Bill Long 4/10/08
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
One of the first fruits of the feminist movement in historical study, beginning in the early 1970s, was that long-ignored but important female figures in history began to discover their own "voice," thanks to the efforts of modern historians. And, one of the most popular artists who was "discovered" in the modern era is the Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1663). Daughter of the distinguished painter Orazio Gentileschi, himself a follower of his contemporary Caravaggio, Artemisia came of age in a period in which female painters were not admitted to the academies. The idea of females painting males, and nude males at that, was condemned by the Vatican and shunned by people of good taste.
Yet she desired to do all of these things (at least in the movie), and, as portrayed by director Agnes Merlet in this French movie from 1998, she did so with spunk, determination and confidence. The movie only portrays her life through 1612, though there is more than enough for directorial study (and imagination) in the first 19 years of her life to attract attention. Most critics and historians have significant problems with one important aspect of the film (the rape trial of 1612--more below), while Merlet is to be commended for her buoyant picture of Artemisia and for making her story far more accessible to millions of people than scholarly biographies, however well written, do.
Indeed, there have been about a dozen books on Artemisia written in the last few decades. As one of the premeir Artemisia scholars, Mary Garrard, says:
"Let's face it: the life of Artemisia Gentileschi will continue to be fictionalized until the last syllable of recorded time."
Why? Because so little is really known of her life. We have a few letters written by her and the transcript of her rape trial in 1612; we have her art works and those of her father and other contemporaries. Thus, the field is, as the Gospel writer says, "white for harvest."
The Controversy over the Movie
Merlet portrays Artemisia, played by Valentina Cervi, as both an exceptionally gifted and curious artist (especially curious about the male anatomy), as well as a sort of erotic pleasure seeker. The two portraits don't always "jive" very well, but they set the stage for the passion of her work and, even more, for the trial of artist Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojilovic), accused of raping her. Artemisia had been brought to Tassi by her artist father, Orazio (Michel Serrault), after she had been thrown out of a convent in Rome and was rebuffed in her attempt to get an artistic training. Tassi accepted her as a student, at the insistence of Orazio (Orazio was painting with Tassi in Rome at the time), taught her perspective by helping her see distance through a grid. Then, he seduced/raped her. The movie gives the impression that his first sexual advances against Artemisia were unwelcome but that after a while, they were consensual. Yet the father, incensed at the betrayal by Tassi, where rape or even consensual intercourse required marraige in order for the family honor to be preserved, decided to prosecute Tassi for rape.
It is here that what we know of historical reality conflicts most dramatically with the movie. As this web site indicates, Director Merlet seemed to be more concerned to try to present an unfortunate situation between two lovers who were interrupted in their discovery of the other by the jealous intervention of Artemisia's father than to show Tassi for what the historical record indicates. He had a sordid past, which Tassi's sister admittedly mentions as a witness in the film, but we are left with the impression of his nobility as he intervenes during finger-torture of Artemisia by admitting that he raped her. As a result of his confession he had the following choice: (1) to be banished from Rome; or (2) to undergo a prison sentence--I have seen figures from one to five years on the net. He chose the former, though he was back painting in Rome within the year, thanks to the protection of some high-placed friends.
If Merlet's depiction of the trial sometimes has only tenuous connection to historical fact, her imaginative suggestion of the making of one of Artemisia's most famous paintings (Judith slaying Holofernes) is arresting. She suggests that Tassi himself was the male subject for the study (do we know?), and that the picture therefore "grew" in her mind as her acquaintance with him deepened. While most scholars point to the completion of this painting after the rape trial, the movie has the defense counsel bringing in the completed painting to show Artemisia's purported misanthropy.
Historical reconstruction is always a difficult thing, made more difficult by the passage of time and the absence of many contemporary records. But each effort adds something to our knowledge, and if this movie can lead us to Garrard's books, and perhaps even to the trial transcript, we, too, can make our imaginative re-creation of the past. Indeed, life is a series of imagined events, even as we think we are all trying to "face reality." Let's spend some time "imagining Artemisia," as we examine her paintings (here is a great web site for that); our life can't get much better than that...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long