Tuesday, March 18, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Self Portrait as a Lute Player (Artemisia Gentileschi)

The truth of the matter is, if you were a woman in the 17th century wanting to be in the ranks as an artist with the likes of Caravaggio, you had to be pretty strong and pretty good at painting.  One artist was able to do that, and her name was Artemisia.  She clearly had a lot of inspiration from her contemporaries, especially Caravaggio.  If you didn't already know her work, you wouldn't think it was executed by a woman simply by looking.  Many of her paintings portray darkness, both in appearance and in subject matter.  It could very easily be mistaken for Caravaggio or Tintoretto.  Of course, she was also influenced and taught by her own father Orazio Gentileschi, also influenced by Caravaggio later on in his career.  Artemisia's depiction of "Judith Beheading Holofernes" is a near copy, at least in composition, of Caravaggio's version.  Artemisia certainly did not sugar-coat that painting or make it appear less graphic.  She knew that if she wanted to be great, it was an uphill battle and she had to pull out all the stops.
Artemisia was particularly drawn to the story of Judith, and any other story that involved a female protagonist coming out of adversity in some way.  Perhaps she saw herself in these stories somehow, as a woman trying to become something great in a time and place where it wasn't exactly something easy to do.
So this brings me to her "Self Portrait as a Lute Player."  For one thing, I do love the execution and the handling of the material in this painting.  It is great as usual for Artemisia.  But I also love the way this painting embodies everything I've talked about with her story.  It wasn't enough for her to just be a good painter, but as a woman she had to be assertive as well.  At one point in her life, she was raped, and yet it did not stop her.  So when I look at this self-portrait, I see the tenderness of a woman as she plays the lute, as well as the sensuality of her dress (another quality frequently seen in her work).  But then I also see the assertive look on her face.  This is the look of a woman who is determined to be something great, and even to rise above some of the men in her work.  So when I think of Artemisia's story, I look at this painting as the quintessential self-portrait because it portrays everything that she was.

Self Portrait as a Lute Player
oil on canvas
c. 1615-17

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