the heroine assumed to snare Holofernes. The lute player's sensuality was emphasized in the wall label at the Metropolitan Museum's installation of the exhibition, where we read that the painting's erotic overtones were appropriate both to the traditional association of music and love and to Artemisia's reputation, "not simply as a painter," but as a beautiful and seductive woman. Here, again, a scopophilic bias interferes with good reasoning. Would the Artemisia who escaped from gossip-ridden Rome to the relative dignity of marriage and court status in Florence risk restigmatization as a seductive woman by presenting herself in this guise? It's certainly not impossible that Artemisia might have sexualized her own image, yet if we have to choose, it's much more probable that she did not. Conceivably, this is Artemisia's portrait of another woman, perhaps contextualized by some theatrical performance at the Florentine court (as Judith Mann suggests in the catalogue entry, though she proposes Artemisia in that role). Or, it might represent Artemisia herself, painted as another artist wished to present her, driven by the same eroticizing impulses that shaped the Metropolitan Museum wall label.

The latter possibility comes to mind when we consider the Female Martyr also newly identified as Artemisia and ascribed to her (fig. 1). This woman slightly resembles the lute player, and also the Artemisia of Jerome David's portrait engraving, in the set of the eyes, nose, and mouth. Moreover, an inscription on the back of the panel identifies the work as by the hand of Artemisia, though we might question the accuracy of this inscription, considering that the inscriber also claimed that Artemisia was a "niece of Orazio" (Christiansen and Mann 2001). A more reliable signifier than an inscription of uncertain vintage, it seems to me, is the telltale hand-for there is not so dainty and formless a hand in all of Artemisia's established oeuvre, no hand so relentlessly feminine, so lacking in structure.

In the exhibition catalogue, the Martyr is compared to Artemisia's Florentine St. Catherine, a painting that combines two of the artist's hand types in the same image. Yet the Martyr's hand bears no resemblance to either of these hands. It displays neither the articulated knuckles of Catherine's right hand, nor what I once called the "dimpled knuckles" of her left hand. It is also inconceivable that the artist who painted that flabby hand with its wayward tapering fingers could have painting the strong, jointed, firmly structured hands of the Villa Medici Lute Player (fig. 2). This might be an image of Artemisia as a martyr, possibly even a copy of a painting by Artemisia, but it was surely painted by another artist. Given the stylistic divergence between the Martyr and the Lute Player, it seems to me that the echo of facial type from one to the other can only be explained by postulating that an ur-image of Artemisia's face lies behind the play with her identity in both pictures.

* * *

When painting hands, Artemisia appears to think from inside her own body. It's not necessarily that she copies her own hands (though an artist always has this option), but that when she draws a female hand, she seems to experience it kinesthetically, feeling its capacity to move. Artemisia's male hands are much less anatomically convincing. In the Bologna Gonfaloniere, for example, one hand touches a table, yet without exerting pressure; the other hangs, graceful but lifeless, like an empty glove. Artemisia never painted a female figure who did not have at least one, and usually two, visible hands. In her pictorial world, where female protagonists succeed in their quests through manual dexterity and the hand is a synecdoche for female capability, women without hands would be disabled.

This is among the reasons why we should firmly reject the attribution to Artemisia of the Le Mans Allegory of Painting (fig. 9), an attribution sustained by the inclusion of the picture in the 2001-2 Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition. In his catalogue raisonné of Artemisia's paintings, Ward Bissell has rightly protested this attribution, arguing that its "openly obscene" presentation of a reclining female nude from a viewpoint that emphasizes her buttocks would be unthinkable for Artemisia (Christiansen and Mann 2001; Bissell 1999, 299-301), especially because the figure represented is the Allegory of Painting, accompanied by the mask, brushes, and palette that are her attributes, an allegorical figure that was by the 1620s already identified with Artemisia herself. Bissell claims that Artemisia would hardly invoke so compromising a self-reference and argues instead that the painter may have been Giovanni Baglioni, an earlier antagonist of Orazio who, as a man with an agenda, may have intended to wound Orazio by insulting his daughter.


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Table of Contents

Contents List of Illustrations....................vii
Introduction Mieke Bal....................ix
Artemisia's Hand Mary D. Garrard....................1
Judging Artemisia: A Baroque Woman in Modern Art History Nanette Salomon....................33
"Gran Macchina è Bellezza": Looking at the Gentileschi Judiths Elena Ciletti....................63
Death, Dispassion, and the Female Hero: Artemisia Gentileschi's Jael and Sisera Babette Bohn....................107
Grounds of Comparison Mieke Bal....................129
Feminist Dilemmas with the Art/Life Problem Griselda Pollock....................169
Index of Names and Titles....................225
Index of Terms and Concepts....................233

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