Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1619 “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” bears a strong resemblance to a similarly titled self-portrait by the artist from 1615-17 owned by London’s National Gallery. Both paintings display regal, dark-haired women clad in red, holding the saint’s signature broken torture wheel while holding a martyr’s palm close to their chest. One turbaned figure gives a defiant side-long stare, with the other fixes a meditative gaze up towards the heavens.
It made sense, then, that the 1619 canvas, now owned by Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, turns out to bear a similar scene underlying the completed painting. Although “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” shows the Grand Duke Ferdinando de Medici’s daughter Caterina, a preliminary version of the piece, hidden beneath the visible layer for over five centuries, almost directly mirrors the National Gallery’s “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria.”
An Italian conservator is suggesting that both works may be based on the same drawing. Conservators used non-invasive UV, infrared, and x-ray technology to access what is beneath the surface of the Uffizi work, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1618-20). The testing also showed a “mysterious little face” on the left side of Saint Catherine’s face, “a feature totally out of context with respect to both the finished work and the earlier version” underneath, the Uffizi said.
The discovery, according to Marcello Lazzerini of L’Indro, suggests that the 1619 portrait is a “mash-up”, borrowing elements from the 1615-17 painting to complement the artist’s rendering of de’ Medici. It’s also likely however, as the Associated Press noted, that the underpainting was part of a separate project Gentileschi stopped working on and ended up re-using the canvas to save on materials.
The Associated Press further outlined several theories for the canvas’ evolution. Supporting a long-held theory that Gentileschi used her own image as a model for the women in her paintings, experts argued that she could have started with her basic framework established by the 1615-17 portrait, then simply added changed to better align the portrait with the de’ Medici patron.
Whatever the exact reason behind Gentileschi’s change in direction, the Uffizi welcomes the newly discovered painting-within-a-painting as a great addition to its existing collection of five Gentileschi works. In both “Saint Catherine” as well as the hidden underdrawing, viewers now have another example of the Baroque artist’s dedication to, as well as skill in, portraying powerful women.