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Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery: A Promise for Change or Warning Signal?

Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery: A Promise for Change or Warning Signal?

Known for a life of fight and struggle, this year Artemisia Gentileschi had to confront yet another challenge: Covid-19. Neither the patriarchy of the 17th century nor personal traumas stopped her from becoming the most well-known female Baroque painter (1593 – 1654), and it’s safe to say that the pandemic has not prevented her legacy from being heard (and seen). Despite the exhibits unfortunate postponement due to a national lockdown in April, it did eventually open to the public on October 3rd at the National Gallery in London, and will run until January 24th

The exhibition represents an accomplishment not only in the face of the virus, but also for the history of the gallery itself. As Johanna Moorhead points out, this is the first time that, since its foundation in 1824, the National Gallery has dedicated a major show to a female artist. Recent discoveries of both paintings and documents, including intimate love letters and original court transcripts from her rape trial in 1612, have brought Artemisia’s tumultuous life and art into closer focus.

Walking through the gallery’s rooms, one has the feeling of diving into “a Scorsese film shot in 17th-century Italy’s meanest streets. The visceral and highly dramatic paintings on loan from private and public collections around the world have reached British soil for the first time, which has allowed the public to trace Artemisia’s career from her training in Rome under her father Orazio Gentileschi, to a new independence in Florence and, finally, her death in Naples.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620. Oil on canvas, 146.5 x 108 cm, The Uffizi, Florence.

Highlights such as the two iconic versions of Judith beheading Holofernes (1612-13 and 16120) are displayed alongside recently re-discovered and less well-known paintings, allowing for a more rounded view of the painter’s career. Among these, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39), realised by a mature Artemisia at the court of Charles I, is evidence of her brief stay in London as well as of the powerful image of painting personified as a woman, this woman being none other than Artemisia herself.

Throughout all the exhibition, biblical and historical heroines are immortalised in a wide range of actions and emotional states, ranging from the quasi-erotic self-abandonment of Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1620-25) to Judith’s ferocity and hunger for vengeance. These paintings ultimately become expressions of Artemisia herself, in which many figures imitate the likeness of the painter.

The curator Letizia Treves praised the way in which Artemisia managed to ‘put herself in the shoes of her protagonists’, an ability that made her art unique compared to her male contemporaries and appealed to patrons. Treves also stressed the more vulnerable and human side of the painter, as shown through her personal love letters, hoping that the exhibition will eventually ‘bring Artemisia to life for people’.

Where Are Women’s Paintings In Museums?

The idea to dedicate an exhibition to the famous female Baroque painter did not come out of the blue, but rather can be traced back to 2018 when the National Gallery acquired Artemisia’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17) through the support of various patrons. Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research, explained how this acquisition was particularly significant for the museum, as they had always wanted to represent ‘a powerful role model for women’ such as Artemisia.

“Gentileschi was a pioneer, a master storyteller, and one of the most progressive and expressive painters of the period” says Hannah Rothschild CBE, who in 2015 became the first woman to chair the National Gallery Board of Trustees. The choice to represent Artemisia lies in the museum’s intention to incentivise a new narration of women artists throughout history. At the same time, a name as famous as Artemisia’s can only add more value to the collection. 

Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery
Artemisia Gentileschi Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1615-17. Oil on canvas, 71.4 × 69 cm, The National Gallery, London.

However, the ‘newcomer’ is only one of twenty-one paintings by women in the permanent collection, as opposed to the 2,300 artworks by male artists. “It seems a rebalancing is overdue” justly writes Sheila McTighe. Digging more into the numbers, we find out that while in 2018 Artemisia’s self-portrait was bought together with a work by fellow female artist Bridget Riley, nine paintings by men simultaneously entered the collection that same year. It seems like the numbers speak pretty much for themselves, or maybe not? 

The imbalance between female and male artists within the collection cannot be explained simply through an examination of the practices of the National Gallery but through looking at the history of exclusion and discrimination of women in the arts, which can be seen long before the National Gallery’s foundation.

Female painters have often struggled to be acknowledged in art history. In her famous 1971 article, Linda Nochlin tried to give an answer to the question: ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. Nochlin argues that the problem lies in the nature of social institutions, rather than in the nature of individual genius or the lack thereof. From the 16th to the 19th centuries women were excluded from male life drawing classes and were frequently subjected to harassment and prejudices of their male colleagues. Even in situations where they were able to receive training and have the means to produce artworks, they were often not considered to be worth keeping or looking after.

This has led many museums to struggle to put on female-only exhibitions due to the limited number of works available. As Tricia Allerston, Deputy Director at the National Galleries of Scotland, has stated, “There aren’t a lot of works out there, particularly works you can show permanently”. This has created a huge amount of competition among institutions when it comes to purchasing works by female artists, while even loaning works can prove difficult as Letizia Treves has admitted after finding it challenging to get some of Artemisia’s paintings on loan for the exhibition in question.

