Recently rediscovered by art historians, and one of the few female post-Renaissance painters to achieve fame during her own era, Artemisia Gentileschi led a remarkably “modern” life. Susan Vreeland tells Artemisia’s captivating story, beginning with her public humiliation in a rape trial at the age of eighteen, and continuing through her father’s betrayal, her marriage of convenience, motherhood, and growing fame as an artist. Set against the glorious backdrops of Rome, Florence, Genoa, and Naples, inhabited by historical characters such as Galileo and Cosimo de’ Medici II, and filled with rich details about life as a seventeenth-century painter, Vreeland creates an inspiring story about one woman’s lifelong struggle to reconcile career and family, passion and genius.
As some of you know, I am an Art Historian in my “real” life and one of my favorite genres is historical fiction related to art and artists. Susan Vreeland is hands-down one of my favorite authors and when she wrote The Passion of Artemisia, she found a fan for life in me. I hate being asked who my favorite artist is because I could never, ever choose just one but I do have a top twenty-ish list and Artemisia Gentileschi has been near the top of that list for many, many years.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a woman far, far ahead of her time and her place and despite the all of the significant odds against her, she was able to succeed in a time and place when women were little more than property. Artemisia was born to paint and from an early age her father trained her in order to enhance her own innate talent. Intent on being a painter for the rest of her life, Artemisia’s path was set until the moment she was raped by one her father’s colleagues. For more than a year, Artemisia endured a very public trial to determine her guilt or innocence. Yes, you read that correctly, her guilt or innocence was on trial, not her rapist’s. For all intents and purposes, the allegation alone was enough to taint Artemisia and her reputation for life. By all accounts, Artemisia didn’t allow the rape nor the trial to defeat her but to empower her and inform her art for the rest of her life.
Along with her trial, history also tells us that Artemisia did things that no woman before her ever had. First and foremost among her accomplishments was being the first woman admitted to the prestigious Florentine Academy. Following her admittance to the Academy, Artemisia spent her time and her life in the service of her patrons. From Rome to Florence to Venice to Naples and, to England, Artemisia worked for some Europe’s most important citizens including the Medici Family and the King of England. She tended toward large canvases featuring strong, determined and completely capable women as seen through the eyes of and interpreted by a woman who refused to be known as a victim but rather as a preeminent painter.
The Bottom Line: This is my second reading of Vreeland’s Passion of Artemisia and as with the first reading, I was simply blown away. Vreeland has a singular ability to bring history to life. Vreeland takes the historical information that remains and turns it into a living, breathing human being, an individual whose impact on the world of art is nothing short of significant. Reading Vreeland’s account of Artemisia’s life reminds me of the fact that nothing is impossible!! Artemisia survived an unspeakable horror and rather than allowing that event to define her life, she rose above all that was done to her and succeeded in a way that no woman before her ever had. If her accomplishments during her own lifetime weren’t enough – and they certainly were – Vreeland’s accounting in this modern age is finely crafted reminder of what genius looks like.