Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1638-9, Royal Collection Trust, London.
It’s a while since I last talked about Artemisia Gentileschi – way back in Picture Of The Day 17 – so I thought we should re-visit her to see how she’s getting on in lockdown. There is still no sign of the museums opening, though, and the exhibition at the National Gallery is still on hold – it is yet possible that it will open… You could, of course, order the catalogue directly from the National Gallery – it has great essays and superb illustrations.
This particular painting is always worth thinking about, as it shows just how brilliant Artemisia was – in many different ways. For one thing, it is a self portrait, so it gives us some idea of what she looked like. It’s perhaps not the best self portrait from this point of view, and that is because of the point of view: it is extremely unusual. She paints herself from high up, and from off to one side. It’s hard to know how she could have seen herself from this angle – it would take at least two mirrors set up in the right positions. It’s still not going to be easy though. Unlike some of the other self portraits we’ve seen of women painting – notably Judith Leyster and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (POTD 34 and 55 respectively) – she hasn’t bothered too much about her appearance. She may be wearing a rather wonderful green bodice, beautifully painted, but she has rolled up her sleeves and is wearing an apron. Who wouldn’t, while painting? Well, judging from most self portraits, most artists! And her hair is a bit of a mess! She has, however, put on some jewellery: a gold chain, with a pendant.
The pendant is the real clue to this painting’s meaning – it is a mask. It looks like a face, but is only the image of one, in the same way that this looks like Artemisia, but is only a portrait… This necklace is one of the ways of identifying this as an Allegory of Painting. Even in this detail we can see so much. Her left hand holds a few paintbrushes and a palette – one of the more ‘old fashioned’ rectangular ones, from our point of view. What is not so easy to identify is the object she is leaning on, the sort of stone slab used to mix her pigments – the coloured powders that give the painting its vitality – with the oil – the medium which binds the pigment; makes it liquid, so that you can actually paint; adheres the pigment to the support (usually, by this period, a canvas); and dries to protect it. Artemisia’s palette, brushes, and the stone slab form a stable foundation on which this portrait rests – they are the foundation of her art, after all – and it is here that she has chosen to sign the painting, using the initials A.G.F. – Artemisia Gentileschi Fecit – or ‘made this’, in Latin. Not only that, but she is showing us her technique. The left arm may now be a little worn with age, but it was always fairly thin – sketchy even – showing her skill at building up an image with an economy of means. Once the canvas was attached, taut, around the stretcher, she would have primed it, painting a dull brown ground layer of paint all across the surface: if you look at the areas of shadow between the green folds of the sleeve, that is the ground – particularly clear in the curving fold that comes up from the flash of white cuff, and curves down again just below the cord with which she has tied up her sleeve. This is something she could have learnt from her father, or directly from the work of Caravaggio, who often used this shorthand: not so much painting the shadow, as leaving it absent.
As for her hair, well, would you bother with that if you were hard at work? The fact is, this is another feature that helps to identify the subject of the painting. Artemisia is drawing on the Iconologia written by Cesare Ripa, an emblem book that describes the way in which personifications should be represented – a sort of ‘Handbook of Allegories’ . The first edition was published, without any pictures, in 1593, with a second illustrated edition following ten years later. ‘Painting’ is described thus:
A beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently coloured drapery.
Clearly, Artemisia has chosen some, if not all, of this description. Beautiful – well perhaps that was not for her to say – but with black hair, certainly. In other self portraits she has auburn hair with a wonderful sheen, beautifully dressed – whereas here it is ‘dishevelled, and twisted in various ways’, showing the distraction of the artistically inspired. The eyebrows are not arched – but this allows a wonderful passage of paint across the forehead: a thickly loaded brush was pulled across to pick out a highlight, emphasizing the light within, the power of her intellect. Or perhaps it was just showing us the form – like the little white fleck that shapes of the tip of her nose. Her mouth is not covered with a cloth, of course. Ripa wanted to show that painting is mute, it speaks through the eyes, and not through the ears, but that wouldn’t make for a good self portrait. It also wouldn’t have allowed us to see the wonderful, pensive, slight parting of the lips (I almost expect to see the tip of her tongue. like you do with children when they concentrate). However, she does have the ‘chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask’. We don’t need the word ‘imitation’ – Ripa was always guilty of over-egging the pudding – the mask is sufficient. It is a symbol of imitation, yes, but it was also a symbol of deceit (POTD 32), and what is painting, if not deceit, trying to show us something that is not real?
Scholars have argued about the background of this painting – even though there is almost nothing there to argue about. There is vertical line, which is not so much a line as a change of tone. This could be the corner of a room, with two walls meeting. Or the lighter area might be a blank canvas, about to be painted. If it is, then we have an even more sophisticated possibility. Artemisia holds the paintbrush between thumb and forefinger just below the top left corner of this blank canvas, with the tip of the brush just about to touch very close to its left-hand edge. And what do we see in the self portrait just below the top left corner, very close to its left-hand edge? Well, the tip of the paint brush. Artemisia is about to start painting by depicting the very paint brush that we can see her holding. Which just shows us how clever she was. And it has to be ‘she’. Ripa tells us that ‘Painting’ is a beautiful woman – and that’s because, in Italian, ‘Painting’ is La Pittura, a feminine noun. Artemisia’s male contemporaries simply couldn’t have painted this. Apart from anything else, it would never have occurred to them.