Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 and died in Naples in 1653. The novel The Passion of Artemisia imagines conversations, correspondence, actions and emotions based on documented history of her life and the art scene of the day.

Growing up the daughter of professional artist Orazio Gentileschi in the last decade of the 1500s, Artemisia was exposed early on to well-known paintings and sculptures in Baroque Rome. When she was still young, her father taught her sophisticated painting techniques. But she developed her own opinions, particularly about weak artistic depiction of women. For example, she noted a lack of emotion and intellect in women subjects of Caravaggio’s paintings.

At the age of 16, she was raped by a painter-friend of her father’s, and for his own selfish purposes, her father allowed the Roman court (at the rapist’s trial) to torture and humiliate Artemisia to get her to recant her testimony. After this, society shunned her and imposed a stigma of being a “whore,” which dogged her for decades. But Artemisia was determined not to live a life simply avoiding humiliation. And that determination surmounted many chauvinistic obstacles to leave a significant artistic legacy. She made many sacrifices and often grappled with the tension between her desire for human love and her passion for art.

I liked reading about Artemisia’s friendship with Galileo, who had his own struggles with the establishment. Wondering if Orazio and Artemisia would ever make peace with each other kept some suspense in the story. I liked imagining early-1600s Rome, Florence, Milan, and Naples as Vreeland described them. Artemisia’s refuge in friendships with two nuns and her conversations with her daughter felt real. Also interesting to me were the many observations, influences, and intentional empathies that Artemisia blended to interpret a certain subject a certain way on canvas. Any kind of artist in any era must do this. Another universal, timeless artistic reality was her struggle to make a living by following her artistic passions.

On page 238 of the edition I read, Artemisia laments, “Buyers saw no courage in age or unpleasantness. They didn’t understand that ugliness caught in real emotion would speak through the centuries. They wanted only ideal beauty. In another time I might have been able to paint her, but I had no more courage for invenzione. I had learned to bow to what paid for ball gowns and bread.”

For those of you close enough to visit The Art Institute of Chicago, until January 9, 2014, you can view Artemisia's painting "Judith Slaying Holofernes," on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The exhibit features other paintings of the same bible story from around the 17th century. I was fascinated to see the dynamic emotion in Artemisia's depiction of Judith, in contrast to her contemporaries' more sterile portrayals. Artemisia boldly strode out of step with the art establishment of her time.