Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

The life of Artemisia Gentileschi is made for Netflix, but it’s the art that really excites

‘I’ll show you what a woman can do’: Laura Freeman goes in search of this feminist heroine, survivor of abuse, canny player of the art market and bravura painter

Pleasure triumphant: ‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy’, c.1620–25, by Artemisia Gentileschi — and possibly a self-portrait

‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.’ Over and over she said it. ‘E vero, e vero, e vero.’ It’s true he raped me. It’s true I was a virgin. It’s true all I say. Even under judicial torture, even with cords wrapped around her fingers and pulled tight, she did not waver. ‘E vero.’ These words, spoken by the 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi, have come down to us in a trial transcript of 1612. This haunting document, never seen outside the state archives in Rome, will be shown for the first time in the National Gallery’s forthcoming Artemisia exhibition.

Artemisia ought to have opened this month. Curator Letizia Treves has been through hell and high water. Italy in lockdown. American flights suspended. Lenders in quarantine. By mid-March, the logistics had become impossible. ‘Artemisia is postponed,’ says Treves by phone. ‘She is definitely not cancelled. We will do everything to make this exhibition happen.’ The catalogue is already printed. Order a copy as an anticipatory ankle-flash of the show to come.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652/3), who faced rape, humiliation, slander and successive outbreaks of the plague, overcame all. Her mother died when she was 12, leaving Artemisia to care for her father Orazio Gentileschi, a Pisan painter established in Rome, and three surviving younger brothers. Orazio, said his contemporaries, was a loner: savage, sarcastic, controlling, foolish with money, lecherous with women. In one way, at least, he was enlightened: he taught his daughter to paint. Between cooking, cleaning, mending and washing, Artemisia ground pigments, took up her brushes and mahlstick and copied, copied, copied from engravings and from her father’s works. She could not learn as a man learnt: could not go about Rome with chalks and paper, could not attend the Accademia, could not draw from the model. Her early nudes have a podgy formlessness, like ice creams beginning to slip in the sun.

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