The artist who triumphed over her shocking rape and torture

Published in BBC Culture on August 27, 2018

“The works shall speak for themselves.” So wrote Artemisia Gentileschi in 1649, in a letter to a patron acknowledging her rare position in the art world at that time: a painter, and a woman. Although all too aware that she had a harder job being taken seriously, she had faith in her talent, her work.

Gentileschi’s work is known for its strong women, and its vibrant, even shocking depictions of violence. Her story is one of talent, but also resilience, ambition and fierce determination.

For Gentileschi had to overcome personal trauma and public humiliation before she could attain the status as one of the most significant Italian artists of the age. Raped at 17 by her painting tutor, she endured a scandalous seven-month trial in which she was tortured to ‘prove’ she was telling the truth. Yet she went on to became internationally successful, at a time when painting at all was incredibly rare by a woman.

The National Gallery in London recently acquired one of her oil paintings, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17). It is undergoing conservation before going on display in early 2019, and is a major acquisition for the gallery – and one explicitly intended to address the gender imbalance of the collection. Currently, staggeringly, only 20 works owned by the gallery are by women, out of 2,300 in total.

“The acquisition of this great painting by Artemisia Gentileschi realises a long-held dream of increasing the National Gallery’s collection of paintings by important women artists,” commented Hannah Rothschild CBE, chair of the National Gallery, when announcing that they’d spent £3.6m ($4.6m) on the work. “Gentileschi was a pioneer, a master storyteller, and one of the most progressive and expressive painters of the period. One of a handful of women who was able to shatter the confines of her time, she overcame extreme personal difficulties to succeed in the art of painting.”

But before we catch a glimpse of Gentileschi as she saw herself, she has been appearing on stage. At the Edinburgh Festival this year, and soon in London, a new show also speaks for Gentileschi – quite literally.

Experimental theatre company Breach heard that there was a partial transcript of her rape trial; having worked extensively in verbatim and documentary performance, the leaders of the theatre company were immediately drawn to it.

“We saw it as a theatrical invitation, but also not all of the transcript remained, so you’d have do something part-documentary, part re-voicing, having to fill in the gaps – which is always exciting,” explains their co-founder and director Billy Barrett.

What is known of Gentileschi’s life story is astonishing enough, however. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was also an acclaimed painter, whose work was influenced by his drinking buddy Caravaggio, attaining new heights of realism and dynamism in the use of live models.

Gentileschi’s mother, Prudentia, died in childbirth when her daughter was only 12. She soon demonstrated artistic talent, and Orazio passed on all he knew. The two would even collaborate on works.

Then in 1611 one of his friends, the painter Agostino Tassi, raped Gentileschi. The trial transcripts go into how she tried to push him away and even tried to stab him with a knife.

Afterwards, however, the pair entered into a year-long affair. The case only reached court because Tassi refused to marry her, despite long promising to do so. At the time, rape wasn’t a recognisable offence; the issue was that, in ‘deflowering’ her, Tassi had dishonoured the family and made her unmarriable. The case was brought by Orazio – who would have been quite happy if his pal had only put a ring on it.

But the only rings Gentileschi got to wear were those of a sibille: a torture device/lie detector made of metal and rope, that tightened round her digits. “This is the ring that you give me, and these are your promises,” she said to Tassi as the cords tightened, before repeating “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true,” in defence of her account. She was believed, Tassi deemed guilty – but, being a favoured painter of the Pope, never actually ended up serving a sentence.

Her repeated declaration of honesty is, of course, where Breach got the title of their play. It’s True It’s True It’s True is a courtroom drama of sorts, devised around a translation of the transcript by a company of three actors.

“The title is a provocation for the audience,” explains Barrett. “First of all it’s solidarity – saying it is true, we believe her, we believe everyone who comes forward and says this. But it’s also saying: how much is this [play] true and how much is artistic licence?”

Because they aren’t just doing a straight historical drama; the aim is that Gentileschi’s story – and her paintings, which they stage in physical tableaux – feels like they belong in today’s world. The script is striking in its blend of archaic language and modern vernacular, for instance; one minute, it’s all “thus” and “therefore”; the next, a character says “you’re making a fool of yourself mate.”

This style, Barrett explains, in fact has historical precedent. They are mirroring the approach that Baroque artists like Gentileschi took in their paintings.

“We’ve taken permission from the way in which Renaissance and Baroque artists were depicting Biblical scenes, but in the clothes of their own time. They really depicted them as modern – and we’re doing the same thing. There’s a deliberate anachronism going on, dragging things to the present day.”

This isn’t the first time there’s been a flurry of interest in Gentileschi’s story. Although she became very successful in her own lifetime – not only wealthy (her patrons included Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain) but well-recognised; she was the first female artist admitted to the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence – for many centuries her work was undervalued. But interest in her was revived in the 1970s, with feminist groups’ attempts to discover lost and underrecognised female artists.

Yet it seems no surprise that she’s once again coming into the spotlight in 2018, in the light of #MeToo but also at a time when questions of whose stories get told are being asked of major institutions. No wonder the National Gallery thought it was time to buy one of her works.

Coinciding with #MeToo was an accident, not the spur, for Breach – but it’s a fortuitous one. “Hopefully the connections between 400 years ago and the present day will be made really clearly, because of what’s being talked about at the moment,” says Barrett. “We’re telling her story, but it’s also a story for now.”

Again, in this they are following Gentileschi’s own lead. Making thematic connections across time periods was something that she did in her work: she retold Biblical stories so that they were really about 17th Century Italy, or even her own experience. Her paintings have always been read in the light of her autobiography – but this is something which she herself cannily capitalised on, parlaying scandal into profit. She often painted her own image into her works as an act of self-promotion.

She may have been commissioned by wealthy patrons – including the Medicis – to paint standard scenes common in the art world of the time. Yet her work does feature an unusually high number of tough female protagonists, and it would feel wilfully stubborn not to recognise the graphic, virulent violence of women against men.

Her paintings of Judith and Holofernes – in which his head is grotesquely severed by two determined women – have often been read as revenge in oil paint. It’s even claimed Holofernes resembles Tassi.

Still, there are dangers to reading her work primarily through her trauma; it risks diminishing it, or feeding the notion that female art is inherently more autobiographical. Just as Gentileschi in her lifetime struggled against being dismissed as a female artist, it’s important that today she isn’t just posited as a rape victim, her canvasses described as mere angry-lady revenge fantasies.

“We are doing an autobiographical reading for dramaturgical reasons rather than because we think that’s the only way to read her work,” says Barrett, alive to the thorniness of this issue. “But from what I’ve read, the trial did define the rest of her life. What she did was turn that to her advantage: ‘yes I have this notoriety, and I’m going to reference that in my work.’ I think it was a sense of poetic justice, and of processing the trauma.”

Indeed, look at that self-portrait which the National Gallery has acquired. It shows Gentileschi as the martyred saint Catherine, who was tortured on a revolving wheel studded with spikes. But in this depiction, she is holding a broken fragment of it.

It is impossible to look at it, knowing what tortures its creator was put through, and not to think of them. But this is also an act of taking control: Gentileschi/Catherine holds the shard of wheel calmly. It is as if she is taking a symbolic ownership of her suffering. And overcoming it: it is the wheel that is broken – not her.

And the expression on her face: it too is calmly controlled, somewhat reproachful. But it is also knowing. Defiant, even, as if daring you not to take her seriously. And this is how Gentileschi’s work speaks: for itself, and as art – but also of what she endured and overcame, as a woman. And it surely is this combination that means it still speaks so loudly to us today.

Where next?