Artemisia at the National Gallery

I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.

Artemisia Gentileschi

I first heard of Artemisia Gentileschi during university, while I was studying history of art. The self portrait I was shown was simply breathtaking. I was astonished to hear about her life and to see her talent. So naturally, upon hearing about the exhibition due to open in London at the National Gallery, I was incredibly excited and jumped on tickets when they were released. 

Firstly I would like to applaud the National Gallery for their incredible management of crowds during this pandemic – so far they have been the museum that showed how to do it best. The lines were not too long, the time slots were respected, and people were let in one after the other, even between rooms. This allowed us to not be too crowded, and to enjoy the experience. 

Information

I knew a little bit about Artemisia when I visited the exhibition, and walked out knowing more. I particularly enjoyed seeing the book showing her court testimony (in which she sues the painter Agostino Tassi for having raped her), which showed her character and her resilience. 

Visiting the exhibition made me like her so much more than I did before – looking at her paintings was like having a feminist conversation with her. She represented scenes from the Bible, involving women, particularly strong women. 

One of her main subjects was Judith beheading Holofernes. But I’d like to draw attention on her very first subject, Susanna and the Elders: she painted it at age 16, showing Susan in shock of seeing two old men staring at her while she was bathing. That painting showed Susanna as a victim, replicating the position of women at the time, who only endured things. She came back to that subject at the end of her career, and this time, depicted Susanna as a woman in control, telling the men off for looking at her. From victim, she became powerful. Just like Artemisia herself. 

Her paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes are, I would say, a middle finger given to Tassi, her rapist, a perfect revenge and a perfect way of showing her strength to a man who thought he could take advantage of her. The violence of the act, the splattering blood that also stains Judith’s (Artemisia’s) clothes represent beautifully how she felt at that time: strong, powerful, in control, and not frail or weak. 

Quality of the objects 

One of my first thoughts when seeing the paintings was that they must have been restored recently – I could not believe the brightness of colours, how powerfully vibrant the paintings were. I get very emotional in front of art, and all magnificent paintings made my heart skip a beat. Artemisia was an incredibly talented painter, and an adept of the Italian chiaroscuro, which we know from Caravaggio’s paintings for instance, among others. 

Th paintings were displayed in a way to reproduce the chiaroscuro: illuminated with bright lights, resting on a dark wall, so we can admire their beauty and our eyes can focus on those specific paintings. It was breathtaking. Absolutely gorgeous. I still think about it. 

I was so happy to see the self portrait I remembered at the end of the exhibition, still remembering its beauty and to me, the perfect representation of a self portrait – the painter, hard at work, painting her canvas rather than looking at the viewer.

Design of the exhibition

The way the paintings were shown was the most important aspect of the design for me – and as I said above, I particularly enjoyed the reproduction of the chiaroscuro in the hanging of the paintings. 

The exhibition was designed in a circle and had only one way, which made the crowd control much easier, and presented different kinds of objects in addition to the paintings: the court register, open at the page of Artemisia’s audience at the trial, some coins, but also letters written to her lover (including a raunchy one – thank you for that, National Gallery). 

Everything in that exhibition was about the quality of the piece rather than the quantity, and it was done beautifully. I think I’ll try and go again given how much I enjoyed it. 

The finishing touch 

Take. Me. Back. There are not many women artists in the baroque period, but Artemisia stands out by her talent and the way she depicts her characters. Her evolution as a painter is clear in that display, specifically with the 2 paintings of Susanna and the Elders

I see her paintings and my heart slows down, skips a beat, and then accelerates. At the sight of her art, nothing else exists, just beauty in front of my eyes. 

I hope I convinced you to book your tickets

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