The rare Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1615-1617) by Artemisia Gentileschi made headlines early last year when London’s National Gallery acquired the painting making it the first work by Gentileschi to enter the museum’s collection. The painting surfaced at a French auction house in 2017 and the National Gallery purchased it for £3.5 million. Since then, the painting has been prepped for a number of appearances, but some aren’t in the places you’d usually expect to find a priceless work of art.
In the last few weeks, the painting by the most famous female Italian Baroque artist travelled to Newcastle upon Tyne to exhibit not at a museum or a gallery but at Sacred Heart Catholic High School. Between May 14th and 17th, the self-portrait was shown alongside artworks made by the girls’ school’s pupils in their GCSE art exhibition in the school auditorium. The paintings most recent stop on its tour of unusual destinations gave the public the opportunity to view the stunning painting and prompted a number of workshops for students from Sacred Heart and nearby schools.
‘It feels apt to show Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria in a school founded by a similarly pioneering woman,’ said Anita Bath, headmistress of Sacred Heart, in a press release – and pioneering she was. Gentileschi was a woman making her own way in an art world that was essentially dominated by men. The oldest of five children, and the only daughter, she trained as an artist under her father, Orazio Gentileschi. A year after she completed her earliest signed work, Susanne and the Elders (1610), she was raped by one of her father’s artist acquaintances. In 1612, her rapist was tried and found guilty but never saw his sentencing. After the trial, she married another artist, Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, a little-known artist in Florence, and moved from Rome to Florence. There, she paved her own way as an artist in her own right and, in 1616, became the first woman to be admitted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing. Eventually, she settled in Naples and, before her death there sometime after 1654, ran a successful studio.
She has become one of the greatest recognized female painters of the 17th century and continues to inspire artists and art historians alike. Thus, when the National Gallery acquired the painting in 2018, it was exciting that she would enter the ranks of the prestigious museum but also surprising to some that she was not represented there already – though only a little more than 20 female artists are represented in the National Gallery’s stores.
The stop in Newcastle is one of many on a tour of unusual stops. Prior to the high school, Gentileschi’s work stopped at the Glasgow Women’s Library between March 9th and 16th to celebrate National Women’s Day and another at the Pocklington Group Practice from April 29th through May 11th. Another future stop is planned for the E17 Art Trail in East London as part of the 2019 Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture celebrations. Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria is then expected to highlight a 2020 exhibition at the National Gallery alongside two other major works by Gentileschi: Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1615-1618) and Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639).