Paintings You Should Know: Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’, 1638-39

Artemisia Gentileschi Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting 1638to9
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-9

That Artemisia Gentileschi (1590-c.1654) is one of the best-known female Baroque artists is, sadly, due less to her talent as an artist than it is to the scandal which marred her teenage years, when she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a ‘friend’ of her father Orazio Gentileschi. Having initially endeavoured to salvage her honour through marriage to Tassi (a horrifying thought today, but no more than Artemisia’s rights by the standard of the time), Artemisia and her father ultimately took Tassi to court and, impressively, won. Tassi went to prison, and Artemisia’s artistic skill was overshadowed by the drama.

But if society expected Artemisia to hide her shame in obscurity they were to be disappointed. Encouraged by her father, in whose workshop she had trained from an early age, she became a powerful artist, transmuting the weakness imposed on her by society into strength.

It is this strength which is evident in ‘Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’, as it is in many of Artemisia’s paintings. Here is no passive female displayed for the male gaze and preoccupied with her garments and appearance: Artemisia portrays herself active, preoccupied with the creation of her work. There is strength in the bared arm, passion in the subtly dishevelled hair, concentration in her gaze. The influence of Caravaggio is apparent in the use of foreshortening and the strong contrast between the light that falls on the artist’s face and the shadows which fall behind her.

And if using herself as the very embodiment of painting seems arrogant, it needs to be borne in mind that allegorical figures at the time were invariably female, and that supreme self-confidence and determined self-promotion remain, for many artists, the difference between success and obscurity.

‘Allegory’ measures 96.5cm by 73.7cm and is painted in oil on canvas. It is held in the Royal Collection of the British royal family.

Over the course of her career, Artemisia herself would travel to England as well as living and working in the great artistic centres of Italy: Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. In 1613 she married Pierantonio Stiattesi, a fellow artist from Florence, and they had a single child, a daughter Prudentia, also known as Palmira, who was also trained as a painter although nothing is known of her work today. Many of Artemisia’s works feature women, and they are almost always shown as strong, active people: Judith and her maidservant show grim determination in her most famous work, ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’, and Susanna twists away from her tormentors in active repulsion in the early painting ‘Susanna and the Elders’, to give just two examples.

The last extant record of Artemisia dates from 1654, and it is speculated that she died in an outbreak of plague which swept Naples in 1656.

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