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“Susanna and the Elders”, 1652, by Artemisia Gentileschi and her pupil Onofri Palombo (By permission of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and Tourism — Museums in Emilia Romagna)

Artemisia Gentileschi is probably the most famous woman painter from Italy. She may be the most famous woman painter from anywhere. Her fame has both helped and hindered her artistic reputation: it has helped it because it has drawn attention to her work; it has hindered it because the source of her fame is less her art than the rape she suffered, and the public trial which followed it. That rape has been treated as the key to her development as an artist, and to be the source of her most famous image: her violent depiction of Judith decapitating Holofernes as her maidservant holds him down.

One result of the focus on that image has been that Artemisia has been defined as a victim of sexual crime. In the 19th century, she was trashed. The travel writer and critic Anna Jameson wrote in 1834 that Judith Decapitating Holofernes was a “dreadful picture . . . proof of [Artemisia’s] genius and its atrocious misdirection”. By the 20th, it had transformed her into a feminist icon: an artist who, in Germaine Greer’s formulation, “developed an ideal of heroic womanhood. She lived it and she portrayed it.” Other critics, such as the American academic Mary Garrard, have evaluated Artemisia’s output according to the extent that it portrays “powerful heroines”. Professor Garrard thinks that there is a falling-off in quality in her later years because she started painting “beautiful and luxurious female images that were quite different from the powerful heroines who distinguish her earlier career”.

The current exhibition of Artemisia’s work at the Palazzo Braschi in Rome, which runs until May 7, is particularly welcome because it eschews the attempt to define Artemisia by what happened to her on that awful day in May 1611 when she was raped by Agostino Tassi. That is a very marked contrast to the previous major exhibition in Italy of Artemisia’s work (in Milan, in 2011), whose first room consisted of dimmed lighting and an unmade bed where the visitor heard an actress reading extracts from the vivid testimony that Artemisia gave during Tassi’s trial for raping her. The result was to reduce Artemisia’s life and work to that one event — and it diminished her considerably as a consequence.

It is admittedly tempting to see Artemisia’s suffering reflected in her pictures. Tassi had been found guilty at the conclusion of the trial, and sentenced to five years’ exile, but the sentence was never carried out: his powerful protectors had the verdict annulled. It is  very easy to interpret the extreme violence of Judith Decapitating Holofernes as a form of revenge on Tassi, an image of what she would have liked to do to him had she been able.

Very easy — but also very misguided. Between 1620 and 1625, Artemisia painted a hauntingly evocative depiction of Medea killing one of her own children. It is less gruesome than Judith Decapitating Holofernes, in the sense that there are no spurts of blood: Artemisia shows Medea and her small child at the moment immediately before she thrusts her dagger into him. But the painting of Medea is no less powerful. Does its effectiveness mean that it must derive from Artemisia’s desire to murder her own children? Must that picture too be in some way the effect of her rape? Merely to pose those questions is enough to show how absurd the whole approach is.

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