Self Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1615-18) by Artemisia GentileschiWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) is celebrated as a portraitist and imaginative interpreter of popular biblical and historical themes.
The striking Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was recorded in a 1638 inventory of the Florentine Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici’s possessions.
The painting had likely been commissioned by the duke in about 1616, when Artemisia was 25 years old and a new member of the drawing academy, the Accademia del Disegno, in Florence.
The dark ground behind Artemisia reveals the influence of the artist Caravaggio, an associate of Artemisia’s father, who set his subjects in high contrast against dark grounds, but the dark backdrop of Artemisia’s painting also creates a sense of drama that mirrored current innovations in theatrical stage design.
In her self-portraits, Artemisia often experimented with different characters and identities.
In Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, the artist wears a low-cut bodice and suggestively tilts her head towards the viewer, leading to speculation that Artemisia sought to depict herself as a courtesan.
In addition, musical instruments like the lute that Artemisia gently plays often served as metaphors for sexual contact by early modern artists and writers.
However, Artemisia more likely represented herself as a gypsy, an increasingly popular character in seventeenth-century drama and the subject of plays written for the Medici court.