Our Patron

The logo for South London Women Artists, shows the strong arm of Artemisia Gentileschi holding a paintbrush. It is a taken from Artemisia’s self-portrait (held in the Queen’s collection). Here some of our members reflect on ‘Our Patron’.

Artemisia Gentileschi

The logo for South London Women Artists, designed by Liz Dalton, shows the strong arm of Artemisia Gentileschi holding a paintbrush. It is a motif taken from Artemisia’s self-portrait (held in the Queen’s collection). These days Artemisia is known for her extraordinary paintings – some more savage than Caravaggio’s – and for her life story.

Artemisia lived in the 17th Century. At age 18 she was raped. Her assailant was found guilty but left unpunished. Later, she took matters into her own hands: painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, in which Judith beheads the bad guy with a heavy sword, followed by another painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. Using these Old Testament stories she spares not a drop of blood. Art critic, Jonathan Jones, describes her as the woman who took revenge in oil.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)

Artemisia was raped. When the case was tried
to whom were the thumbscrews applied?

Not to the rapist to screw out his lies
but to Gentileschi whose teenage cries

were ignored. But she would not be foiled.
She waited, painted her revenge in oil.

After decades of obscurity, Artemesia Gentileschi is now very much present – both in her work and in the mountains of words about her life, her paintings, the importance of her journey to artists, the role of contemporary curators and galleries in bringing her back to our attention and even words casting shade on her supposed lack of painterly skill – the light source is wrong, etc etc etc, you know the sort of thing.

Adding to the pile feels almost impossible. I suspect it’s something to do with where we’re at, at this point in history – some of us have dug deep over the last year and found new channels for our creativity, some of us have been stopped dead in our creative tracks. Many of us have found ways to make this year work, others have lost the footholds which have taken us decades to carve out. Our reliance on outsourcing some of the domestic tasks which go with raising a family took a big hit, and women everywhere have found themselves back in primary roles often without support, or time for themselves. There may be a long-haul journey back from all this, to carve out yet again a space for ourselves.

Artemesia has been with us since the beginning of SLWA. Designed by Liz Dalton, redesigned by Julie Bennet, our logo is taken from her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638–9). This painting is her moment of truth, reached after a long journey of self-reflection and struggle – a declaration of who controls the brush in the painting of own history. In this case Artemisia controls the image, the brush, the narrative and the audience. Hers was a journey full of hurdles, not least the rape trail she had to endure in 1612. Raped by one of her father’s contemporaries, Agostino Tassi, the onus in the trial was on Artemesia herself, tortured to ensure the truth of her story. Joan Byrne’s poem, …………., read out at the opening of The Silence is Over exhibition (SLWA, Portico Gallery 2018) underlines the hypocrisy of the trial of a woman based on her value as marital goods. A solitary open book in a glass case, a fading ink transcription of the trial, reminds us of the value of everything we do daily as creatives to reinforce the agency we now have over our own lives.

Agostino was found guilty but remained unrepentant. Artemisia dug deep and carried on.

A series of self-portraits between 1615 and 1618 seem very modern in their preoccupations with self – she appears as Saint Catherine of Alexandria c1615, as a Female Martyr, c1615, and as a Lute Player in a portrait from 1616-18, stepping effortlessly into different roles, closing in on the one that, later in her life, made that big statement about her relationship to her artistic self, under-pinning her life and work, and that of the SLWA, her self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting.

Her next most iconic painting appears in two versions, painted ten years apart. The first version of Judith Slaying Holofernes was painted in 1612 when Artemesia was only 20, and the second in 1620, a darker more brooding version of the event. They both give more than a brief pause for thought, and add myriad layers of meaning to the sentence painted at the entrance of the exhibition, showing exactly ‘what a woman can do’.

We chose her for good reason with her exceptional talent, her fearlessness, her willingness to take back history into her own hands – a painter’s hands, a woman’s hands. She was a re-teller of our stories, our historical and biblical heroines – Lucretia taking control of her own fate, Lot’s daughters as real women, reluctant, soul-searching. She was a challenging and brilliant woman, and her logo will hopefully go forwards with SLWA as it sets off on new challenges in 2021.

Lucretia, 1623
Self-portrait as Lute Player 1616
Lot and his daughters, 1637
Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria 1615
Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612
Jackie, Pia and Artemesia, 2020

Our logo is taken from a self portrait by the 17th century Italian baroque painter Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later). She was an established artist by the age of 17 despite losing her mother when she was 12, being raped at 17 by her father’s colleague and tortured during the trial. An independent business woman and gifted painter, she was sought after for commissions where she repeatedly depicted narratives of strong women in her work.

