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Artemisia Gentileschi is having a moment

Will other women artists benefit from her fame?

 

Artemisia’s star is on the rise

If you, like me, are an art nerd, you’ll find this post right up your alley. If not, you may still enjoy the “Phoenix rising from the ashes” story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a Golden-age Italian artist whose early success, subsequent fade-out from history, and recent reappearance on the world stage is tragic, fascinating, and inspiring.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Artemisia (here, her Self-portrait as Lute Player) in this blog post celebrating great forgotten women artists. Of all the artists I described, Artemisia was the most well known, with the largest following both in the art world and the general population. Not coincidentally, her work also commands the highest price tags of all these women. In 2014, her long-lost canvas of Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy sold for just over $1 million. This past July, the National Gallery in London paid $4.7 million for her Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. And more recently, her Lucretia (appearing for the first time at auction) sold for $2.1 million, more than twice its presale estimate.

Compared to the $450 million a Saudi prince paid for Leonardo DaVinci’s Salvator Mundi in 2017 (and the mind-boggling prices collectors fork over for works by other male painters), this isn’t spectacular. But it is a lot more money than collectors typically shell out for works by female artists. Even among contemporary artists, the pay discrepancy between works of men and women is huge. A study by the University of Luxembourg last year found that works by women typically sell for 47.6% of the prices male artists command at auction.

So why Artemisia, why now, and what does this mean for other female artists?

As I research and write the third book in The Miramonde Series, I’ve come back to this question many times. Though Artemisia languished in the shadows of history for centuries, there was always a wealth of information about her in the historical record. She was celebrated in her time, though never accorded the label of “greatness” that it seemed only male contemporaries like Caravaggio could obtain. Could this be because the people doing the labeling were men…? Hmm. But I digress.

Unlike Artemisia, most other women artists living and working in Europe from the 1400s onward were neither celebrated nor documented during their lives. So trying to piece together their stories and find their work (especially when it was often unsigned or attributed to male artists) is a nearly impossible task.

One of the reasons Artemisia is having a moment relates to the traumatic experience that shaped her worldview and her art: a sexual assault by an artist associate of her father’s. Thanks to the historical record, we have the account of the rape and its aftermath in Artemisia’s own words. Listen to this excellent episode of the ArtCurious podcast for all the details about this event and its consequences on Artemisia and her work. Art historians and art dealers alike attribute some of Artemisia’s recent success to the #MeToo movement. Her personal story resonates more than ever during this era of women coming forward to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

One of the crucial aspects of creating a market for women’s art is having art to sell in the first place. Only when an artist’s work is studied and placed in the public sphere by a critical mass of academics and museums does it begin to build an audience and attract potential investors. An example of how Artemisia’s work has benefited from the scholarship devoted to her in the past several decades is this portrait of 17th-century nobleman Antoine de Ville. In 2011, Curator Judith Mann of the St. Louis Art Museum identified the work as Artemisia’s. With the input of Italian Artemisia scholar Roberto Contini, Mann identified Artemisia’s signature and initials on the painting. In addition, previous study of Artemisia’s works by many academics helped Mann pinpoint the hallmarks of the artist and make the attribution with assurance.

Women have always painted. Very few of them are known, let alone celebrated. This is sad and frustrating. But it’s also exciting—because their work exists. It’s out there. In museum storage rooms, in dusty attics. And as a market for their work grows, there will be more motivation for people to dig into the shadows and finally bring these forgotten paintings into the light.

Take this story in The Art Newspaper, “Female Old Masters Finally Get Their Day in The Sun.” It points to the recent trend of museums finally mounting shows devoted to female artists–like the Prado in Madrid, which exhibited a show of Flemish still-life artist Clara Peeters’ paintings last year…its first-ever show of a woman artist’s work. The article quotes the director of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Eike Schmidt, as saying, “The good news is that since female artists of the past are understudied, you always find additional works that have not been known.”

From obscurity to market

One exciting step in the laborious process of identifying and locating women artists’ work is underway. The Advancing Women Artists foundation, the brainchild of recently deceased Jane Fortune, has launched a database of European women artists from 1400 onward. The organization is working with museums all over Europe to gather information on works of art by women in their museums, especially those in storage, and to add digital images of the works to the database. This will be the first step out of obscurity for many artists. From there, the hope is these women will attract the attention of scholars, who will study them and advocate for their work to hang on museum walls rather than languish in storage.

My hope is that Artemisia isn’t an outlier. I hope she is only the first of many long-forgotten women whose day in the sun is about to arrive. If you’re familiar with my novels, you know this is exactly what modern-day heroine Zari Durrell is after as she hunts for clues about Renaissance-era artist Miramonde de Oto in the Pyrenees and beyond. What I find incredibly exciting is that when I conceived these novels back in 2011, I did it because I wished there had been more women artists. I had no idea that there really were so many women artists throughout time whose work remains a mystery to us—and who only now, through the efforts of academics and the passionate interest of ordinary people, are beginning to shine their light on the world.

 

1 Comment

  1. Sallyanne Wilson says:

    Thanks for calling attention to women artists of the past — long ignored by the art world and academia. Having recently visited famous art museums in the Netherlands and searching in vain for paintings by women artists from the “Golden Age,” I’m delighted to learn that finally serious searches are underway to find such work. Thanks for your part in helping women artists get the attention they deserve.

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