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Renaissance master painter breaks gender barriers centuries later


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: "I will show your illustrious lordship what a woman can do."

Those are the words of an artist, a woman, who painted her way to fame in the 1600s, was largely forgotten for centuries, and more recently is getting her full recognition, now in a exhibition in London, one of the most anticipated of the year.

The exhibit opened in October, then had to close for a time in November due to the pandemic. But, today, it reopened to the public.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A young woman accosted by two older men demanding sex, the scene, Susanna and the Elders from a biblical story, was portrayed often by 16th and 17th century painters, but never like this, in a work by then 17 year old Artemisia Gentileschi.

Letizia Treves: The way Artemisia paints it, it's really the first time a woman, Susanna, is shown sort of forcefully saying no to these men.

Jeffrey Brown: Curator Letizia Treves.

Letizia Treves It was sort of viewed as quite an erotic subject at the time, because, of course, it shows a woman naked or half-naked bathing.

But Artemisia does not paint this picture in an erotic way at all. You feel the sort of physical rejection of Susanna. And I think Artemisia put so much of herself in her pictures. And she's a young, vulnerable 16-, 17-year-old when she paints this picture.

And I think you already see quite a lot of the traits that you would later see in her pictures, that she brings her sort of lived experiences, but also her sort of feminine sensibility to her subjects.

Jeffrey Brown: Treves is curator of an exhibition at London's National Gallery that brings together 29 paintings by Artemisia, one of the few women artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, among them, self-portraits, as a lute player and as a female martyr, the birth of St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene in ecstasy.

Our team was there for the short period this fall when the exhibition was open. It all stems from the museum's 2018 purchase of its first work by Artemisia, self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a recently rediscovered painting that the museum restored, and then took on tour in Britain, into places such as schools and a women's prison, where such valuable art is rarely seen.

Also telling, Artemisia is just the eighth female artist in the National Gallery's world famous collection, which includes more than 700 men.

This is also addressing something much larger for your museum and others.

Letizia Treves: It is, absolutely. And I think we're sort of riding a wave of increasing interest in Artemisia, but also about women artists in general and women artists of the kind of early modern period.

Jeffrey Brown: Artemisia was deeply influenced by the work of her older contemporary Caravaggio and his hyper-dramatic use of light.

She was trained by her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Two of his works are in the exhibition. But, in 1611, a year after Artemisia painted Susanna and the Elders, a scene she returned to several times, she was raped by one of her father's friends, the artist Agostino Tassi.

The exhibition displays detailed court records of the trial, including the so-called judicial torture, in which cords were tightened around Artemisia's fingers as she was questioned about the truth of her claims, the victim once again victimized.

Letizia Treves: The judge asks her, are you willing to do this to prove that you're telling the truth? And she says, absolutely, I am. And she basically complies. She knows she has no other choice.

And I think what's also really telling is, when you read her answers, you know, she utters these very famous words, "E vero, e vero, e vero" again and again. She says, it's true, it's true, it's true.

But there's a sense of her spirit that you see, and she looks at Tassi and she quips, this is the ring that you promised me. These are your promises.

And she's referring to the fact that Tassi had promised to marry her. And instead of a wedding ring, she has these ropes tied around her fingers.

And, to me, I see a real survivor in that. I see someone who's strong and challenging her aggressors. I felt it was quite important to show her not as a victim, but as someone who really came through this experience.

Jeffrey Brown: Tassi -- here's one of his works -- was convicted and sentenced to exile, but it was never enforced.

In fact, some of Artemisia's most famous works have been viewed as a kind of revenge in paint. The exhibition brings together her two versions of the Biblical heroine Judith beheading the Assyrian General Holofernes, an almost cinematic violence, with blood spurting, the man with his eyes open, helpless now in his horror.

The image, by the way, became a social media meme during the Supreme Court hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, after Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault she said occurred when they were in high school.

But curator Treves advises we not reduce the artist's life and work to this one event, however traumatic.

Letizia Treves: I felt it needed to be sort of talked about in the show in a very sensitive, but not oversensationalized way. I mean, she must have carried it with her emotionally and psychologically.

And I think she puts that sort of energy into her pictures. But I feel, if you just read her pictures through the sort of lens of her rape, I feel you're actually doing her a disservice. You're diminishing, in a way, her artistic achievement.

Jeffrey Brown: Artemisia's artistry was recognized in her lifetime throughout Europe, with works commissioned by leading families, including the British royals. There was even a mention in the popular Netflix series "The Crown."

Actor: This one?

Actor: Artemisia Gentileschi.

Actor: Never heard of him either.

Actor: Her, sir.

Jeffrey Brown: And personal letters displayed here, including love letters to a Florentine nobleman, capture her own spirit and sheer willpower.

All the work you were able to look at, from reading these letters, how did you come to see her as a person?

Letizia Treves: Incredible feisty, incredibly determined. I mean, I think she had a very forceful character.

And, actually, you get that sort of personality come through her pictures as well, I think. And she is determined to be considered on a par with other male artists.

Jeffrey Brown: Artemisia Gentileschi died in Naples around 1654. And, as tastes changed, her work was largely forgotten.

But, by all accounts, gender bias, even misogyny, played a big role as well, women not taken seriously in the annals of art history. This exhibit, on through January 24, helps remedy that for those who can be there in person and in a virtual tour for the rest of us.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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