Rome show explores painter Artemisia Gentileschi's art, life
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ROME — Artemisia Gentileschi was unusual for achieving success as a female painter in the male-dominated art world of the 17th century. But many admirers know her more for her fame in courageously testifying — including under torture — against a painter who repeatedly raped her when she was a teen.
Now an exhibit in Rome of her oil paintings aims to make her artistic development and legacy better appreciated.
Visitors to the show at the Museum of Rome in Palazzo Braschi are treated to some 100 paintings by Gentileschi or her contemporaries, getting an opportunity to see the artists who influenced her with their techniques — Caravaggio certainly did in her early years — and the artists she in turn influenced.
Several of Gentileschi's works give her often-bloody vision of Biblical or mythological stories, many of them focused on the struggle of strong women. In not a few, the subjects of the canvases are women wielding knives, swords or spikes against men.
Standing Tuesday in front of Gentileschi's "Judith Beheading Holofernes," curator Francesca Baldassari at the exhibit's preview noted details like the blood dripping on bedding in the painting, which is on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
"These spurts (of blood) that almost seem like an insistent fountain, the fabric that gets stained, the violence" and how Judith "manages to defeat him with the help of her maid," Baldassari commented. "There is truly the desire to overcome and perhaps to exorcise what she (Gentileschi) had undergone with great harm to her image" as a raped woman.
In her case against her abuser, rings of rope were pulled increasingly tightly around Gentileschi's fingers in what was a courtroom usage of the time to extort the truth out of those testifying. Her attacker, a painter engaged by her artist father to tutor her in perspective, never did jail time.
The day after the court case ended, Gentileschi's father Orazio married his daughter off to one of his debtors. Her lost virginity had inflicted heavy damage to her reputation and that of her family.
The rape case, including her vivid account of how she tried to fight off her attacker in her bedroom, has spawned books and conferences about Gentileschi's life. But her contributions as an artist often get less attention, and curators hope the exhibit will help remedy that.
"She is really a woman who was successful, and whose biography has made people passionate about her," Baldassari told The Associated Press. But Gentileschi "has been studied more from a biographical point of view than an artistic point of view. This exhibit would like instead to highlight the true painter, Artemisia."
Among the paintings is a self-portrait depicting Gentileschi as a lute player. Another standout painting pointing to her early art talent is "Susanna and the Elders," depicting a naked young woman turning away from a pair of old men with an air of judgment about them. She painted the work in 1610 when she was 17, the year before she was raped.
Entitled "Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Time," the exhibit runs Nov. 30 through May 7, 2017.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at twitter.com/fdemilio.
In Focus: Richard Crouse