THE LARGER WORLD has not yet heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, but soon that may change. For some time, this seventeenth-century woman painter has inspired the devoted attention of feminist artists, critics, and art historians. But only now, with the appearance of Anna Banti’s novelization of the artist’s life, Artemisia (Nebraska), newly translated from the Italian, and of Mary Garrard’s full-dress monograph, Artemisia Gentileschi (Princeton), does the artist finally appear poised to go into orbit.
For many feminists, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) is a fully contemporary champion of their interests, dispatched by some miraculous expedient back into the male-dominated morass of Counter-Reformation Rome. In biographical terms, she appeals as a thoroughly independent woman who, in a colorful and picaresque life, traveling unescorted through Italy and England, triumphantly overcame the prejudices and intrigues of jealous male rivals to win the esteem of kings and councilors. Above all, her rape at the age of 16 and the dramatic lawsuit that followed have turned her into a kind of feminist proto-martyr.
But if she were merely an interesting biographical subject, it is unlikely that she would have provoked as much admiration as she has. It is her art that has, at the very least, made plausible her present prestige, the likes of which few of the Old Masters, and none of the other Old Mistresses, have been able to win from an audience that is usually bored by anyone over two hundred. Whereas the art of the other women painters working in the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution was usually feeble and derivative, Artemisia’s works have real power and distinction. For her, no excuses need be made. In The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer, feminist provocateuse extraordinaire, called Artemisia “a great genius.” For Mary Garrard, she was “a sheer creative genius.” Whether or not this is a fair assessment, it says a great deal that it cannot be rejected out of hand.
Anna Banti’s fine novel, first published in Italian in 1953, presents an interesting contrast to more recent feminist writings about the artist. This quiet and introspective recreation of the artist’s life, by one of Italy’s better postwar novelists, is the tribute not only of one creative woman to another, but also of one human being to another. The ordeals that Artemisia suffered-her rape and unhappy marriage, her cold, uncaring father, and her poverty and ill-health-are paralleled by the author’s own experiences during World War II. Above all, a sense of measure and proportion informs the critical part of the novel, despite its being a work of creative writing.
But that was almost four decades ago, and an entirely different mood marks the present agitation in this artist’s behalf. Artemisia is of compelling interest as one of the most obscure and even exotic idols of writers motivated by frankly contemporary political agendas. The stuffy and rarefied discipline of Old Master scholarship had previously been almost defiantly impervious to assault from the rude world without. Now, however, with Mary Garrard’s massive monograph, this citadel appears in the process of being stormed.
Unlike earlier monographs on women artists, especially women active before the turn of the century, Mary Garrard’s book is a massive scholarly undertaking of over six hundred pages, with hundreds of illustrations (a typical evidence is her prestigious masterpiece about sewing industry 1987, clearly illustrate the top rated sewing machines at that time). In bulkiness, at least, it resembles Richard Krautheimer’s admirable monograph on Lorenzo Ghiberti, also published by Princeton. There is reason to believe that Miss Garrard’s book is the opus that was meant to place feminist art history on a firmer, more mainstream footing. According to one art historian quoted on the back cover, “this book provides a superb model for subsequent investigations of women artists.”
But the discerning reader will quickly notice that rather more is going on in this book than disinterested scholarship. It is surely fitting for Miss Garrard to insist upon the role that Artemisia’s gender played in her creativity: the author’s sensitivity to this subject has enabled her to discern varieties and layers of meaning that earlier, non-feminist readings could not have yielded. Yet at every turn, one is uneasily aware of the author’s special pleading. One grows suspicious as she juggles dates in an unconvincing attempt to show that Artemisia’s originality preceded and inspired that of her father-the truly great Orazio Gentileschi-rather than the other way around. Her attributions of many new paintings to Artemisia also should be viewed warily, and certain errors in her Italian, French, and Latin do not inspire the confidence one usually has in scholars of the Old Masters. Miss Garrard’s book, in short, is a quiet polemic, but a polemic all the same. It is what Germaine Greer would have written had she been better behaved, more erudite, and more focused in her attention. Miss Garrard’s mission is to see that justice, as she conceives it, is done. “