Mary Garrard’s compelling new book Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe was supposed to publish on May 1 in the United States, but (like so many things) it was delayed for months due to COVID-19, so arrived instead in mid-September. It’s more than worth waiting for, and, as it turns out, the timing is good. A major exhibition of Artemisia’s work at the National Gallery in London had been due to open this past spring, but was put on hold on account of the pandemic and is now opening in early October.
There’s not a little irony in reading Garrard’s lively account of a 17th-century artist’s life wherein plague is plentiful — Artemisia likely died of it — when a plague (or at least pandemic) is back on the table. How strange that a book about the late Renaissance and Baroque would now prove so very much of our time. It’s timely in the sense of the aforementioned deadly and contagious illness, but also features tyranny, religious persecution and reaction. And it is timely in its exploration of feminist outrage at patriarchal power, of men’s control over women’s bodies, and in the exploration of an art of anger, accusation, and even great wit. It’s a lot and it’s awesome.
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Garrard handles Artemisia’s life, art and culture — both the well-known and less so — with careful scholarship and winning brio. One of the founders of feminist art history, alongside Linda Nochlin, who died in 2017, and Griselda Pollock, recent winner of the esteemed (and lucrative) Holberg Prize, Garrard is an admired art historian who is all too rare: a light touch with weighty material (witness chapter five, “Battle of the Sexes: Women on Top”). She approaches Artemisia with the thoroughness of a scholar, but proffers her knowledge with contemporary insight and humor.
Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of the once better-known Baroque painter Orazio Gentileschi, is undoubtedly the most recognized woman artist of the early modern era. Her work is regularly shared across social media; there have been films, novels, plays about her life, and just this week, a piece about her in The New Yorker. This is not a bad run for an artist mostly overlooked until the early 20th century (although to be fair, so was Caravaggio).
Today, Artemisia’s art and life are often reduced to her rape as a teenager by an artist colleague of her father. Garrard doesn’t gloss over the rape or infamous trial that followed — wherein Artemisia underwent a pelvic exam supervised by the court and public torture of her hand, a particularly brutal ordeal for a budding artist — but resists allowing it to dominate Artemisia’s story. Garrard describes Artemisia’s most recognized (and shared) work, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” (c. 1618-20) often interpreted as an artistic vendetta:
It is important to remember that this is art, not psychotherapy. The pictorial revenge that Artemisia took on her rapist was not a defensive psychological reaction by a female victim, but might be better understood as poetic justice — a playful, imaginative expression of retribution she was due.
Rather than focusing on the bloody act, Garrard draws our attention to the women in Artemisia’s painting — Judith and her maidservant Abra — who work in unison to get the dirty job done. Judith and Holofernes were not unusual subjects in Renaissance and Baroque art (see Botticelli, Donatello, Caravaggio, et al), so Artemisia’s innovation lies not in depicting a woman beheading a man, but in representing a powerful sisterhood.
Garrard’s book is part of the Renaissance Lives series from book publisher Reaktion, the only title out of 17 so far that’s dedicated to a woman. But as Garrard’s own title indicates, she’s not interested in the myth of the “exceptional woman.” Rather, she situates Artemisia as an artist inspired by, and in community with, other talented and explicitly feminist women, especially writers.
Scholars sniff that Artemisia’s fans project a modern concept, anachronistically, on to an artist who painted before the term “feminist” was invented. Yet feminism was a vital force before it was given that name, and Artemisia’s embrace of feminism was a distinctive component of her claim to fame.
Garrard, it’s clear, is a different kind of scholar — one not satisfied with simply exploring the past, but is about clarifying its connection across time, how it helps create us, how it might warn us. “Over and over, women’s voices are heard in their own time, then seem to die away,” she writes. “But history is created by repetition and magnification — something men have been quite good at — and if a woman artist or writer is not augmented through these tools, her ars will not be longa.”
Visual art has the benefit of endurance and of quick transmission, especially now. Probably most people reading this have seen Artemisia’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” before, but likely very few have read Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. Pizan’s early 15th-century work — a recitation and recovery of important women of history — was written in reaction to the widespread publication of misogynist texts in her own time. It attempted to reveal the hidden legacy of women’s achievements and to offer a blueprint for the future. If such an undertaking sounds exceedingly familiar, it is. “The ideal of a transhistorical community of women that extends into the present permeates the long catalogue of female paragons named by Christine de Pizan,” writes Garrard. “The same impulse motivated Judy Chicago to create The Dinner Party during the ‘second-wave’ feminist movement in 1970s America.” In Chicago’s piece, both de Pizan and Artemisia have a place at the table.
It’s the same impulse that makes Garrard’s book on Artemisia and her 17-century feminist counterparts feel so urgent today. Much more than an exploration of a singular female artist of the Italian Baroque, it’s a map of interconnected traditions, intellectual conversations, inspirations and leapfrogging, a whole network of early modern European feminists in conversation with one another, and with us, across time.
Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe (Reaktion, 2020), by Mary D. Garrard, is now available on Bookshop.