Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 17, 2015
Jesse M. Locker Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 248 pp.; 99 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300185119)

Jesse M. Locker’s Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting examines the Baroque artist’s career as an independent professional, beginning in the 1620s, within the context of the courtly and literary cultures of Venice, Naples, and Florence. Locker’s study thoughtfully builds on, and at times challenges, the work of scholars and authors who have made Artemisia an (almost) household name, including R. Ward Bissell, Keith Christiansen, Roberto Contini, Mary Garrard, Alexandra Lapierre, and Judith W. Mann. At the outset, Locker quotes Riccardo Lattuada’s observation that “a single document or an individual painting can alter substantially our understanding of [Artemisia’s] work and her career” (2). With the aim of such alterations in mind, the book is structured around caches of poems from Venetian and Neapolitan authors and an eighteenth-century Tuscan biography of the artist. A postscript considers the literary evidence against the economic data on Artemisia’s career, emphasizing the consistently high status of her patrons and admirers, and arguing that her financial difficulties in Naples should be read as indicative of the city’s—rather than the artist’s—challenging position in the midst of war and political turmoil. Locker sets aside the well-documented and rehearsed personal events of Artemisia’s early life—her rape by Agostino Tassi and subsequent trial—because no direct mention of them appears in the sources under examination. Instead, his focus is on the rarefied public sphere of Italy’s academies and on the oral literary culture they fostered; Artemisia is presented as a shadow participant, whose paintings engage in a variety of ways with their learned and poetic discourses. In reexamining her mature paintings, self-image, and fame, Locker offers an Artemisia who is by turns professionally astute, intellectually ambitious, bitingly satirical, lyrically self-aware, and, above all, highly regarded during her lifetime and long after.

The first chapter, on Artemisia’s work for the Spanish court and its members in Naples, stands somewhat apart from the rest as it focuses initially on the political networks and patronage connections that shaped the demand for Artemisia’s art in the Spanish world. Simon Vouet’s portrait (ca. 1625) of Artemisia as the early modern embodiment of her namesake, the famed queen of Halicarnassus, is presented as evidence of her standing among artists and in the learned world of the Barberini in Rome in the mid-1620s. Locker argues that the informal politicking that was performed through the mothers, wives, and daughters of Naples’s political class—known as the “via de le moglie”—helps to explain why the Barberini (by way of Cassiano del Pozzo) may have deliberately set out to cultivate her reputation among Spanish collectors, such as the Duke of Alcalá. Artemisia is set up as a potential political player, even a Barberini plant, but Locker does not follow that avenue of inquiry further. Instead, he focuses on shifts in Artemisia’s style and approach to sacred painting, arguing that they were a response to patrons’ desires for a soft, sweet, devout style—particularly from female painters. He identifies conscious constructions of “feminine” (16) painting in works of different kinds—the narrative Birth of St. John (1633) for Madrid’s Buen Retiro, the small devotional Virgin and Child with a Rosary (1651), and the Neapolitan altarpiece of the Annunciation (1630). Their stylistic qualities are not uniform; instead their shared “femininity” comes from a tender approach to figural interaction and, for the latter two, the influence of Scipione Pulzone. This chapter argues for Artemisia’s particular value as a female artist and for her willingness to capitalize on her gender as part of her professional persona.

The core of Locker’s argument comes out in chapters on Artemisia’s periods in Venice (chapters 2 and 3) and Naples (chapter 4). These examine, respectively, Venetian poems about her work, paintings that Locker argues show the influence of Venice’s academies and intellectual culture, and poems and paintings from her years in Naples after 1630. What Locker proposes is a systematic study of these sources in order to identify Artemisia’s contacts and to define the specific terms by which her work was celebrated during her lifetime and after. He also dismisses some sources from the corpus of evidence documenting Artemisia’s career. One example is Girolamo Gualdo’s mention of a book of still-life drawings by an “Artemisia Ingegnieri” in the collection of the Barberini. Based on comparison to another source cited by Lionello Puppi, Locker suggests that despite the coincidence of names, a more likely candidate for Gualdo’s still-life painter is Giovanna Garzoni, who was also present in Venice in the late 1620s.

For Venice, Locker concentrates on poems and letters arising from the erudite circle around Gian Francesco Loredan, which would eventually form the Accademia degli Incogniti. Locker explicitly counters previous interpretations of these verses, arguing that their themes are not intended as mocking or derisive. Thus, the discussion of rape and honor in a poem about an (unidentified) painting of Lucretia is read as a celebration of Artemisia’s power to bring a subject to life—and in good Marinesque tradition, to put that subject to death—on the canvas. Although it is not stated explicitly, Locker seems to suggest that as the poem positions Artemisia as a kind of “character” in the narrative in addition to Lucretia and Tarquinius, the question of honor is not a reflection on Artemisia’s own reputation: she is not Lucretia, but her maker. Particularly interesting is the connection of Artemisia, by way of her design of an impresa for the Accademia degli Informi, to Titian. Artemisia is thus inscribed into the most venerable line of Venetian art, making a strong case for her standing in the city, at least among one group of cultural arbiters.

