Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 19, 2000
R. Ward Bissell Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. 688 pp.; 27 color ills.; 257 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0271017872)

Without question, among scholars of Italian Baroque art, no one was better positioned to write the “definitive” monograph on Artemisia Gentileschi than R. Ward Bissell, the author of the fundamental archival study of the artist, “Artemisia Gentileschi: A New Documented Chronology,” Art Bulletin 50, 1968,153-68, and of the only monographic study of her painter-father, Orazio Gentileschi and the Poetic Tradition in Caravaggesque Painting (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981). And, by any measure, the book under review is that “definitive” monograph, an impressive study comprising a broad, principally chronological exploration of Artemisia’s career in a terse 133-page text and a lengthy critical apparatus. The latter begins with four useful appendixes, the first a “Register of Documents Concerning Artemisia Gentileschi’s Life and Career,” the second devoted to “Artemisia’s Daughter(s), Painter(s),” the third a “Supplemental Documentation” consisting of transcriptions of letters to and from the artist as well as poetic verses written about her, and the fourth an essay by Melville Holms on “Amber Varnish and the Technique of the Gentileschi.” Finally, a dense and carefully argued catalogue treating “Autograph Paintings,” “Incorrect and Questionable Attributions,” and “Lost Works” concludes the volume.

In the preface to his book, Bissell articulates his modus operandi: the “adoption of the conventional monographic form” (xx) and what he calls a “flexible methodology” (xxi) in which the work of art is primary and the angles of inquiry are varied. This is to say that, in opposition to the vast majority of recent studies of Artemisia Gentileschi’s art, most notably Mary Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), Bissell rejects a feminist approach to the study of the artist and her work. Whereas Garrard considered the painter exclusively in light of her sex, Bissell considers the painter regardless of her sex; and in contrast to Garrard who viewed Gentileschi solely as a woman artist, interpreting her paintings (of heroic female subjects) in terms of her female being and experiences, Bissell endeavors to see Artemisia simply as an artist whose work responded and gave expression to a wide range of factors, among them patronage requirements, the artistic traditions of the cities in which she worked, and her changing financial situations.

Bissell asserts that his book is not intended as a critique of either feminist art criticism or of Garrard. And it is not, per se. In fact, throughout the text and notes Bissell generously acknowledges and, in a number of instances, agrees with Garrard’s point of view. Nevertheless, Bissell fundamentally rejects the idea that Artemisia’s art was gender-directed, that she was a woman of feminist convictions, and he builds convincing arguments to support his point of view. He proposes, for example, that the Pitti Penitent Magdalen, rather than being a typical Artemesian female hero, a kind of self portrait, or reflective of Artemisia’s own life and state of mind, is better understood—both in its subject matter and pietistic sentiment—in relation to the interests of the painting’s almost certain patron, Maria Maddalena of Austria, the “santa Granduchessa” of Tuscany. In place of Garrard’s reading of the painter’s female nudes as “subverting the very principle of the passively available female body” (Garrard, 1989, p. 172), he emphasizes their erotic charge—as did seventeenth-century (male) viewers—and argues that Artemisia “catered directly to male patrons who found in such pictures outlets for sexual desire” (53). By so doing she won an important share of the market, Bissell points out, and, more importantly, displayed remarkable self-confidence “in taking up the challenge of a genre in which by tradition male artists had excelled” (53). And instead of viewing the female protagonists in the Esther before Ahasuerus and Corsica and the Satyr as heroic females with whom Artemisia identified, and reading these pictures as seeking to overturn sexist presumptions of how women ought to present themselves, Bissell demonstrates their close adherence to textual sources (the Apocryphal Book of Esther and Giovanni Battista Guarini’s pastoral tragicomedy Il pastor fido, respectively), in which Esther is presented as a submissive woman and Corsica as a wanton and wicked nymph.

