Artemisia Gentileschi’s Baroque masterpieces are all about women. They almost always show women in action, asserting their agency and defying the patriarchal oppression of late 16th century Papal Rome. Even when male figures are absent in Gentileschi’s works, like in her “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London after a celebrated recent acquisition, the subversion of gender normativity and patriarchal structures rings clear.
The National Gallery paid £3.5m for the work after it resurfaced at a French auction house in 2017. As they like to say in auction houses, the picture has “wall power”. But to leave it at that would simply be a disgrace. The portrait packs everything from ingenious techniques, remarkable portraiture and fascinating historic context.
When you come face to face with the work, you see a cherubic yet confident woman staring at you from the cropped canvas. Gentileschi’s mastery of sfumato, a technique where shades of paint are carefully blurred together, is seen in the hyperrealistic glow on her cheeks. A single light source makes her white sleeve appear to jump out of the canvas, a technique popularised by Caravaggio that involves carefully playing with the contrast between light and dark.
The painting depicts St Catherine of Alexandria whose legend is extraordinary. Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Egypt’s Alexandria. She rebuked the emperor for his Paganistic cruelty and he allegedly organized a debate between her and 50 of his best philosophers which she famously won. She was then tortured and ultimately beheaded after escaping a spiked wheel, seen in Gentileschi’s portrait.
The self-portrait is commonly seen as a subtle meditation on Gentileschi’s past, drawing on Saint Catherine to symbolize suffering that was overcome and violence that was endured. A look into Gentileschi’s eyes sees her staring right back. As the artist once proclaimed, “You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman.”
Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593 to Orazio Gentileschi, a famous artist heavily influenced by Caravaggio at the time. With her mother dying at a young age, Artemisia quickly learned to paint and completed her first work, Susanna and the Elders, at age 16.
In 1611, when Gentileschi was 17 years old, she was raped by Agostino Tassi, her painting teacher and father’s acquaintance. A transcript of the 400 year-old court case survives, and shows that she was physically tortured during the trial as a way to make sure she was telling the truth. Tassi was convicted but never sentenced.
Gentileschi was illiterate, and some scholars think that she used art to communicate her feelings about the world she lived in. Another of her paintings, “Judith Slaying Holofernes”, shows a man being aggressively pinned down by two women and decapitated by one with a sword.
At a time when men had all the power, revenge in the form of extraordinary paintings that end up defying the times, lasting many centuries and inspiring future movements to come, this was as good as it was ever going to get.