Lady in Red: Artemisia Gentileschi's Enduring Legacy

As Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait embarks on its UK tour, stopping first at Glasgow Women’s Library, we look at the legacy of the feminist icon as an artist and assault survivor

Feature by Mel Reeve | 05 Mar 2019
  • Artemisia Gentileschi - Self Portrait

She sits in a dark red dress, her hand resting on a broken wheel with large, vicious-looking iron spikes. Her face is unforgiving yet knowing, staring out at you with judgement, perhaps even disappointment in her eyes. Her chin is tilted up, maybe defensive or maybe proud. This is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and what that look in her eyes means seems to depend on how much you know about her life or how much of herself you believe she put into it.

Painted between 1615-17 and purchased by the National Gallery in 2018, the self-portrait is due to begin a tour of the country in March, starting in Scotland. Throughout the tour it will be hosted in unexpected locations and there is perhaps no more appropriate temporary home for the painting than Glasgow Women’s Library. The work of the artist and subject of the portrait, Artemisia Gentileschi, causes intense fascination and speculation whenever on display. Gentileschi was a painter, a woman, an artist, and a survivor of sexual assault. She was the first woman to join the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence and had a successful career, painting for clients around the world. She was all these things, yet her achievements are often qualified by the identifiers of woman and survivor before artist. The traumatic experience she survived is frequently used as a lens through which we project our own perceptions of her life experiences. An article in The Guardian announced the purchase of the self-portrait by describing how it 'alludes to her rape trial' within its first sentence, despite the only evidence of that being our own interpretations of the meaning behind the work.

In 1611, around a year after her first surviving work, Susanna and the Elders, was completed, Gentileschi was raped by one of her father’s colleagues. Nine months after the assault, Gentileschi’s father pressed charges against Tassi, the rapist, for taking his daughter’s virginity, beginning a seven-month-long trial. Extensive records of the trial survive. We know that her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was only able to press charges on the grounds that Artemisia was a virgin before the rape. Artemisia herself describes the assault in graphic detail, including the fact that she attempted to stab Tassi in revenge. Her rapist offered to marry her, which she agreed to, but this never progressed.

During the trial, Gentileschi was tortured with thumbscrews to verify her testimony, a horrendous image to a modern reader. In The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History, Elizabeth S. Cohen argues that this horror reveals something about our perceptions of our own justice system, writing that "while [Gentileschi] had to endure solitary interrogation, formal confrontation with her rapist, and some minutes of physical torture, [she] did not face the public ordeal of a modern jury trial with its hostile cross-examinations and legal dramatics.” Cohen’s point speaks true given how the Scottish Justice System treats survivors, and the problems around the uniquely Scottish verdict of 'not proven,' as well as the need under Scottish law for corroboration. Between 2016 and 2017, just 39% of rape cases prosecuted in Scotland resulted in a conviction, the lowest conviction rate in eight years. The majority of reported rapes never even make it to court.

Glasgow Women’s Library is hosting the Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria alongside their Decoding Inequality exhibition. Saint Catherine is now known more for the burning, spinning wheel on fireworks night, but at the time she was recognised as the patron saint of maidens and female students – perhaps a feminist symbol for the ages. Speaking to Sue John, Enterprise and Development Manager of the GWL, about the painting making its first stop in Glasgow, she reflects on the dichotomy of Gentileschi as artist, woman and survivor. “I think feminism has been keen to have its icons,” she says. “It’s important for us that we’ve claimed women and claimed their experiences.” She underscores the importance of this painting being hosted at an accessible, community space like GWL rather than a traditional gallery: “It’s valuing local people, or people that have maybe never been to a gallery before, along with everybody else.”

In her painting, Gentileschi seems to stand tall and strong, perhaps enduring through the years with the weight of her trauma. Sue John describes how we see strength in the face of Gentileschi as Saint Catherine: “There’s a power in the way that she’s staring out, drawing you in as the viewer.” How we perceive the expression on her face is a reminder of how powerful and evocative the narrative of Gentileschi as the empowered survivor is; it’s something that survivors like myself want to believe in.

But it’s important for us to look at Gentileschi as a whole, to give her the respect of seeing that specific experience as part of her total being. As a society, we tend to view survivors as 'others,' whether we’re elevating them to a surreal, non-human martyr status (as has happened with Gentileschi), or shaming and blaming them. Mythologising survivors in this way allows us to ignore their existence and turn the perpetrators of this violence into scary, secret Bogeyman figures, instead of acknowledging an endemic problem within our society.

If we want Gentileschi to represent all of the things we project onto her then we have to do it right. When you look at her hands in this portrait, you can remember the thumbscrews from her trial – and it’s right to afford that the horror and anger it should induce – but we shouldn’t let that be all. Think of her hands holding the paintbrush too, something she did for many more hours and years of her life. It’s hard not to look at her work and believe that she was trying to tell us something, that there are clues of her feelings and experiences in her art for us to unpick. As Sue John explains, “In the public eye those definitions become the story. Does that mean we’re looking less at her work and less at her as an artist and only focusing on those two things of erasure and her as a survivor?” To counter one definition becoming Gentileschi’s defining story, GWL are showing the self-portrait with multiple interpretations, as well as displaying the National Gallery’s own official, written interpretation of the work.

When I think about sitting in front of Gentileschi’s work, seeing the strokes of her paintbrush up close, of course I think about Gentileschi as a survivor, a woman, and a creative. Her self-portrait allows us to see a glimpse of how she saw herself, but even then, she is wearing a costume. I find myself wondering what she thought would be the defining record of her life, and then I realise that most people don’t think of themselves that way. We live, we make and be and exist as complicated, breathing people – whole beings made out of a myriad of experiences.

We look at Gentileschi’s paintings to try and understand what she thought and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, what do we lose when we look at those painted eyes and try to see hers looking back at us? It’s hard not to look at her work and want to believe that she was leaving secrets in it for us, but if we strip away our constructions and remember that she was a living person, we find that the eyes looking out from that self-portrait are perhaps our own – that we are using Gentileschi’s work as a way to hold our own world up to the light.

Artemisia Gentileschi's Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will be at Glasgow Women’s Library 6-19 Mar