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Artemisia Gentileschi

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

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For years Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting hung, un-noticed, in a dark corner of Hampton Court Palace in London. Today it is regarded as one of Gentileschi’s most successful paintings.  It is not just a picture of a painter but painting as live performance.  A real achievement for an artist in the 1630s.

Artemisia was invited to London in 1638 by Charles 1, and probably painted the Self-Portrait during her stay.  She joined her father, Orazio, who had been working in England since 1626 and was engaged in painting the ceiling panels in the Queen’s House, Greenwich. (These are now in Marlborough House).

In Artemisia’s day, self-portraits were among the ways that male artists promoted themselves as gentlemen.  At this time, artists were challenging the view that they were craftsmen rather than creative talents.  Their poses were created to add an air of respectability to their status.  They often wore medals, trophies of recognition from their patrons.  

Titian shows himself luxuriously dressed, with a double gold chain and medal given to him by Emperor Charles V and no reference to his profession as a painter.  


Anthony Van Dyck, the royal painter, proudly displays the medal given to him by Charles 1. The sunflower was a symbol of his loyalty to his king, and during the English Civil War, the portrait was used to recruit people to the royalist army.    


Artemisia’s Self-Portrait does the opposite.  She appears not to notice that her chain has fallen between her breasts.  She has no eye contact with the viewer and is deeply absorbed in her painting.  


Like Titian and Van Dyck, Artemisia was well- connected.  Her work was sort after by ruling families in Italy and England.  Yet she remained an independent artist.  Her work never simply reflected her patrons’ needs.  She was self-willed and determined to promote her view that women could be even more successful than men

In her letters to patrons, she displays impressive linguistic and rhetorical skills.  She had the ability to use the flowery and courtly language of her day.  At the same time, she manipulated meanings and delivered hard truths with skill and wit. She often spoke of her great ambitions for personal achievement and fame.  She was the Lady Gaga of her day. And this is reflected in her paintings, particularly her self-portrait.



About Self Portrait

Self- Portrait is unlike most self-portraits of the 16th and 17th centuries.  It is an action painting.  Artemisia has no time for social introductions but gets down to work.  This is how she wanted people to see her - a talented artist. In the past, she had painted strong women.  In Self Portrait she presents the artist as a strong woman painter.


 She achieves this in a number of ways. The painting moves vertically from right to left. Her figure dominates the frame.  By putting her painting hand in the top left corner she creates a feeling of movement and immediacy.  


Allowing her hair to fall down and the chain to drape on her breasts adds energy and spontaneity.  She demonstrates her painting skills with the green dress.  This is painted in ways that highlight the creases and texture while light and shade bring the fabric alive.  The brown apron adds to the contrast with the dress and a sense that this is a studio scene. 


Her use of light and shade takes its inspiration from Caravaggio, whom she knew.  This is particularly effective on her face, arms and chest. Her head is lit as if a spotlight has been used. In an era of a candle and poor light, this is no small achievement.


Artemisia is playing with the viewer.  She gives us a sense of illusion in being involved in the process of painting.  Her head appears to be coming out of the canvas creating a 3-d effect.  


An air of realism of the studio and painting process is captured by the stained hands, reflecting the image of a totally absorbed artist who is working and not posing.  She becomes part of the painted surface and the subject of the painting.


Artemisia introduces a sense of mystery as we cannot see what she is painting.  She leaves this to our imagination, adding another level to her painting.


This is an artist who is confident in her technical abilities and wants the viewer to know that. 


At 45 years of age Artemisia is in her prime as an artist.


Self-Portrait. Titian 1550. Berlin Gemalgalerie. Germany


Self- Portrait with Sunflower. Anthony Van Dyck. 1632-33. Eaton Hall UK.

Artemisia Self Portraits


St Catherine of Alexandria. National Gallery, London, UK


Self-Portrait as a Lute Player. 1616-18. Wadsworth Atheneum, Villa Medici. Hartford. USA

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