Artemisia speaking to power

Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Esther before Ahasuerus', about 1628–30

The National Gallery, London

Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia GentileschiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artemisia's largest known canvas was probably painted when she was living and working in Venice, between 1626/7 and 1630.

Now in her mid-thirties, the 'excellent and learned' Artemisia was a celebrity and she seems to have occupied a central place in the city's artistic and cultural life.

The Venetian love of entertainments and grand paintings full of richly-dressed figures may have inspired the theatricality of this composition. 

The setting is stage-like and the strong lighting directional. 

The elaborate, fanciful costumes also have a distinctly theatrical appearance.

This is particularly true of King Ahasuerus, who wears elaborate puffed sleeves and a crown atop an extravagantly feathered cap.

Venetian patrons had a great love for fine fabrics and rich colour in their art. 

Artemisia, who was skilled in handling both, gives a fine display of her talents.

The story Artemisia depicts is dramatic.

Esther, the young Jewish bride of the Persian king, Ahasuerus, has come before him in her finest clothes.

She has been fasting for three days and bears a great sadness in her heart. 

The king’s chief adviser has recently decreed that the Jewish people be massacred and she feels she must speak out. 

Knowing that entering the king’s presence unbidden is punishable by death, and weakened by hunger, she collapses. 

Her maidservants rush to her aid.

Esther appears deathly pale and lifeless. 

Shocked by her appearance, Ahasuerus is prompted to act. 

He not only pardons Esther's intrusion into the throne room, he overturns the decree. 

Thanks to her act of courage, Esther becomes one of the great heroines of early Jewish history as recounted in the Old Testament.

Artemisia closely based this picture on a work by the 16th-century Venetian artist, Paolo Veronese.  

She made quite a few changes to the composition during the painting process.

By the bottom steps of Ahasuerus's throne, where the upper layers of paint have become transparent with age, it is possible to see the traces of the legs of a large dog she had originally included. 

Artemisia opens up a space between the two main protagonists, amplifying the psychological tension of the story and the gulf between Esther and the king, both in terms of power and understanding.

Amid the ostensible theatricality, the fine fabrics and jewels, Artemisia demonstrates her great ability to imagine the lived experience of this situation from a female point of view.

Esther's story is one of a young woman's bravery in the face of danger, and of speaking out in the face of power.

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