Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting c.1638-9

Royal Collection Trust, UK

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

Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting is the most famous self-portrait by a female artist. Uniquely she combines features of her own portrait with the depiction of the female personification of Painting, something that only a female artist could do. She was one the most successful painters of seventeenth century Italy and her image was much in demand.

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

Artemisa shows herself at work, her paintbrush poised in mid-air, wearing a brown apron over her fine, green silk dress and lace-trimmed chemise. Her sleeves are rolled up to show muscular forearms. She is leaning on a stone slab used for grinding pigments. The lively brushwork reflects the energy of the inspired painter at work.

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

Her face with her intense concentrated gaze is bathed in dazzling light, signifying intellect and inspiration, and her dark unkempt hair the divine frenzy of artistic creation.

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.

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

The artist leans on a stone slab used for grinding pigments, on which is her signature in large letters. A. G. and F. for ‘Fecit’ [made]. The prominence of the letters associates Artemisia with the personification of Painting.

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; she has the chain and mask of imitation and the iridescence of her dress is shot silk.

Whether or not the portrait is a literal self-portrait or an allegorical depiction of Painting has been much debated, as has the date of the painting.

The position in which Artemisia has portrayed herself would have been extremely difficult for the artist to capture, yet the work is economically painted, with very few pentiments. In order to view her own image she may 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.

Artemisia may have painted the portrait in Naples and sent it to Charles I before she arrived in person in 1638. Alternatively she may have brought it with her. Or she may have painted it in London.

However, Artemisia was in in her mid-forties when she reached London while the artist in this portrait appears to be in her twenties or early thirties.

The application of paint is economical, lively and accomplished, which is typical of Artemisia’s work in Naples in the 1630s. If this is a literal self-portrait by Artemisia painted in the 1630s she would still be too old for the likeness in the painting. Therefore it is unlikely that the portrait is an accurate self-portrait, but rather it is self-referential, so that Artemisia is unequivocally identified with this image of an artist at work.

Underdrawing along her left arm may indicate where she marked out a position for her arm: quick, expert brushwork barely suggests her left arm and hand and its reflection on the stone slab on which she is resting.

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

She leaves the ground of the painting exposed to suggest areas of shadow, such as the rolled-up sleeve of her right arm, where fluid strokes of white delineating the edge of her sleeve meet the brown shadow of exposed ground.

By juxtaposing a few strokes of mauve next to green, and touches of white Artemisia depicts a dress which would have been woven with green warp and mauve weft threads creating a changeable surface or shot silk effect

The white lace of her chemise is conveyed by a few touches of lively, fluid strokes of white.

The luminous impasto paint on her forehand is the focal point of the composition showing the power of the imagination and the mind.

There is a single precise stroke of white for the highlight on Artemisia’s thumb nail of her right hand

the tip of her nose,

the catchlight on her left eye.

The mask glints subtly against the very similar beige and browns.

There are very few changes in the painting. One exception is a minor adjustment to the position of the fingers of her right hand, which are different in infra-red reflectography and x-radiography, as the artist resolved this area, eventually lengthening the index finger.

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

In this extraordinary portrait Artemisia has brilliantly fused two visual traditions, that of the artist’s self portrait with the allegory of Pittura, the very act of painting itself, in a unique masterpiece.

Credits: Story

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

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