Artemisia putting herself in the picture

Artemisia Gentileschi's use of self portraits in her art

The National Gallery, London

Artemisia Gentileschi Romana Famosissima Pittrice Accad. Ne' Desiosi, Print made by Jérôme David. After Artemisia Gentileschi, 1628 (circa), From the collection of: British Museum
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Portrait of a Young Woman as a Sibyl, Orazio Gentileschi, c. 1620, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Self Portrait as a Lute Player, Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1615-18, From the collection of: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
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We have a good idea what Artemisia looked like from various sources. The print (left) was made after one of Artemisia's own self portraits. The picture (centre) painted by Artemisia's father Orazio is sometimes thought as a work she modelled for, while the one on the right is one of a number Artemisia painted in which she appears in different guises. Each depiction shares the same cupid-bow lips, rounded face fully fleshed beneath the chin, curly hair, heavily lidded eyes and firm eyebrows. 

Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-18) by Artemisia GentileschiWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Artemisia's repeated use of her self portrait in her paintings begins when, aged 19, she moved from her native Rome to Florence.

Possibly wanting to avoid the inconvenience and expense of hiring models in her new home, she may have started using herself as a model.

There was no doubt that Artemisia's unique position as a successful female painter aroused great curiosity among patrons and collectors.

Works including her own image appear to have become highly desirable. 

These pictures helped Artemisia establish herself as a major (and recognisable) artistic talent in the city.

Her work soon attracted the patronage of the ruling Medici family and in 1616 she became the first woman ever admitted to the city's Academy of the Arts of Drawing.

Self Portrait as a Lute Player, Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1615-18, From the collection of: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
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Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, about 1615-17, From the collection of: The National Gallery, London
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Recent technical study has revealed that a number of Artemisia's Florentine pictures featuring herself were created by transferring parts of the design from one canvas to another. When her head and shoulders in her Self Portrait as a Lute Player is compared to the newly discovered Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria the correspondence is striking.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

There is an additional dimension to Artemisia's use of her own image in her paintings. The various guises she adopts may well have had meaning for her, and possibly her patrons too.

Here she appears as the fourth-century martyr, Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Catherine was renowned for her resilience and fortitude. The spiked wheel shown by her side in Artemisia's painting was an instrument of torture to which the saint was bound during her torture.

Artemisia’s adoption of Saint Catherine as a character in this self portrait might have resonated with a difficult episode in Artemisia’s recent past.

In the trial following her rape in 1611 she had had to endure torture (a common form of cross-examination) to secure her assailant’s conviction.

But alongside any personal association with the saint, it is worth noting that depictions of Saint Catherine were particularly popular in Florence at the time. 

The sister of the ruling Grand Duke of Tuscany, Caterina de’ Medici, inspired many artists to create works of her namesake, Saint Catherine. 

Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1612-13) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

Many of Artemisia's heroines appear to share some of her features. And in view of what is known of her personal life, it is tempting to read her works, for the most part, in terms of her biography.

Artemisia's most famous painting, Judith beheading Holofernes, 1612–13, was painted shortly after her rape. In view of this, the picture has often been interpreted as Artemisia's revenge, in paint, on her assailant.

But while Judith's features vaguely resemble Artemisia's own, Holofernes' most certainly do not match what we know of the physical appearance of the man who sexually assaulted her – the painter, Agostino Tassi.

Descriptions suggest that Tassi was plump, slight of build and had a little goatee beard. Hardly a match for the physically powerful and heavily bearded Holofernes.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c.1638-9) by Artemisia GentileschiRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Artemisia's singular status as Italy's most famous female painter ensured an enduring interest in her image.

This Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) was probably painted during her brief stay in London where she was painting at the royal court.

Here she paints herself as the 'allegory' – or symbolic physical embodiment – of Painting. According to the traditions of Artemisia's day, Painting should be depicted as a beautiful woman with black, dishevelled hair wearing a gold chain with a pendant in the form of a mask.

She should also bear a painter's palette and brushes.

It makes sense that Artemisia might paint herself as this female personification of painting. After all, no male artist could do the same.

Here she shows herself with her sleeves rolled up, placing the first marks on a blank canvas.

She leans forward to see round the canvas to her subject beyond. This is Painting in the flow of energetic creativity.

It has been pointed out that the woman depicted looks younger than Artemisia's 40 years at the time she painted it. And others have argued that the angle at which Artemisia paints herself means this can't be a self portrait.

But Artemisia's many years depicting herself would make it unlikely she would need a complex series of mirrors to paint a figure with her likeness. 

In any case, Artemisia’s aim here was not to produce a literal or conventional self portrait, but to identify with her subject.

Importantly, she places her own initials (‘A.G.’) prominently underneath Painting's palette, along with ‘F.’ (short for the Latin word 'fecit', meaning ‘made’). 

The signature therefore means 'Artemisia Gentileschi made this.'

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (1638-1639) by Artemisia GentileschiRoyal Collection Trust, UK

In this way Artemisia firmly asserts herself as both the author of the picture and the embodiment of her own art.

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