Although no paintings can be definitively dated to her time in Venice, Locker argues that the impact of Loredan’s circle and Venice’s academies can be seen in an infusion of gender-based satire and an awareness of the question of the nature of women in works from the 1620s and 1630s. The connections outlined here place Artemisia close to “the epicenter of historical feminism” (69). A compelling reading that builds on Garrard (Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 78) describes the king in Esther Before Ahasuerus (ca. 1627–30) as an intentionally comic figure, a weak-willed fop and a foil to the shrewdly noble Esther. The picture is interpreted as an exploration of inversions of normative gender expectations whereby the king becomes a figure of “feminine” vice in terms inspired by Lucrezia Marinella and the circle around Loredan. Locker suggests that similar inversions structured a Samson and Delilah (ca. 1635) and a lost picture of Hercules and Omphale, with its domesticated hero. On the other hand, a painting such as Corisca and the Satyr (1636–37) is said to offer a “playful” exploration of gender and physical types in which the cunningly deceitful Corisca is to be despised, as she was by contemporary writers including Marinella; in this Locker agrees with Bissell (Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999, 77). The interpretation of the Medea (1620s) as a viciously comical representation of a generational revenge fantasy, in which the “obscene porcine child” “almost seem[s] to deserve what [he] get[s]” (86–87) is the most jarring of these readings, and one Locker argues is in line with the “irreverent” approach of Loredan’s circle to ancient history. In this section one feels particularly keenly the lack of provenance information—who would such a picture have been made for?

Turning to Naples, Locker focuses on poems by Girolamo Fontanella and Francesco Antonio Cappone as evidence of Artemisia’s reception and impact in the Campanian city; she is also here connected, albeit indirectly, with the Accademia degli Oziosi. As with the Venetian sources, Locker sifts the poems for mentions of particular paintings, laying the groundwork for future attributions and discoveries, and explores how Artemisia’s gender provided the opportunity for variation within the conventions of lyric poetry. The leitmotif of Artemisia as Aurora, goddess of the “rosy-fingered dawn,” is explicated as pointed praise of Artemisia as a “celestial” colorist. Locker suggests that this was an identification fostered by Artemisia herself, and that her Aurora (ca. 1625–27) could be read as a “poetic self-representation” (113). Through the lens of color, Artemisia’s Neapolitan work is set up as a significant influence on Bernardo Cavallino, Massimo Stanzione, and Francesco Guarino.

The methodological approach shifts in chapter 5, which focuses on Artemisia’s self-portraits. After considering the challenges of defining the boundaries of self-portraiture in Artemisia’s work, Locker turns to her construction of an artistic persona both within court cultures and in the conventions of lyric poetry. He argues that in the Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1615–17) Artemisia presents herself as a gypsy (in the seventeenth-century characterization of a deceitful trickster), and perhaps in the very costume she donned for the Medici court Dance of the Gypsy Women of 1615. He connects the picture to depictions of women playing instruments, which often include or imply a male viewer being seduced by the woman’s song (although unfortunately the comparisons offered here are Dutch and much later). Artemisia’s address to the viewer, by way of her gaze and the evocation of music, are then reformulations of the idea of the artist who “tricks” or seduces the viewer into believing the mimetic fiction of painting. Locker convincingly connects this to the poetic figure of the finzione palese—the “blatant fiction”—that poses an obvious untruth wittily enough to win admiration. For the portraits under examination in this chapter, Locker emphasizes the pictures’ address to the viewer—their elicitation of learned dialogue—as the space in which Artemisia’s oral-literary and pictorial culture come together.

Locker’s rediscovery of an eighteenth-century biography of the artist by Averardo de’ Medici provides the impetus in chapter 6 for a reassessment of the question of Artemisia’s reputation after her death. This chapter aims to establish that any period of decline in Artemisia’s reputation was brief, confined to the years between 1695 and 1722, and that already by the mid-eighteenth century her fame was once again on the rise. The discussion of Averardo’s text is particularly valuable as a reminder of the contingency and shifting nature of almost any reconstruction of the past and of another individual. Averardo’s understanding of Artemisia was based on the very few pictures known to him—principally a Susanna and the Elders (1652) in his possession and the Uffizi Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1620)—and he had no knowledge of her rape and little interest in her biography. The eighteenth-century promotion of Artemisia was, rather, based on a misunderstanding of her birthplace as Pisa, and thus on a construction of her as an outstanding example of the genius of Tuscany.

So what Artemisia does Locker give readers? He puts her in a dialogue with contemporary writers, painters, and patrons in which she is a proud and respected interlocutor. She is capable of self-consciously putting on masks and of communicating through the learned manipulation of literary convention and of viewer expectation. Professionally savvy, intellectually ambitious, and artistically influential, she is an artist whose brush, Girolamo Fontanella says, was given to her by Love “so that [her] merit [would be] known to the world” (109). Locker’s Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting is a welcome and thought-provoking addition to an understanding of her work and of the intertwined literary and visual cultures of early modern Italy.

Karen J. Lloyd
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Chapman University