FEMALE BAROQUE ARTIST SEEN AS INSPIRATION FOR MODERN WOMEN
THE ITALIAN PAINTER Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) has become a modern heroine of sorts, the topic of novels, countless academic papers, and a documentary. Artemisia, who painted in the baroque style, has also prompted the literary critic Susan Sontag to reflect on the different ways that modern fiction writers handle historical biography.
In an essay and book review about Artemisia, Sontag said fictional treatments of the past typically take three approaches: the historical novel, the biographical novel, and the fictionalized biography.
While the three distinctions are subtle (or even non-existent), Sontag’s point is that the first novel about the painter—a novel titled Artemisia (1947) and written by the Italian art critic Anna Banti—followed none of the three.
Writing in Italy during WWII, Banti had at first completed a kind of documentary novel about Artemisia by 1945. Then the manuscript was lost in her native city of Florence during the final battle that ousted the Germans. Naturally distraught, Banti re-wrote the novel, but in an entirely different way. It now is a conversation between her and Artemisia. They share their mutual hardships in a kind of dialogue, what Sontag calls a story “about a woman of great accomplishment [Banti] haunted by another woman of great accomplishment [Artemisia].”
Besides Artemisia’s milestone achievements—the first woman accepted in the Florence Academy, a friend of Galileo, and a painter of masterworks in Rome, Florence, Naples, and London—she is remembered mostly for one great injustice. At age eighteen, she was raped by a man who worked with her father. Her father, also a noted baroque painter, followed Caravaggio and taught his daughter those techniques of dramatic dark and light (known as chiaroscuro).
The father took the rapist to trial (actually, over a stolen painting), and the trial exposed Artemisia to great public humiliation. Having lost her mother, Artemisia had a life-long, and problematic, relationship to her father as both only parent and art mentor. In fictional treatments, Artemisia usually hates him for his allowing the trial. Still, she must also love him for being her blood and her teacher. He gave her a path to professional accomplishment.
As a literary critic, Sontag is an uber-feminist, of course. Thus, for her money, both Banti and Artemisia had become too dependent on a male figure. For Banti, the dependence was on her husband, the famous art historian Roberto Longhi (who, in fact, wrote the first historical essay on Artemisia, bringing her obscure past to the attention of the scholarly art world). In Artemisia’s case, Sontag says she was probably too dependent on her father, and thus it shows up in fictional treatments as well.
For instance, in the Banti novel, Sontag notes, the most thrilling part is about Artemisia making the daunting trip to London to join her father. By comparison, the Banti novel has Artemisia narrating her rape simply by telling the sad tale to Banti in conversation, then resting her head on the author’s shoulder. In short, Sontag does not find either woman modern enough.
Banti, writing elsewhere, has said that her novel hoped to show Artemisia’s quest to “to be justified, to be avenged, to be in command.” Artimesia is the classic proud and indignant woman. And yet Banti’s novel is not built on the “women’s rage and women’s victimization” (Sontag's phrase) that typifies modern feminist literature. Sontag mildly regrets this, since the historical Artemisia has such potential for evoking those particular emotions.
Many years after Banti’s effort, two more novels have told Artemisia’s story. Neither has the experimental tone of Banti’s work, putting both of them more clearly in Sontag’s categories for historical biography. The two novels are: Artemisia (1998) by the French author Alexandra Lapierre and The Passion of Artemisia (2002) by the American author Susan Vreeland. (Vreeland’s novel will be looked at more closely in Part II).
Both the Lapierre and Vreeland novels have had to ask: Should the novel stay with the facts, dull as they may be sometimes? Should new significant facts be invented to dramatize or smooth the narrative? And, finally, should the story have an agenda—picking heroes and villains, that is—or look for a more complex story in the factual evidence?
To simplify, the French author Lapierre sticks with facts and adds ambiguity in judging the characters. In contrast, Vreeland invents facts for dramatic effect and presents her tale as a morality play with clear victims and oppressors.
The French author Lapierre, whose Artemisia novel was translated into English in 2002, began with a purely factual agenda. She wanted to write a nonfiction biography of Artemisia, putting the painter and her painter-father, Orazio, “back into the historical, religious and social contexts of the various worlds that they had inhabited.” But to do so, she decided, would finally require her to “fictionalize elements of the story.” The sixty pages of academic notes in the back of the novel testify to its factual accuracy, at least in explaining why Lapierre “adopted certain theories and why I made the choices I did.”
The “novel” is impressive for it details, organizing its chronology of events in forty-one sections. These bear titles ranging from “The First Five Months After the Rape,” to “Artemisia’s Bedroom,” “Travelling between Rome and Florence,” “Florence in Galileo’s Day,” and “The Queen’s House in Greenwich,” where Artemisia painted ceiling panels with her father.
By the time Lapierre wrote her novel, already “there were drawers full of doctoral theses on Artemisia Gentileschi in universities across the United States.” Yet the baroque painter did not fully enter upmarket commercial fiction until Vreeland seized on the topic—to be discussed next in Part II.