Me and Artemisia Gentileschi having a chat…in my head!

If Artemisia Gentileschi had time to sit and take a break and have a chat with me I think she would be lively and interesting company; beguiling, knowledgable and funny. There is evidence in her letters.

From reading her history she has made good friendships with both women and men; she is a generous collaborator and mentor; an efficient pupil and skilled. In fact, I see evidence of her close bonds with women from her paintings; Judith and her Maidservant, Bathsheba in the Bath.

I would not want to dwell on her rape, her torture, her marriage, her lover, as time with her would be precious; such large canvases to complete, another idea to pursue, another commission, her proudly one of the highest earning artist of her day. She’d need to pack her studio to travel to Florence, Venice, Naples, London…

I would not try to pry into her relationship with her father, her daughter and her grief for her dead children…

I would instead bore her silly ( or perhaps not) as I unleach the ‘artist anorak’ in me. “First of all,Artemisia, let me say that I love your work, its vigor, its unsentimentality, its use of chiaroscuro. I am knocked out by the richness of your colours, the way you lead our eye around the narrative of your painting from one colour to a slightly changed similar colour to another rich, intense and vibrant; your use of complementary colours, those warm and cool. Can I ask who grinds your pigments, who mixes them, how do you indicate exactly what colours need to be prepared… or do you do that all yourself?

I notice you have a handful of different brushes in your self portrait and a small rag. It must be a lot of hard work running and organising a studio. Your drawing and depiction of the subjects in your work are realistic and natural – are you using models apart from yourself?
I’ve been thinking about this whilst stunned by the beauty and competency of your work. Is it possible for you to describe to me how you start a canvas, what initial drawing, underpainting, preparation? How much time do you allow yourself to complete a patron’s commission? To me it seems such hard, physical work… I bet some blokes have completely underestimated you! Especially those popes!

But that has been true of so many women artists written out of history for the last thousand years; the scribes and illustrators, the artists and craftswomen. Only now that particles of pigment, such as lapiz lazuli, are being found in skeletal remains and especially dental calculus in the mouth of the deceased, that we know this neglect is true. Women have been in the arts for a millenia. Only the very best artists would be trusted with this valuable material. Soon we shall be able to also see the weavers, the potters and have a window into the artistic history of women.

One final thing Artemisia, you reduced me to tears as I noticed the wonderful, attention to detail in Judith Slaying Holofernes, where the right guard on the sword handle presses into to his fleshy, muscular arm. Brilliant!

Madam, you overwhelm but enrich me. Thank you so much.

Jacob de Gheyn III, by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Ever since I became a member of SLWA I have been curious about the group’s logo – until I read an article in the RA magazine (No 146 – Spring 2020) about Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 -1653 or later).

‘Aha’, I thought, ‘there she is’.

I was drawn to the ‘Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39). There I found the original for the SLWA’s logo.

The perspective of the painting is of interest. The angle of Gentileschi’s painting was unusual for the time – not at all typical of the 17th Century portrait painting tradition.

Although it is just a reproduction in the magazine, you can see the extraordinary fine tactile quality in the painting. It reminded me of the Dutch painters of 17th Century such as Rembrandt van Rijn.  You can find a fine example of his work in Dulwich Picture Gallery, a painting of Jacob de Gheyn III, engraver (1596-1641).

I was also struck by the violence in some of her paintings, in particular ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’. But reading about her life, her being sexually attacked and standing up in court saying ’it is true’, ’it is true’, ’it is true’, revealed experiences that may have contributed to her making this painting.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an outstanding female artist in her time.

Artemisia is at the National Gallery Until 24 January 2021, Location: Sainsbury Wing.

Visions of Resilience – ‘slicing’ through history

Gentileschi is wielding her paintbrush like a scalpel in the void.

This is my interpretation of the events and circumstances that I believe shaped Self Portrait As The Allegory of Painting (1639) by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) and how it has been a pivotal image for a trilogy of exhibitions we curated for SLWArtists.