This scarce availability of artworks has ultimately put even more responsibility on the shoulders of museums. If “you can’t show what you don’t have”, continues Allerston, ‘it means that you have to do a lot with what you do have’ and it certainly seems like the National Gallery has made the most out of its new acquisition by building a whole exhibition around it.

Hopefully, as time progresses, the continuation of exhibits like Artemisia will help shed light on other less-known women artists, such as, Rachel Ruysch, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Rosa Bonheur to name a few. As of now, the National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, has acknowledged the gaps of the museum and is positively pushing towards change:

Although it is far more difficult for us to purchase great works by women artists, the National Gallery regularly works with women artists for its exhibitions and other programmes

Dr Gabriele Finaldi

Judith Beheading Holofernes or Holofernes Beheading Judith?

As much as Artemisia Gentileschi’s exhibition can be considered a landmark in the National Gallery’s history and in the history of art, we must not take the easy way out by believing that everything is fine now, because it is not. History has shown what patriarchal structures can do to the work of women, and it would be a mistake to believe that with the new century these problems have simply faded away. In fact, now more than ever they should be brought to the fore and addressed with total awareness.

The contemporary art world continues to be influenced by historic inequality. Earlier this year, the Freelands Foundation commissioned a report on the Representation of Female Artists in Britain During 2019 in order to untangle the role played by gender in the career of artists.

Once again, numbers come in handy.

The study conducted by Dr Kate McMillan shows that 68% of artists represented in major London commercial galleries are men, even though the majority of creative art graduates are women. This is then reflected in international art fairs such as Frieze, where in 2019 only 34% of the artworks on display were by female artists, showing a 4% decline from the previous year.

These statistics highlight deeper concerns as, Dr McMillan explains, the commercial sector ultimately dictates the trends of the contemporary art scene, influencing public galleries and museums as well. “We really have to stop celebrating creativity depending on how it’s monetized by the art market” urges Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern and vocal supporter of diversity.

Fortunately, new possibilities are pushing towards change. With the rise of digitalisation came the growth of the online art market. This has provided artists with alternative ways to present and promote their art, overcoming the complications and expenses of mediation by commercial galleries. Online platforms like Artfinder substitute traditional galleries as they minimise the gap between independent artists and buyers. Positive shifts on both sides of the transaction have been recorded.

The Artfinder Independent Art Market Report has shown that women make up 53% of their artists, selling more art for a greater value than their male colleagues. At the same time, people ages 25 through 34 constitute the fastest growing group of online buyers, differing from the traditional art collectors. This might show a new interest among artists, both female and male, towards what appears as a more democratic alternative to conventional galleries. Simultaneously, it proves that younger generations can play a significant role too in supporting independent artists.

Yet, the art market is still deeply bound to tradition, where progress is not often seen as a priority.

Leading auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s set not only the price of artworks, but often determine their visibility and acknowledgment. Unfortunately, patterns of underrepresentation and undervaluation of female artists are “the rule, not the exception”, as indicated by Julia Vennitti for artnet.

A joint investigation by artnet News and In Other Words has revealed that out of the $196.6 billion spent on art at auctions in the last decade, only $4 billion were spent on women’s artworks. $4 billion: that is 2% of the total sales or, if you prefer, less than what Pablo Picasso’s works generated in the same period. Out of the $4 billion, then, $1.6 billion are accounted for by just five artists. The so-called ‘superstar effect’ throws the art market of women artists into a never-ending cycle, whereby only certain token artists are actually valued, while the others remain in the shadow.

Again, historical precedence is one of the explanations for this imbalance, but not the only one. A group of researchers at the University of Luxembourg tried to link auction price differences to particular cultural attitudes towards women. As part of the experiments, they randomly associated fake male and female artists’ names with images of paintings and asked thousands of participants to rate them. Results show that images associated to female painters received lower ratings. In particular, affluent men who visit art galleries and correspond to the typical art auction bidder showed lower appreciation.

Rating art can be a tricky case study, for ultimately all judgment is subjective. Yet, results of the study should raise some concerns about what preconceptions and prejudgements influence people’s perception of art. If these biases are not taken into account, female artists will keep suffering from ‘the burden of history, deregulation and unaccountability’ (McMillen). Add to the formula the inequalities and challenges brought on by the current pandemic and the present doesn’t seem so bright anymore.

Statistics and percentages are clear: the gender gap in art history is still pronounced. Jennifer Higgie emphasises in the report how it is “essential that a very bright light continues to be cast on the dark spaces of discrimination that continue to flourish in the arts“.

Although we cannot change the problems and contradictions of history, we cannot just accept that these belong to the past exclusively. It is our duty to dig deeper into facts and question what we are presented with. There is a whole world of injustice and unaccountability behind optimistic headlines and common beliefs. It would be great to look at Judith beheading Holofernes and think that revenge has been accomplished. But what about the institutions influenced by a continued pattern of patriarchy ready to punish and silence Judith for her actions? Acknowledging the problem is the very first step towards change. 

In the meantime, let’s hope that the National Gallery’s exhibition will make Artemisia’s famous words resonate louder: “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do“. 


Written by Alessandra Marchesi. Illustrated by Andrea Miranda

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