Artemesia 1593-1654

Paris, Musée Maillol from 14 March to 15 July 2012.
A first version of the exhibition was presented in Milan at the Palazzo Reale from 22 September 2011 to 22 January 2012.

1. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) ?
maybe with
Orazio Gentileschi (1562-1639)
Judith and her Servant Abra with
the Head of Holophernes
, c.1607-1610
Roma, Collection of Fabrizio Lemme
Photo : Mauro Coen

Seeing an exhibition of 17th century Italian painting is such a rare occurrence in Paris that visitors should not miss the chance provided by the Musée Maillol, especially since this is a retrospective of a somewhat legendary artist, considered by many as a feminist figure before her time.
In fact, we are pleased that the organizers - unlike what appears to have been the case in the first version presented in Milan late 2011 - did not insist on this biographical aspect. The purpose is to discover the art, not discuss the rape of Artemisia by Agostino Tassi, or the symbol of an emancipated woman, even less to draw unfounded psychoanalitic conclusions concerning her life and work.

By offering certain paintings of the artist’s contemporaries, including three by Orazio Gentileschi [1] (at least, since some works are in debate between the father and daughter - ill. 1), the curators have extended the exhibition’s theme. We also appreciated the presentation of paintings which are not well known, some even not at all, from French museums [2], several of which were restored for the occasion, as well as the quality of the setting (despite harsh lighting in some areas). The exhibition itself reveals many qualities but also a few flaws which are hard to overlook.

There are two main problems, concerning attributions and the catalogue editing. We know that the Milan version was sharply criticized by Gianni Papi in the Burlington Magazine issue of December 2011 [3]. Keeping in mind that he was the author, along with one of the two curators of this exhibition, of a first retrospective on Artemisia in 1991 at the Casa Buonarotti in Florence, we might be tempted to think that personal considerations along with the fact that he was not included in this project, may have been the cause of a certain resentment on his part. However, we must admit that many of his arguments sound true, notably when he points out the lack of bibliographical references to his exhibition Caravaggio e caravaggeschi a Firenze which was held in Florence last year (and which we saw only near the end, thus not being able to write a review). This show is ignored when in fact several paintings by Gentileschi now at the Musée Maillol appeared there and were extensively discussed.

2. Attributed, in the exhibition, to
Charles Mellin (1598-1649)
Reclined Nude Woman, c.1627-1630
Oil on Canvas - 89.2 x 134.7 cm
Cahors, Musée Henri-Martin
Photo : Didier Rykner

Hence, we do not understand why these references do not appear but Papi is not the only one to have been systematically put aside : French bibliography, notably, is largely missing [4]. This is no doubt the reason why the catalogue still attributes a painting (Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist [5]) to Simon Vouet when it is almost unanimously given to Charles Mellin, and which was presented with this name at the retrospective in Nancy (see here) and Caen (see here and here). The Strasbourg exhibition in 2006, Eclairages sur un chef-d’oeuvre. Loth et ses filles de Simon Vouet (see article in French) is not mentioned in catalogue entry 18 either, a painting attributed to Claude Mellan, Judith and her Servant, don Petithory at the Musée Bonnat. Yet it was presented there.
Charles Mellin is also the issue here with the exhibition of a totally unpublished painting from the Musée de Cahors, restored thanks to the Fondation Dina Vierny (ill. 2). This attribution does not seem to be met with unanimity, starting with Philippe Malgouyres, a specialist of the artist and author of the retrospective, who thinks that this painting is in no way connected to the artist. This does not matter as the canvas is extremely interesting despite a particularly awkward area on the right shoulder.

3. Attributed, in the exhibition, to
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
Woman Playing a Lute
Oil on Canvas - 64 x 78 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Mauro Coen

These hotly debated questions of debatable attributions are not surprising in an exhibition of Caravaggesque painting. However, the presence of certain canvases is hard to justify. When we went, we wondered notably about the attribution to Artemisia of two paintings, placed side by side in the second room on the upper floor, representing respectively a Portrait of a Nun (cat. 23) and a Woman Playing a Lute (ill. 3). It becomes obvious first of all that the two works - the second in fact is rather beautiful - cannot have been executed by the same hand, and highly likely that it is not Artemisia’s in either one [6]. Francesco Solinas, one of the two curators for the exhibition, was close to sharing our opinion since he immediately told us during the press visit that he would have question marks added to the signs [7] (which unfortunately will not appear in the printed catalogue).

In this same room, the large Portrait of a Woman Sitting is not really convincing. We can of course understand the attribution to Artemisia Gentilischi, notably when looking at the face but its atypical character should perhaps indicate that a prudent "attributed to" should be added... The 1991 exhibition catalogue, which reproduced it [8], showed the name followed by a cautious question mark.
Among other works which raise questions, we would include a whole series of paintings from the Neapolitan period presented on the ground floor. Some bear an inscription or signature, but they are generally so poor that we can legitimately think that they might be studio productions where the artist barely participated, or else old copies. In fact, the conclusion visitors might draw from the exhibition, that Artemisia Gentilischi is very uneven in the quality of her work, capable of producing masterpieces as well as average pieces, is perhaps not really warranted. It would have been smarter in a way, like in the 1991 Florentine retrospective, to limit the number of works, or else isolate those of uncertain attribution. The absence of one of her masterpieces (her first known work), Susanna and the Elders from Pommersfeldent, on the 1991 catalogue cover, was a definite disadvantage for the organizers here, as is the presence of the painting of the same subject by Bassano del Grappa (ill. 5), in fact identified as being by the studio. On the other hand, we were happy to see the one from the Pinacoteca in Bologna, in storage until now but recently restored and whose attribution is not very old (2004, by Adelina Modesti).

4. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
and Partner
Bathsheba at Bath, c.1636-1638
Oil on Canvas - 185.2 x 145.4 cm
London, Matthiesen Gallery
Photo : Matthiesen Gallery

5. Studio of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
Susanna and the Elders, c.1650
Oil on Canvas - 168 x 112 cm
Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico
Photo : Archivio Fotografico del Museo
Biblioteca e Archivio di Bassano del Grappa

Strangely enough, the retrospective begins at the end (of the Neopolitan period) and finishes with the artist’s early career in Rome. Although the layout of the museum might explain this curious order, we would advise visitors to start on the first floor. In the first room, they will enjoy notably a superb Saint Jerome by Orazio Gentileschi, but also another work whose attribution is divided between the father and the daughter, here given to Artemisia with a question mark, and which belongs to Fabrizio Lemme, a generous donor to the Louvre (ill. 1). One of the artist’s masterpieces is exhibited here, the magnificent Judith and Holophernes from Capodimonte (ill. 6). Artemisia’s talent, or should we say her genius should be measured when looking at this canvas, or also Judith and her Servant Abra with the Head of Holophernes (ill. 7).

6. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
Judith and Holophernes, c.1612-1614
Oil on Canvas - 159 x 126 cm
Napoli, Museo Nationale di Capodimonte
Photo : Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

7. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
Judith and her Servant Abra with
the Head of Holophernes
, 1617-1618
Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina
Photo : Studio Fotografico Perotti
Photo : Mauro Coen

Of the three Virgin Nursing, only the one from the Galleria Spada is unanimously considered to be by Gentilischi. From the Roman period, several very beautiful canvases are indisputable, such as Saint Cecilia (Galleria Spada) or the superb Portrait of a Gonfaloniere (cat. 16), correctly compared to the striking Portrait of a Gentleman with a Dog from a private collection, given to Vouet, and which appears to be unpublished if we are to believe the total lack of bibliography (and provenance).
Among the most beautiful paintings in the exhibition, we would finally like to point out a Danaë (ill. 8) from the Saint Louis Art Museum which Gianni Papi attributes by the way to Orazio, and a small David on lapis-lazuli, not included in the catalogue, newly rediscovered, by Orazio himself (ill. 9) which repeats the composition of a larger canvas at the Galleria Spada.

8. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
(also attributed to Orazio Gentileschi)
Danaë, c.1607-1610
Roma, collection of Fabrizio Lemme
Photo : Mauro Coen

9. Orazio Gentileschi (1562-1639)
David Meditating in Front of the Head of Goliath, c.1610
Oil on lapis-lazuli
Private Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

This exhibition thus raises many questions, a fascinating opportunity for art historians. The general public will also be pleased although it may find itself at times confused by the difference in quality. As for the catalogue, despite the few remarks made above (and a lack of index), this is a solid piece of work with several essays of excellent quality and very detailed entries [9].

Curators : Francesco Solinas and Roberto Contini.

Collective work, Artemisia (1593-1654), Gallimard, 2012, 255 p., 39€. ISBN : 9782070136803.

Visitor information : Musée Maillol, 61 rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris. Tel : +33 (0)1 42 22 59 58. Open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., until 9:30 p.m. on Fridays. Admission : 11€ (reduced : 9€).

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 23 mars 2012


[1] We point out of course that Orazio is not a "painter of average reputation" as stated in a leading evening newspaper but one of the most famous artists in early 17th century Europe, brought to France by Marie de Medici, to England by Charles I and who also worked for Philip IV of Spain...

10. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)
Judith and her Servant Abra with
the Head of Holophernes
, c.1640-1645
Oil on Canvas - 235 x 172 cm
Cannes, Musée de la Castre
Photo : Claude Germain / Musée de la Castre

[2] Besides those attributed to Charles Mellin (Cahors) and to Claude Mellan (Bayonne) whom we mention a bit further, we point out Saint Peter Visiting Saint Agatha attributed to Francesco Guarino (Nevers), The Allegory of Painting, by an anonymous Neapolitan artist from the first half of the 17th century (Le Mans) and Judith and her Servant Abra with the Head of Holophernes (ill. 10) a (studio ?) replica of a composition by Artemisia (Cannes).

[3] We had skimmed the article quickly when it appeared in the Burlington Magazine, enough to gather that it was highly critical but without pausing to take in the debated attributions in order to keep an open mind. It was only after coming to our own conclusions that we read it a second time more carefully.

[4] True, the catalogue for the 1991 exhibition, did not contain a historical background, bibliography, as is often the case for Italian exhibitions.

[5] See p. 213. The painting resides in Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte.

[6] Even though the Woman Playing a Lute shows the initials A.G.R.F., interpreted as A[rtemisia] G[entilischi] R[omana] F[ecit] on the kitten of the brooch.

[7] Only one was placed, that corresponding to cat. 24...

[8] Fig. 89, p. 157.

[9] However, we find it unfortunate that Artemisia’s letters exhibited here, recently found by Francesco Solinas, are not retranscribed nor translated, making it difficult to read them in reduced photographs.

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