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  • Writer's pictureBeyond the Canvas

The liberation of Artemisia Gentileschi - National Gallery, London

The overwhelming dominance of Artemisia Gentileschi's personal narrative over her worth as an artist has always bothered me. The rape, the trial, the struggles of being a female artist in the XVII century - of course it's all relevant, but I never thought it needed to define her work. I also took exception to the sensationalisation of her life story and the overly sexualised reading of part of her oeuvre at the expense of her artistic legacy. Until today.

This dazzling show at the National Gallery makes an important statement about Artemisia Gentileschi the artist. And despite certain inevitable and relevant personal references, it finally does away with the idea that she used painting to seek revenge or handle her trauma. Now that half her creative output has been reunited in the Sainsbury Wing, we can focus our attention on her artistic achievements. Her paintings are confident and theatrical, full of both graceful sensuality and gruesome violence. Artemisia injects the usual biblical themes with passion and sensitivity, turning the narrative on its head. In her female-dominated stories, of which she is sometimes the protagonist, her masterful use of chiaroscuro creates such drama that we can almost hear the gentle rustling of the silk and the gasping of the characters.

Standing ovation for Letizia Treves and her team for gifting us with this long overdue survey of one of the most accomplished artists of the Italian Baroque. Artemisia is finally celebrated as the brilliant, edgy, ambitious, empowered and unapologetic painter that she was.

Esther before Ahasuerus (detail) (c.1626-29)

Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1618-19)

Susannah and the Elders (1610)

Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-25)

Allegory of Painting (c.1638-39)

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1613-14)

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1623)

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