Artemisia at the Musée Maillol: power, painting and perfume

Artemisia Gentileschi presents a problem for chronology, the question of how to fairly handle the dynamic between the artist’s work and the artist’s life.

Heather McRobie
28 June 2012

The collection of Artemisia Gentileschi’s work at the Musée Maillol opens with the work Gentileschi produced in Naples, when the artist, thirty seven and a powerful figure in the Neapolitan art world, produced her noble, tranquil works – The Nymph Corisca, Cleopatra – and her stark, dominating Judith and Abra with the Head of Holofernes.  The opening pieces of the exhibition – largescale and heavy with Caravaggio-esque light – introduce us to Gentileschi at the height of her powers.

Why start in Naples, in 1630-1654?  Gentileschi’s youth in Rome and her first astonishing years as a painter in Florence come first, surely? But the Musée Maillol up-ends the timeline.  After the products of Artemisia’s intense Neapolitan workshop – like The Muse Clio, whose book of history contains Artemisia’s name, so certain was she, by then, of her status as an unparalleled artist – we move back suddenly to her early precocity, the young artist who became the woman writing her name in Clio’s book.  Her early Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes (1605-1607), painted with her father Orazio during her youth in Rome, shows a much more vulnerable touch in the painting – all soft flesh tones and trembling hands.  The juxtaposition between the early and late works is all the more striking for her repetition, over the decades, of the same totemic figures – Judith, Delilah, Susannah and the Elders.

Susannah and the Elders

Susannah and the Elders. Wikimedia Commons

Artemisia Gentileschi presents a problem for chronology, the question of how to fairly handle the dynamic between the artist’s work and the artist’s life.  Between the youthful, trembling Judith of 1607 and the dominating Judith of her Neapolitan years was the chronology-shattering event, from which Artemisia’s name and works seemingly can’t be disentangled – her rape in 1611 by Agostina Tassi, and the subsequent trial in Florence in which Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews. 

Do you acknowledge it, foreground it, ignore it or footnote it, this event which dominated Artemisia’s public persona throughout her life?  This seems to be the dilemma the curators of the Musée Maillol exhibition are trying to traverse, as they place the Artemisia of Naples next to the Orazio’s-daughter of her Rome years. 

Still Susannah and the Elders, in various forms, dominates the exhibition, as the story of Susannah resonates throughout Artemisia’s work, with the Maillol displaying replications of her most famous Susannahs adjacent to one another – Susannah upon Susannah.  Whichever line you take in negotiating the Gentileschi life-art conundrum, the relationship Gentileschi explores, over the decades, with the figure of Susannah is astonishing.  The subject matter – a young woman sexually harassed by the elders of her community, cornered with the double betrayal of harassment and false accusations – is reworked by Gentileschi to emphasise, variously, the vulnerability of Susannah, the hypocrisy of the men, and the tense, patriarchal dynamic between the young and older ‘elders’ who hound Susannah.  (Like the Biblical heroine, Gentileschi was also accused of adultery during her Florentine trial).

Gentileschi, as a cultural figure, draws us to the quandary of the female artist: in the twentieth century, her work’s resilience had an echo in the art and life of the novelist Anna Banti, who reworked her novel, Artemisia, from fragments after her original manuscript was destroyed by Nazis invading Florence in 1944 – the reborn novel becoming a ‘dialogue’ both with the first, lost manuscript, and between Gentileschi and Banti.

Judith Begeading Holofernes

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Musée Maillol. All rights reserved

Such potent repetitions – Susannah painted by Gentileschi both before and after her rape; Banti’s novel both before and after its destruction by soldiers, talking across the centuries to Artemisia – can feel like a worm-hole, earlier works and the artist’s real experiences disrupting the logic of the finished masterpieces.  Artemisia, ‘Artemisia’, and Banti’s Artemisia layered over one another becomes a self-enclosed universe.

For this reason, I sorely needed the hidden treasure of the exhibition – a sorbet to the potentially-endless dilemma of Artemisia’s art-life – in the form of David, a work by Orazio Gentileschi discovered only weeks before the exhibition opened in Paris.  Painted on Afghan lapis-lazuli, it’s a small-scale version of Gentileschi’s famous David Contemplating the Head of Goliath, from the same period of 1612-1615, and astonishing.  David caught in the moments after slaying the giant, powered lapis-lazuli rending the sky an unreal ultramarine blue, the strong barefoot figure of David off-set by the chiaroscuro – the small work brings a new element into the Gentileschi canon, and the lenses of looking at Gentileschi, father and daughter.

The addition of the new discovery of David further rounds out the comprehensive, mature presentation of the Gentileschis’ work and times.  In surveying her Neapolitan mastery, her early precocious works, her reworking of Susannah and Judith and her nudes, while acknowledging the complexity of Artemisia’s life as a female artist in the seventeenth century – the love letters displayed in the exhibition reveal her literary education and intense friendships – the Musée Maillol seems to admirably steer the complicated exploration of Artemisia’s life and art.

Or, almost.  As I left the exhibition, confident that these conundrums can move forward, that Artemisia, as a figure, can be handled intelligently, I passed through the museum’s gift shop.  And there it was: Artemisia perfume.  The first time I’ve seen delicate ribboned soaps sold with the stamp of an artist’s name.  The female artist, then, is always still a little bit The Female Artist, domesticated and packaged up to sit harmlessly next to your lipstick.  I stopped myself from beginning to think about what Artemisia Gentileschi would have thought of this – the inner conversation on its possible meanings would be endless.


Artemisia: Power, Glory and Passions of a Female Painter runs at the Musée Maillol in Paris until July 15th

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