Artemisia Gentileschi was trained by her father the great Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi, who introduced her to the dramatic realism of Caravaggio. While her technique owes much to the art of Orazio, her inventive and emotional compositions demonstrate her independent artistic personality. [Her powerful paintings have been linked to the trauma of her rape by one of her father’s associates, Agostino Tassi but] She was one the most successful painters of seventeenth century Italy and her image was much in demand.
Is this a literal self-portrait? Artemisia arrived in London in about 1638 when she would have been in her mid-forties, and when Charles I acquired the painting. The artist is the painting looks much younger in her late twenties or early thirties. The confident and economical handling of paint it typical of the 1630s before her arrival in London from Naples.
It would have been possible to have used multiple mirrors to capture herself in three-quarter profile, possibly two set at a 45-degree angle. She would have been able to paint her entire figure without needing to reverse her painting hand.
Artemisa shows herself at work in the act of painting wearing a brown apron over her green dress, her sleeves rolled up to show muscular forearms. She leans on a stone slab used for grinding pigments, on which is her signature her initials A. G. and F. for ‘Fecit’ [made].
The area of brown behind her has been interpreted as background, or a blank canvas on which she is about to paint. It looks like prepared canvas and was always thinly painted, but it is worn and may bear a closer resemblance than was the artist’s intention.
Artemisia has followed the description of Pittura in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a handbook for artists. In it Pittura or Painting is ‘a beautiful woman with full black hair, dishevelled and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tie behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently coloured drapery …’ The gagged mouth, showing that painting is dumb, is left out, but the artist has dishevelled hair (representing divine frenzy or artistic creation); she has the chain and mask of imitation and the iridescence of her dress is shot silk.
Artemisia gaze is fixed beyond the painting, her raised paint brush at the ready. The impasto highlights on her forehead and the dazzling light on face signifies intellect and inspiration.
The portrait is Artemisia, but it is not a literal self-portrait. Instead the artist has fused the tradition of the artist’s self-portrait with the allegory of Pittura, the very act of painting itself.
The painting is recorded in Charles I’s collection as ‘A Pintura A painteinge: by Arthemisia’.