Family Matters

The St. Louis Art Museum's Gentileschi exhibition captures the artistic relationship between a father and his daughter

In 1608-09, Orazio Gentileschi painted "Judith and her Maidservant," a large canvas depicting the Old Testament heroine as she steals away with her servant, holding in a basket the bloody head of the enemy General Holofernes, whom Judith has just slain. The trio of heads is surrounded by dark space, and Judith's face shows intensity as she pauses to listen to a sound of disturbance.

In 1618-19, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio's daughter, painted the same scene. Artemisia's work condenses the composition, focusing tightly on the figures, who take up the entire canvas. The head of Holofernes is practically green, more ghastly than the one depicted in her father's work, and Judith is bedecked in more spectacular jewels.

At the exhibition Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy, now at the St. Louis Art Museum, physically comparing these works is slightly awkward, because they are hung in separate galleries. But the comparison is far easier than when they hang in their respective homes -- Orazio's normally resides in Oslo, Norway, whereas Artemisia's belongs to the Palazzo Pitti collection in Florence, Italy. A firsthand consideration of either's oeuvre, or comparison of the two, has been a logistic impossibility. This exhibition changes that and may change the standard histories of Italian Baroque painting as well.

History shows that it's not unusual for artists to have children who follow them into the profession. The Gentileschi case is unusual, though, because of the level of success both father and daughter achieved in their time -- and the fact that Artemisia is the first important female artist to emerge in Western art history. The curators of this exhibition -- Judith Mann of the St. Louis Art Museum, Keith Christiansen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Rossella Vodret of the Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome -- allow audiences for the first time in history to study the artistic relationship between father and daughter.

One of the more intriguing comparisons in the show is of Orazio's "Madonna and Child" (1609) and Artemisia's work of the same title (1610-11). The medium-size canvases hang side by side in the exhibition, and their compositions are remarkably similar, featuring a seated Madonna holding the Christ child. Orazio's Madonna is clearly painted from a live model. The figure's face is alive with personality, indicative of the level of realism with which Orazio imbued his work in this period, as well as the influence of Caravaggio, a Bolognese painter whose own daring realism was extremely influential at this time. Artemisia's Madonna is more generalized, and the overall work considered by scholars to be more conservative than her father's.

The review of Orazio's career afforded by this exhibition is quite revealing. It charts his work from his early period, when his rather bland, idealized style gave way to his acknowledgment of Caravaggio's dramatic realism, and (taking Caravaggio's cue) a new relationship to the models he used. The exhibition rounds out Orazio's career by charting his return to idealized classicism.

But it's the review of Artemisia's career that this exhibition will probably be remembered for. Since the publication of Mary Garrard's monography in 1989, Artemisia has emerged as a feminist heroine and an artistic genius, and much of her feminist clout owes to the fact that she was raped by a fellow artist, Agostino Tassi, who, though married himself, seems to have convinced Artemisia that their liaison would end in marriage. But it is unclear whether the incident was an act of violence or merely one of deception.

So much has been made of this rape that it threatens to color too much our understanding of the artist's work. But it is true that Artemisia distinguished herself as a painter of strong, commanding heroines at intensely dramatic moments in their lives. Consider her famous depiction of Judith slaying Holofernes (1612-13), in which the heroine saws off the head of her victim, who lies helpless in bed, his face twisted in pain. Judith has rolled up her sleeves to complete the job, as if she expected it to get messy. And messy it is: Blood spurts up in fountains as Judith works away, a look of studied concentration on her face. Compare Artemisia's work with the same scene depicted earlier by Caravaggio. Though similar in composition, the paintings couldn't be more different in tone -- Caravaggio's Judith looks as if she's cutting a slice of bread for her breakfast.

Our victim-obsessed society tempts us to view this exhibition as a catalog of Artemisia's rage against men. But it's much better than that. It's a level-headed consideration of work by an unprecedented Old Master, father-daughter team. It's impossible to find fault with this exhibition. Its importance is indisputable.

 
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