Home » Artemisia Gentileschi: the Nina Simone of the Renaissance

Artemisia Gentileschi: the Nina Simone of the Renaissance

Much has been made in recent years of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Rather than talk about the story that accompanies her life – the rape by her art teacher Agostino Tassi which, having all the features of a good soap opera has the power to confine her within that story – I am going to attempt to throw light on the woman by examining her self-portrait. After all, self-portraiture and its characteristic attribute of disclosure is a microscope to the past.

Gentileschi. Self-portrait as the allegory of Painting, 1630s

Gentileschi. Self-portrait as the allegory of Painting, 1630s

Self-portrait as the allegory of Painting was painted sometime during the 1630s and was as remarkable then as it is today. The first thing you notice about the work is that Artemisia fully occupies the space, not in a static compositional sense but in a physical and tangible way. You can feel her moving within the space, shifting and swaying and putting her whole self into this painting. And you can hear Nina Simone singing in velvet tones of emerald and gold.

This is a painting about a female artist consumed by the act of painting and in 1630 no other woman had painted herself thus. While the allegory is an important part of the interpretation, to the modern viewer much is available at face value. Not only is it about the physical act of painting but we see this woman deeply involved in her task and working with the practised movements of an experienced artist. This is a woman who knows that you paint with your whole body not just your hand.

Looking at the composition and the positioning of the figure we see Artemisia as strong and athletic; her shoulders broad, her outstretched arms creating a dynamic diagonal across the canvas, the left braced against her desk, palette in hand, caught between the moment of observing her subject and bringing brush to canvas. She’s deep in concentration, sleeve pulled up, unconcerned about her hair or her dress or paint on her hands. Completely engrossed in her work she ignores us, making no effort to engage or acknowledge us in any way. And the audience in turn, feels privileged to watch her at her easel.

Notice that the canvas she is painting is blank – absent of any religious scene reassuring us of her piety and her respectability as we saw in Anguissola’s work, absent of the promotional themes used so effectively by Leyster. Gentileschi does not need such devices, instead the audience is captivated and we await her first mark with acute anticipation. She shows us that the canvas is large, so large in fact that it extends out of the frame of the painting. We know she’s about to paint something significant but we are given no indication of what the subject might be – we are told to stand by, watch out, there’s an artist in action here!

Gentileschi painted this reflection using a set of mirrors. She had no camera and no computer with which to manipulate her desired position. She had no electric light source to illuminate her set. Achieving a perspective from which to see yourself slightly above and from the side would have have required at least two angled mirrors and a complex configuration of lantern or candle lighting which goes to emphasise her professionalism and maturity as a painter.

But despite all the really significant things this painting stands for; despite the inspired composition, the brazen message claiming a new dominion for women as Artists, the magnificent rendering of darks and lights and fabric and skin, despite all this, there is an emotional edge to this work. It’s hard to put my finger on, but perhaps it’s sadness or a tinge of melancholia. The slightly parted lips are wanting, her nostril flared, and the light bores down hard onto her forehead, exposing her. It makes me feel as though she’s holding something in, steeling herself somehow. Absolute determination is also there, reminding me of Nina Simone singing ‘Feeling Good’.

To look at a large version of the work, click here. For further interpretation about the allegorical references used in this work, please wait for the next post.



One Response to “Artemisia Gentileschi: the Nina Simone of the Renaissance”

  1. […] of credibility that many of the early self-portraits of women lack. But here, just as we saw with Artemisia Gentileschi we are presented with a woman who is really a painter and she convinces us of that; she has […]

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