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An interview with curator Letizia Treves. Meet 'Artemisia', the exhibition and the woman who inspired it. One of the most dynamic painters of the Baroque age steps into the international limelight.

Esther before Ahasuerus, c. 1628–30, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Exhibited for 'Artemisia', National Gallery, London 2020-21.

Linda Falcone: “Artemisia used her own face in many of her depictions. She is the female martyr… the lute player; she is even Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and in London, she becomes the Allegory of Painting. Why does Artemisia include self-portraits in her paintings?”

Letizia Treves: “We have a wonderful line-up of her self-portraits in the exhibition and I wanted people to sort of come face to face with her… We’re not sure why Artemisia used her image a lot. It could have been her own choice. There’s obviously a practical consideration… it’s a lot cheaper and a lot easier just to look at yourself in the mirror than it is to hire models. She complains about that in her letters later in life, saying that it’s hard to find good ones and they’re a complete headache when you do and then, they cost so much money – but, it was often, I think, at the patron’s request. The part that patrons played in Artemisia’s subjects has been underplayed in the past. We mustn’t forget that she didn’t just do these things. It may have been asked of her. There’s no question that for her it’s also a way to market herself… like Rembrandt does in the Netherlands. So, I felt this [room] was an eloquent way to come face to face with her so that you really see how she reinvents herself in different guises.”

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, c. 1620–25, Private European Collection

Exhibited for 'Artemisia', National Gallery, London 2020-21

LF: “Artemisia was both maker and muse which is something that, obviously, her male contemporaries couldn’t do… so, she had sort of one up on her male contemporaries. I think that was probably attractive for her patrons. What’s your view on this possibility?”

LT: The business side of her art has also been underplayed but I think the idea of Artemisia marketing herself is very important. There is one room in the show dedicated very much to how other artists saw Artemisia. It’s called ‘The hand of the famed Artemisia’ because when she returns to Rome, she comes back as a celebrity and so, I think patrons were fascinated by her and her singular position as a successful woman artist – particularly in Rome – and so, not only do they want pictures by her hand but they actually start commissioning portraits of her.

There’s this beautiful drawing, a portrait of sorts by Dumonstier of her right hand, as well as the medal and the engraving and I think her fame is something that she also exploited in her own art; but here, it’s very eloquent through these objects in different media. Of course, she uses the fact of being both artist and subject, or muse and maker as you said, in her famous self-portrait as Allegory of painting which I don't believe is self-portrait but that it is an image of painting you are definitely meant to associate with Artemisia herself. One of the best rooms in the show has pictures from the 1620s when she returns to these heroic sort of female protagonists and this room is called ‘The female hero’. It’s very much a nod to Mary Garrard’s great book on Artemisia. You see her tackling those biblical subjects and turning fresh to them every time and I think she built her success on these subjects and patrons knew they would get something different from her when she painted them.”

Detail from Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), about 1638–9. The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II. Exhibited for 'Artemisia', National Gallery London 2020-21.

LF: “One of the frustrations in researching early women artists is the lack of written documentation by their own hand. At times, it’s hard to get a sense of their own voice in history, in words rather than pictures. In the show, you present examples of documentation from Artemisia’s rape trial and then, the Frescobaldi letters to her lover Francesco Maria Maringhi. How do these documents help present Artemisia in the round?”

LT: “I knew quite early on that I wanted to borrow the letters because they are relatively new; they were only found in 2011. It’s remarkable to be able to hear her voice – or read her voice, as it were, from 400 years ago. I started crying when I saw the letters for the first time and the transcripts of the trial because it struck me that she’s a real person…

She has become this sort of iconic figure, a feminist icon and someone who’s sort of championed for her resilience but when you read her letters you know that she feels all the same emotions we feel and I really wanted to bring that out in the show through quotes from her later letters, ‘I will show your illustrious Lordship what a woman can do’ and in the Naples room there is ‘The spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman’. So, her words punctuate the show. And then, there are her letters to Maringhi, which were very intimate letters and, obviously, no one else was ever meant to read them. I wanted to try and recreate that sense of intimacy and the letters almost look like they’re floating, so you feel like you can pick them up and I worked very hard with the designer to try and come up with a way to create that kind of dreamy quality… because her letters are written in this sort of stream of consciousness.

Proceedings of Agostino Tassi's trial of the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, 1612

State Archive Rome. Exhibited for 'Artemisia', National Gallery London 2020-21.

I included the trial transcript because the episode of her rape is so well known and referred to all the time and I felt it was something we needed to address but I really didn’t want to sensationalize and I didn’t really want that to be the focus of the first room where I knew we’d have these great pictures. Actually, we had decided to borrow it very late in the day, which is why the transcript doesn’t appear in the catalogue…

But it enabled us to see this collection of legal letters and documents [which made the rape] feel contextualized in a kind of historical way which is what I wanted to do and I chose to open the volume up at the scene where she is brought to Tassi with the thought of being in prison and she’s tortured… and the reason I chose that is because her voice is so strong there and you get a sense of her being very compliant, very poised whilst answering the judge’s questions. It’s when she famously says ‘È vero, è vero, è vero’ […] but I love that you get a real sense of her spirit, her fire – even aged 18 in this incredibly difficult situation so, I think it really vividly brings her to life without over sensationalizing.”

LF: “I’m really surprised at how long the document is…”

“Well, there are a lot of other trials in there… this whole volume is from the year 1612. It is volume 104 of hundreds and hundreds of other volumes and that is important because I think you get a real sense of the fact that Artemisia is just one of many, many girls who went through this and what’s so exceptional is that we actually know who this particular girl is. Elizabeth Cohen has done a lot of work on these rape trials of young virgins in Rome at the very beginning of the 17th century.

She wrote very eloquently about how Artemisa’s trial follows… not a formula but there was definitely a way that you would present yourself in the trial. So, it begins with a physical examination and you making your statement. Then the girl’s reputation has to be established, that she really was a virgin… and, in a way, seeing it in that context, you realize that Artemisia was no different from every other girl who’d gone through the same thing. Sometimes we underestimate how powerful it can be to reiterate the strength of her character.”


Letizia Treves with Artemisia's Saint Catherine

Letizia Treves is curator at Sassoon Curator of Later Italian Paintings, at the National Gallery in London. A University of Cambridge graduate, she earned an MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art. From 1996 to 2012, she worked for Sotheby’s London, as Senior Director of the Old Master Paintings Department, with a focus on Italian paintings.

Ph. Tom Patterson, National Gallery, London

This article, extracted from the 'Restoration Conversations' live broadcast

was originally published in Inside AWA magazine, Winter edition, 2020


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