In Bissell’s sixth and final chapter, entitled “Myths, Misunderstandings, and Musings,” he departs from a chronological examination of Artemisia’s career and turns to a range of issues pertaining to her life and work; among them, why she was called Artemisia, the extent of her literacy, and whether her paintings should be viewed as “projections of a determined feminism and/or of a psyche wounded forever by rape” (104). As for her name, Artemisia, the author rejects (along with a number of other proposals) George Hersey’s theory that the painter’s parents “admired . . . femmes fortes” and that there was “a family tradition of powerful female self-esteem,” arguing instead that “Nothing more complicated than the record of Artemisia’s baptism need be considered to account for her given name: listed there is the newborn’s godmother, Artemisia Capizachia (actually Capizucchi) of the Roman nobility” (105). With respect to her literacy, as evidenced in thirty letters written over three decades, Bissell finds little of what Garrard saw as “impressive linguistic skills—an ability to use the flowery and elegant courtly language of her day and at the same time to manipulate it” (Garrard, 1989, p. 373). Instead he finds a reliance on formulaic flattery, albeit inflected with an “engaging wry humor.” What emerges from the letters, he concludes, is an image “of a clever, alert, pragmatic, outspoken, altogether human being,” but not of “a well-read and cultured individual given to recondite allusion and abstract speculation” (111). And, finally, as to the question of Artemisia’s purported feminism and the feminist content of her work, Bissell acknowledges that she was a highly determined artist who had to battle against traditional (biased) attitudes toward women; that she “certainly did not play the demure role” and that “women rule Artemisia Gentileschi’s pictures, and some of them are most assuredly . . . powerful personalities” (113). But he also points out that recent scholarship has focused (almost exclusively) on the most strong-willed of her characters, when, in fact, the majority of her canvases present women subjected to male control (or sexual desire) and has largely ignored the fact that most of the subjects of her paintings were chosen by her (predominantly male) patrons. “Her own words,” Bissell further argues (on the basis of her letters), “do not buttress the case for Artemisia as a woman of feminist convictions” (117); and concludes that “Artemisia Gentileschi was endowed with special gifts of insight and artistic skill and, choosing thoughtfully from among the interpretive options available to her and adopting a naturalistic style, she produced an art that makes penetrating observations about humankind by way of women of monumental stature and independent mind. This dedication of speaking truth might be called a mission, but it is not a mission restricted to women or driven perforce by a proto-feminist ideology” (125).

As much as Bissell’s book is a polemical refutation of the feminist approach to Artemisia Gentileschi, it is also much more, and the author is at his best when he departs from polemics. Bissell’s eye is scrupulous in the observation of the formal development of Artemisia’s art, from her earliest Roman works to her late Neapolitan canvases, and although I remain unconvinced about his attribution to Artemisia of the central portion of the Galatea (New York, private collection), and while others might question his argument concerning her participation in the ceiling paintings for the Queen’s House in Greenwich (on which, see Gabriele Finaldi’s recent essay in Orazio Gentileschi at the Court of Charles I, National Gallery, London, 1999, 30-32), his catalogue of authentic works is the most comprehensive and convincing to date. Bissell is also wise about and sensitive to issues of patronage, and masterfully interweaves biography, patronage, and style, demonstrating how each affects the other. He reads deeply and subtly into Artemisia’s letters to illuminate her self-image and the ways in which she negotiated with her patrons; presents a balanced account of Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, the trial and sentence that resulted, and their social and personal implications; offers a convincing attribution to Gianfrancesco Loredan of the verses dedicated to Gentileschi’s paintings, published in Venice in 1627, and an equally compelling reading of their meaning; provides important new additions to Garrard’s discussion of the parallels and ties between Artemisia and Giovanna Garzoni; proposes a provocative reading of the famous Allegory of Painting (“La Pittura”), which rejects the idea that it is a self-portrait; and presents about twenty new documents, which contribute to a more vivid picture of her biography than we hitherto had.

These are just a few of the many contributions of Bissell’s Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most impressive monographs on a seventeenth-century Italian artist to be published in recent memory. It is a learned and scholarly work, exemplifying traditional art history at its best, and a beautifully designed volume with high quality black and white illustrations and color plates. It is also a book certain to provoke considerable debate and to serve as the springboard for much further study of the life and art of an extraordinary painter.

Steven F. Ostrow
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota