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Understanding Artemesia’s Allegory

In 1611 Cesare Ripa published the highly influential text Iconologia, a kind of recipe book detailing the symbols artists could use in painting various themes. It was a bit of a ready-reckoner of emblems allowing artists to narrate complex stories and ideas using symbols which were easily recognised and understood by the viewer. The visual image played a different role than it does today as most people couldn’t read well and exposure to printed texts was limited. In that environment the artist or painter had much power and influence as people ‘read paintings’ to understand the stories they contained. It was into that world that Ripa published his Iconologia.

In the first posts of Easel and Me I referred to the female virtues of Wisdom and Prudence and discussed the various visual manifestations of these ideas or allegories. In the day-to-day narratives of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, myths, legends and bible stories were often blended together to make new stories and reinterpretations of old ones. Oral story-telling and painted stories were prominent and were used widely in both secular and non-secular ways and occurred in art and literature from Medieval times. In 1670, Johannes Vermeer painted The allegory of faith and though not one of his better images, you can get a clear understanding of the way allegory was used by artists by following this link.

Gentileschi, The Allegory of Painting (self-portrait). 1630

Gentileschi, The Allegory of Painting (self-portrait). 1630

Today the use of these symbols has largely been abandoned; our society preferring to develop our own references, symbols and allegories. In many ways referencing past artworks and their interpretation has become de rigueur in the post-modernist vocabulary, but in Gentileschi’s self-portrait the historical symbols are used for the first time to describe herself, a woman artist. She paints herself as the figure of Painting in the mythological sense, wearing the pendant mask on a chain around her neck showing her trade and her abilities. The little face of the mask is clearly seen peering out at us as it swings free of her bust. Her unruly hair having slipped from its pins indicates ‘the divine frenzy of the artistic temperament’ while the depiction of the palette and brushes point the viewer to her inspiration and creativity as artist. Ripa also refers to green as being indicative of art and indicates that the figure of Painting must wear a colour changing gown. And that’s exactly how Artemisia paints her own green dress, with tinges of gold within the folds.

Once the symbols are apparent we can begin to see this work in context of the time it was produced. However, what we can’t see so easily is the significance of Gentileschi’s gender. While Painting along with Music and History were painted as female allegories, (a kind of story with a female character) the figura della artista was long assumed to be male. He was the creator. He was the narrator. He had the power to define our stories. That is, until Gentileschi painted herself into the picture. Literally.

So its a really radical work this one; it describes one woman’s fight for recognition in a male dominated profession and for the right to decide what is said and remembered about women. It’s brazen and in some ways outrageous and when you look at her closely you can see her conviction to her cause.

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