Artemisia Gentileschi, “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting,” 1638-1639
Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first great women artists (and one of my all-time favorite painters) led a very troubled life. (Here’s a summary in the context of an earlier painting. Trigger warning: sexual assault)
One of her greatest achievements is the blow she struck for women in the arts. A large number of her paintings feature strong historical and biblical women, not only because she wasn’t allowed access to male models, but also because of her own triumph over overwhelming adversity.
This painting is a powerful statement. In a time in which women were not considered artists, she depicts herself as Pittura, the personification of painting. Similar things have been done throughout art history, mostly by male artists suggesting that Pittura has favored them, but this is the first time anyone had ever suggested that they were the literal epitome of painting talent. Her pose, clothing, and hair are particularly important; her hair and clothing are realistically unkempt and her pose seems awkward and twisted, as though she is actually painting rather than posing for a portrait.
Notably, the iridescent cloth her sleeves are made of are associated with classical depictions of Pittura. The colors the sleeves are made of can also be found on her palette, suggesting that she is in the process of creating the painting itself.
My favorite part of this painting is the lighting. Gentileschi was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, who pioneered dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, and was well aware of the symbolism the highlighted parts of the body had. In Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, intense light shines on the famed surgeon’s forehead and hand, indicating his intelligence and skill, respectively. Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait in 1500 again shows light on his forehead and hand, to emphasize his own skill and mental prowess. So when Gentileschi highlights her forehead and hand, she is referencing the theme of intelligence and skill. However, she also highlights her chest, which is highly significant. Her statement, therefore, is that she possesses skill and mental ability, despite the fact that she is a woman.
By portraying herself as Pittura, the female allegory for painting, Gentileschi argues for her gender’s inclusion in the arts. By doing so, she not only implies that painting is who she is (literally and figuratively), she also indicates and advocates gender equality within the realm of the visual arts.