There is a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th-century Roman artist, of Clio, the muse of history. The figure stands defiant, chin tilted upwards, gaze set into the distance. On the desk before her rests an open book – a work, we can assume, of historiography. On its pages, Gentileschi has painted her own name. It is her signature; but she is also writing herself, literally, into history.
The reality of her reputation has not, however, been so straightforward as the bold aspiration this painting encapsulates. Though beset by difficulties – she was raped as a 17-year-old, lost four of her five children, and endured many financial problems – her work was admired and celebrated in her lifetime. It was in the centuries after her death that she was sidelined by connoisseurs. A revival came only in the late 20th century, much aided by the strength of feminist scholarship.
The National Gallery in London, which acquired a beautiful self-portrait by her in 2018, on Saturday opens a remarkable show of her work. And, while it has given space to female artists before – Tacita Dean curated a memorable exhibition in 2018, it has shown work by its female artists-in-residence such as Alison Watt, and a Bridget Riley mural triumphantly presides over one of its staircases – this is the first time in its 200-year history it has devoted a full-scale exhibition to a female old master. The result is revelatory.
There is certainly no need for special pleading here: her work eloquently speaks for itself. These are paintings full of fury, excitement and tenderness. Male sexual aggression is unflinchingly explored through her versions of the biblical scene of Susanna spied on in her bath; and female revenge triumphantly dramatised through her chilling paintings of Judith and Holofernes, in which the Israelite heroine and her servant, their arms muscular and faces set in concentration, slice off the head of their enemy with a sword. Unsettlingly and touchingly, the exhibition also puts on show for the first time the court transcript made during the trial of her rapist, in which she testified under torture.
The show has another role to play, too: it serves to demonstrate just how unbalanced the art-historical canon is. It is only recently that female old masters have begun to be given a fraction of their proper due, such as in the groundbreaking show devoted to Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Grand Palais, Paris; and an exhibition at the Prado, Madrid last year focused on the great Renaissance painters Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola.
The considerable downside of the show’s opening during a pandemic is that many who would otherwise have travelled from far and wide to see it will be unable to do so – though a forthcoming BBC Four documentary as part of the broadcaster’s Museums in Quarantine season will, fortunately, open up the experience beyond those who can visit in person.
Either way, this is a once-in-a-generation experience to see some of her best paintings gathered from across Europe and the US, from private collections, and even from the Queen. The exhibition must be just the beginning of Gentileschi’s – and her many overlooked sisters’ – reinscription into the book of history.