Beheadings And Ferocity At The National Gallery: Artemisia Is An Artist We Should All Know About

Artemisia, The National Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 27 months ago

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Beheadings And Ferocity At The National Gallery: Artemisia Is An Artist We Should All Know About Artemisia, The National Gallery 4
There's violence aplenty in this exhibition as this sleeping military commander is about to meet his end with a tent peg. © Szépmüvészeti Múzeum/Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Warning: this review and this exhibition deal with rape, violence and torture.

Judith and her maid have pinned down the Assyrian General Holofernes and Judith is beheading him with his own sword. There's blood spurting out in arcs and on to the two women, and soaking the sheets underneath.

This brutal and gruesome painting is by the talented 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi in her exhibition at The National Gallery.

The way each droplet of blood is laid out on the canvas is so realistic for a second I thought she'd used her own blood instead of paint. Artemisia painted this work not long after she'd been raped by a fellow painter, and knowing that makes this feel like an act of revenge — channelling her rage into the work.

The gory beheading of Holofernes. © Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi.

The exhibition includes the script of her rape trial testimony where she was tortured to 'prove' the veracity of her claim, exclaiming 'it is true it is true it is true' while having her fingers crushed. Even after this horrific ordeal at only 17 years old she continued to paint, taught herself to read and write and earned several commissions for painting in what was an overwhelmingly male dominated world. It's safe to say that Artemisia was a badass.

Her life story is plain to see within her works — portraying herself looking fierce as St. Catherine, another woman who was tortured for standing up for what was right. It's a similar story when she paints Susanna being pestered by lecherous old men — an experience that would have been regular for most young women living in her times, and sadly still the case for many today.

Artemisia depicting herself as St. Catherine — another woman who endured horrendous torture. © The National Gallery, London.

Artemisia was masterful in her use of light as we see it falling across the body of Cleopatra, which turns pale as the asp's venom takes effect, or when one figure is illuminated to make it clear she is the subject of the painting and her companion is shrouded in darkness. Unsurprisingly she regularly returned to the subject of depicting strong women in her works and we see several versions of Judith, Cleopatra and St. Catherine throughout the exhibition — with Artemisia often using herself as the model for these paintings.

While there are some spectacular paintings in this show, not every work gripped us with some being less naturalistic than the masterpieces. However, given everything she had to overcome and the fact that she was still able to create great works, this exhibition is proof that Artemisia is a painter everybody should know about — it is true, it is true, it is true.   

Artemisia is on at The National Gallery from 3 October - 24 January at The National Gallery. Tickets are £20 for adults and must be booked ahead.

Last Updated 29 September 2020