Until January 24, the Sainsbury Wing will host the first major exhibition in the UK of the Baroque genius

The National Gallery in London is hosting an unmissable exhibition dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654), the first major one on British soil. On view until January 2021 in the Sainsbury Wing, the retrospective has unique symbolic value. The Italian-English director of the museum Gabriele Finaldi said: “Artemisia Gentileschi is an extraordinary exception in the extremely masculine panorama of the 17th century. But with her extraordinary art and talent, she overcame every obstacle, even working in the Spanish courts and for Charles I, King of England.” In 17th-century Europe, at a time when women artists were not easily accepted, Artemisia said: “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” And she did. She defied expectations and challenged conventions to become a successful artist and one of the greatest storytellers of her time.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, titled simply ‘Artemisia’, follows her life and artistic journey through Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, and London

Born in Rome, Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, under whom she trained. Artemisia’s earliest signed and dated painting, ‘Susanna and the Elders’ is from 1610 (currently on display in The National Gallery’s exhibition). A year later, she was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi, who was working on a project with her father. After an infamous trial, he was found guilty and banished from Rome, though his punishment was never enforced. Some interpreted her world-famous and viscerally violent masterpiece ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ (1613) as a form of visual revenge on the man who raped her. However, in many of her markedly feminist works, she transformed meek maidservants into courageous conspirators and victims into survivors. Following the trial, Artemisia left Rome for Florence. There she established herself as an independent artist, becoming the first woman to gain membership to the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. Subsequently, she worked for the highest echelons of European society, including the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Philip IV of Spain. In 1639, she joined her father in London, perhaps to collaborate with him on the ceiling painting of the Queen’s House in Greenwich (now at Marlborough House in London). The precise date of Artemisia’s death is not known. However, records show that in August 1654, she was living in Naples where she founded a studio with her daughter Prudenza.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, titled simply ‘Artemisia’, follows her life and artistic journey through Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, and London. It presents dozens of her best-known paintings arranged in chronological order. Among them, there are two versions of ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ and her self portraits picturing herself as heroines from history and the Bible. Moreover, some recently discovered personal letters allow visitors to see the world through her eyes.

Ilona Catani Scarlett

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