Warning: This story contains descriptions of suicide and sexual violence
Emerging from the shadows, eyes cast heavenward, her head tilted back, breasts bare, Lucretia contemplates the unthinkable: whether to take the dagger she grasps in her hand and plunge it into her chest.
The J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired a major work by Artemisia Gentileschi, the most celebrated woman painter of 17th-century Italy. Recently rediscovered after having been in private collections for centuries, the painting represents the artist at the height of her expressive powers and demonstrates her ambition for depicting historical subjects, something that was virtually unprecedented for a female artist in her day.
The subject, which Gentileschi painted several times over the course of her career, no doubt had very personal significance for her: like Lucretia, the Roman heroine who took her own life after having been raped, Artemisia experienced sexual violence as a young woman.
“Although renowned in her day as a painter of outstanding ability, Artemisia suffered from the long shadow cast by her more famous and celebrated father Orazio Gentileschi (of whom the Getty has two major works, Lot and His Daughters and the recently acquired Danaë and the Shower of Gold),” said Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “A thorough reassessment of her place in baroque art had to wait until the late-20th century, since then she has become one of the most sought-after painters of the 17th century. Her achievement as a painter of powerful and dramatic history subjects is all the more remarkable for the abuse and prejudice that she suffered in her personal life—and which is palpably present in Lucretia’s suicide, and other of her paintings where the central protagonist is a wronged or abused woman. In this and many other ways, Artemisia’s Lucretia will open a window for our visitors onto important issues of injustice, prejudice, and abuse that lie below the beguilingly beautiful surfaces of such works.”
According to the History of Rome (Book I, 57-59) by ancient Roman historian Livy, the legendary Lucretia was the virtuous wife of the nobleman Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. After her rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the King, she called on her father and her husband for vengeance and then, while proclaiming her innocence and chastity, stabbed herself to death. Her tragic gesture led to a rebellion that drove the Tarquins from Rome and marked the foundation of the Roman Republic. As an example of female strength and courage, Lucretia became a favorite subject in Renaissance and Baroque art, often depicted isolated in the moment just before she plunges the dagger in her chest.
There is evidence that Artemisia painted this Lucretia during her time in Venice in the late 1620s. With its swirling and exuberant drapery, and its free brushstrokes, the picture shows the profound engagement with the artistic legacy of 16th-century Venetian painting, especially with the female protagonists of paintings by Titian and Veronese. The painting also reflects Artemisia’s close contact with expatriates active in Venice in the 1620s, such as the French Nicolas Régnier, the German Johann Liss, and the Genoese Bernardo Strozzi.
In 1627, a pamphlet was printed containing a number of poems dedicated to four of Artemisia’s paintings executed in Venice: two on a self-portrait, one each on a Susanna and a Sleeping Cupid, and three on a Lucretia. The author was likely Giovanni Francesco Loredan, one of a close-knit group of writers, artists, musicians, librettists, and patrons who were associated with Artemisia during her Venetian sojourn. It is highly probable that the Getty’s Lucretia is the same painting praised in the poems published in Venice in 1627.
“With the discovery of new documents and the emergence of new paintings, our understanding of Artemisia’s art has become much more complex and nuanced in the last twenty years. This recently rediscovered work sheds a new light on a crucial and hitherto overlooked moment of her career, when the painter is transitioning from the Caravaggism that had been the hallmark of her formative years to a more graceful and idealized manner which will characterize her maturity,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “Lucretia is a powerful and compelling example of Artemisia’s most significant type of subject, the representation of dynamic female figures which appear in control of their own destiny; but with its lyrical and sophisticated expressivity, its creamy impasto and vibrant brushwork, the painting is also suggestive of new directions in her artistic itinerary.”
About Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593, the eldest child and only daughter of Prudenzia di Montone and the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. She lost her mother when she was 12 years old and had to start looking after her three younger siblings. At the same time, she trained as an artist in her father’s workshop. Orazio was aware of Artemisia’s great talent and showed pride in her accomplishments. In fact, in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Maria Maddalena of Austria, dated 1612–when Artemisia was 18 years old–Orazio boasts of his daughter’s ability: “having studied the profession of painting, after three years she had practiced so much that I can now say that she has no peers, having created such works of art that perhaps even the most important masters of this profession cannot achieve…”
Artemisia’s early production was significantly shaped by the art of Caravaggio, her near contemporary and a colleague of her father, but mediated by Orazio’s highly individual response to the Lombard painter’s pictorial language. Artemisia’s palette, the physiognomy of her figures, the sensitive modelling of skin tones and the details of the costumes all show Orazio’s influence. Like her father, she was skilled in rendering surface textures and light reflections. Her first dated painting, Susanna and the Elders, signed and dated 1610, is extraordinarily accomplished and addresses two themes that she favored throughout her career: women heroines and the female nude.
The most notorious episode in Artemisia’s biography took place in 1611, when she was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist whom Orazio had introduced into the Gentileschi household. During the subsequent trial of 1612, brought by Orazio against his colleague and friend, Artemisia was tortured by the sibille, which tightened ropes around her fingers to test the veracity of her testimony. The court eventually condemned Tassi, sentencing him to exile, but the sentence was never enforced.
In November 1612, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, whose elder brother prepared her legal case, and at the beginning of 1613 the couple moved to Florence, where she gained notable success. She was supported by the Medici family, frequented the cultivated circle of Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, and in 1616 became the first woman to join the celebrated Accademia del Disegno. It was in Florence that Artemisia truly became “la Pittora” (“the Paintress”), with her own reputation and clients, and her own style.
In 1620, she settled again with her family in Rome, where she advanced her career and met some of the most celebrated artists of the period, such as Simon Vouet. His friendship and esteem for Artemisia as a painter is proved by his powerful portrait, which depicts her with a palette and brushes. Around 1627 Artemisia moved to Venice, staying for a few years, and by 1630 she was established in Naples. She remained there for the rest of her life, and continued to enjoy considerable success as a painter, both for public and private commissions. She died in Naples around or shortly after 1654.
Lucretia will be on view when the Getty Museum reopens to the public in the coming weeks.