Allegorical figures, which were always female, were a popular Baroque art trend and could be interpreted to reveal a hidden moral or political meaning. In this portrait Gentileschi unapologetically puts herself centre stage as an empowered female, transcending the usual Baroque whimsy and depictions of women as Biblical fetish – no mean feat – in an era dominated by patriarchal meritocracy. However the portrait is an allegory, so what is the meaning of the dark, empty background; the precision with which she is holding the brush like a scalpel; the juxtaposition of this precision with the sweeping gesture of her arm, as if she’s swinging a sword? All this tells me there is much more to this painting than meets the eye. Could the shadowy canvas allude to her dark internal world and the circumstances that drove her there? By brandishing the brush like a scalpel – and a sword – is she cutting through illusion – if so what illusion is she slicing through? It’s a poignant use of allegory and I think, to be fully appreciated, has to be viewed in historical context, with consideration given to her previous work and with reference to her life story.

In the 17th Century, marriage was seen as a woman’s destiny; virginity was a tradeable commodity and rape was legal if you married your victim (Article 544, which expunges any rape charges if the man marries the woman he had victimized was only repealed in Italy in 1981, as a result of activism by the Italian women’s movement). Single women had to live with a male relative or join a convent and become a nun. It was believed that a woman’s thoughts and ideas should be shaped by men. By the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Italian women intellectuals were embraced by contemporary culture – the key was class – only upper class women were able to express themselves, to a limited degree. Gentileschi was born into a life of priviledege and even that wasn’t enough to protect her from torture at the hand’s of the patriarch.

The art scene was flourishing however these were the Burning Times – a dangerous time for women. In Europe the patriarchal hysteria of the Witch Hunts was in full swing – a period of state sanctioned violence with the aim of silencing women. Midwives, herbal healers, pagan priestesses; accomplished women and so called difficult wives and mistresses, could all be subjected to Fire and Iron in the name of Witch Craft. Previously Europe had been in turmoil as the Protestant Reformation took hold, often resulting in bloody military conflict. In addition to the purges initiated by the Italian Benandanti, there was the Roman Inquisition – seeking out heretics – Protestants – and those opposed to the Catholic Canon. No wonder artists chose to paint Biblical allegory – it was the safest way to avoid scrutiny! I mention the witch hunts for three reasons: firstly for its use of torture; secondly because it is hardly ever talked about in history books and documentaries featuring women’s lives during this era, despite it fundamentally impacting women’s rights and status; and lastly because the name Lucretia, the title of Gentileshi’s painting about the wife of a Roman consul who was raped, blackmailed and later committed suicide, was also the name of a woman accused of witch craft who endured a public trial in Italy. Both stories have parallels with Gentileschi’s life, which may explain why she focused on painting virtuous women ill-treated by men.

Gentileschi was raped, aged 17, by Italian painter Agostino Tassi. Before the trial, in Rome 1612, at Pope Innocent X’s court, she was tortured, with thumb screws, to veryify her testimony. None of this makes sense to us today. We find the idea of torturing a victim barbaric but when we understand that ‘breaking feminine power’ was the default setting of the Canon we can start to see how Gentileschi was both a victim and survivor of the patriarch – refusing to be suppressed by the writers of history.

Do we identify with her because women are still fighting collectively today, via movements such as #MeToo, the political injustices of sexual violence, inequality and the lingering legacy of colonisation of the female body by Canon, Church and State? Or is Gentileschi our icon, an ancient sister, because she forged a path into the male dominated world of art? Or do we simply enjoy the images she produced?

When we understand the historical backdrop we start to see why Gentileschi painted strong and suffering women from legend, the bible and allegory – portraying victims, suicides, warriors, voyeurs, vengeance, often dealing with hidden feminist themes. One artist I spoke to said “Gentileschi spent the next fifty years painting Tassi’s death.” Today Gentileschi’s paintings speak volumes. Are they simply part of the Baroque zeitgest or luminous beacons with a powerful message? Do we, as modern women, identify with the way Gentileschi transformed the horrors of her own life – suppression, inequality, rape – into brooding and brutal, masterpieces, that could be viewed as a howl for freedom?

I would like to draw some comparisons with Gentileschi’s paintings with a trilogy of exhibitions we curated for SLWArtists which is why I find her work particulalry poignant.

Gentilecshi painted the turbulent, Judith Beheading Holofernes, after she was raped by Tassi. He had groomed her for months and promised to marry her so long as she remained silent. Decapitaion is the ultimate form of silencing, yet this painting speaks volumes. We get a glimpse into the mind of the artist, possibly alluding to revenge for the horrors she was subjected to. Was she seeking to silence the patriarchy or is this role reversal and the decapited male, her silenced self?

