The lineage of the great masters uncovers talented family members


When we envisage the female Old Masters, we tend to picture a skilled religious figure working by candlelight in a convent and think of extreme luck and keen dedication as being key components to their unique successes. However, when we look closer, a common theme emerges – many of these women artists had fathers who were eminent painters themselves and who, unusually for their time, supported their daughters’ burgeoning talents.

Artemisia Gentileschi, the subject of a current exhibition at the National Gallery in London, was born in 1593 to the painter Orazio Gentileschi, then a prosaic painter of altarpieces for commission. Originally destined to become a nun, her emerging abilities and death of her mother in childbirth when she was only 12 years old led to an apprenticeship under her father.

Orazio, whose short-lived friendship with Caravaggio had led to a far more permanent fascination with the latter’s painterly style, taught the 15-year-old Artemisia proto-Baroque techniques which she began to draw heavily on in her work. Whereas Orazio’s style was later to move away from this, towards increasing formality and refinement, Artemisia’s paintings contained a bold sense of immediacy, movement and drama. This quality in her works has been characterised as an attempt to regain control of the narrative after her rape by her tutor and father’s friend, Agostino Tassi. The reality appears to have been more complex, however, as there was a healthy market for the violent and erotic among patrons at this time and she was, at least in part, appealing to these tastes.

Moreover, not even a quarter of Artemisia’s known works show this style of scene, with a vengeful female protagonist violently reclaiming her victimhood and turning the tables upon the perpetrator or perpetrators.

MACKAYAN: the artist’s daughter

Other works include introspective self-portraits, only very thinly veiled as allegorical portraits of saints or other figures, including a lute-player. Quite possibly shaped by a lack of models in her younger years working with her father, Artemisia retained a keen interest in self-representation, both clothed and nude (Susanna in Susanna and the Elders is probably modelled on her own figure), which she managed with the help of a mirror.

She enjoyed a strong contemporary reputation as a portrait painter, but unfortunately, few examples survive. Thus, the narratives around her work are shaped by what examples have chanced to reach us.

Although Artemisia and her father spent some 17 years apart during the middle of her career and marriage, upon Orazio’s repeated summons, she finally joined him at the English court in 1638 or 1639. Orazio died in 1639 and although no record of a final reunion survives, his insistence at his daughter’s presence by his side towards his death hints at their unique bond.

In a letter from Orazio Gentileschi to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, he writes that she has “become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer. Indeed, she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained.” Bold words of fatherly pride, indeed.

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