In June 2018 we curated Silence Is Over for SLWArtists to raise awareness of violence towards women: to show what violence looks like, through the lens of twenty four female artists, each contributing their own unique vision.

In April 2019 we curated Ex Voto – Violence and Healing: an exhibition show casing Mexican Existential Art Therapy – a way of ‘unloading’ trauma onto the canvas, illustrating the power of creativity as a path to healing. When Gentileshi’s revisits the subject of decapitation in the painting Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1623 – 1625) is she continuing to exorcise her demons?

In January 2020 we curated Heo, a group show about Self Empowerment through the Self Portrait – self acceptance through ‘owning’ your own image. Did Gentileschi achieve this when she painted Self Portrait As The Allegory of Painting?

I cannot agree with the scholars who claim that Gentileshi’s art does not reflect her trauma; nor can I agree with those who claim that refering to her past detracts from her achievement as an artist, as, even when working to commission, the artist will pour something of themselves into their work – that is the nature of creativity and self expression. Her journey adds to her artistic prowess, transforming her from skilled artist to martyr and feminist icon.

Perhaps this quote by Andrea Dworkin will shed some light on what it means to be a survivor. I’m sure this insight is equally as relevant to women of the 17th Century as it is today.

“The anger of the survivor is murderous. It is more dangerous to her than to the one who hurt her. She does not believe in murder, even to save herself. She does not believe in murder, even though it would be more merciful punishment than he deserves. She wants him dead but will not kill him. She never gives up wanting him dead.

“The clarity of the survivor is chilling. Once she breaks out of the prison of terror and violence in which she has been nearly destroyed, a process that takes years, it is very difficult to lie to her or to manipulate her. She sees through the social strategies that have controlled her as a woman, the sexual strategies that have reduced her to a shadow of her own native possibilities. She knows that her life depends on never being taken in by romantic illusion or sexual hallucination.”

Andrea Dworkin, ‘A Battered Wife Survies’ Letters from a War Zone, 105-106 (1989), first published under the title ‘The Bruise That Doesn’t Heal’ in Mother Jones, Vol. III, No. VI, July 1978.

Gentileschi’s signature was discovered along the blade of David’s sword in David with the Head of Goliath. By signing the blade is she projecting her wrath and ‘putting her name to’ the fatal blow that decapitaded Goliath? Not such a far fetched idea when we find out that during her trial she said, “When I saw myself free [after she was raped] I went to the table drawer and took a knife and moved toward Agostino, saying, “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonored me.”

In this painting David is portrayed as remarkably feminine and curvaceous. I am going to argue that every single portrait that Gentileshi painted is a self portrait; whether it be female, slayer or silenced decapitated male; whether intentional as in Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria; or concealed within allegory, such as in Susanna and the Elders, a theme she revisted many times. The story of Susanna is from the Book of Daniel: whilst bathing in her garden, Susanna is blackmailed by two older men who say they will accuse her of promiscuity if she won’t sleep with them. Gentileschi first painted this daunting image prior to being raped by Tassi. The painting is of a naked, Susanna being spied upon by voyeuristic predators and may well reflect the sexual harassment she was receiving whilst training at Tassi’s studio.

All the female figures Gentileschi painted look strikingly similar to her self portraits and I believe, as a master of allegory and hidden meaning, she infused a piece of her story into every one of her paintings, giving us a window into her most resilient of heros – herself. There is so much more to say about this remarkable artist. I admit I’m no historian, however I’ve come to this conclusion by piecing together historical events and snippets of evidence, using my own intuition. It is my belief that in painting Self Portrait As The Allegory of Painting, aged 46, three decades after these terrible events – rape, torture, public trial, being ‘married off’ — which surely must have shaped her perspective on life – she finally steps into her own personal sovereignity, with self knowledge and acceptance; not as victim; not draped in biblical fantasy; not as therapy; not as someone restricted by wooden corsets and patriarchy; but simply as an Artist – who has ‘sliced’ through all illusion – and that is empowerment!

Silence Is Over; Ex Voto – Violence And Healing and Heo were curated by Claire Dorey, Selena Steele, Maria Beddoes and Valerie Lambert.

Photo credits:

  1. 2nd of two bill boards featuring SLWArtists from Silence Is Over Exhibition at the Portico gallery, June 2018 – In the forground from left: Guest Julie Howell, Singer Talaba Rivers, who sang at the PV and co curtaor Claire Dorey.
  2. Setting up Silence Is Over at the Portico gallery, June 2018- showing two billbards featuring artwork by SLWArtsists.