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Gentileschi on My Mind

The Saint Louis Art Museum hosts a major exhibit of the works of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi

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If you go to see Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy at the St. Louis Art Museum, take the self-guided audio tour. If you don't, you're missing out on enough juicy background tales to inspire two recent novels and a movie.

In a nutshell, Orazio Gentileschi was a gifted painter living in sixteenth and seventeenth century Rome. He taught his daughter Artemisia the skills that allowed them both to create beautiful images, often of mythological and biblical figures. Both painters, partially inspired by their contemporary, the maverick Caravaggio, were able to paint sensual scenes with realistically draped fabrics and glowing skin tones. (Check out the masterful Susannah and the Elders, painted by Artemisia, with a little help from dad, when she was just 17.)

Artemisia led a sheltered life until she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter working with Orazio. Tassi assured her that she shouldn't be upset -- in fact, he said, he intended to marry her. Somehow, this kept her quiet, but when no marriage proposal ensued, the Gentileschis brought suit against Tassi. Artemisia endured a humiliating public trial that included her torture. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to exile from Rome, a verdict he didn't really obey.

Artemisia married a Florentine, left Rome, and eventually earned commissions throughout Italy. If you believe the historical fiction of Susan Vreeland's 2002 novel The Passion of Artemisia, the titular artist was not only sexually assaulted, but subsequently betrayed in a variety of ways by her father and her husband. (An academic conference held in conjunction with the exhibit will try to clear up some of the unknown details).

Armchair psychologists figure that Artemisia's series of paintings of the apocryphal heroine Judith slicing off the head of enemy general Holofernes (a popular subject for artists of the time) was a revenge fantasy emerging from the experience of her rape, but exhibit co-curator and SLAM Curator for Early European Art Judith Mann isn't convinced.

"I tend to think we've gone too far in assuming that the experience of her rape influenced everything she painted after the rape," says Mann. "I think many people believe Artemisia may well have been madly in love with Agostino Tassi," she adds. "He may have been that kind of creep who had a power over women."

Regardless of her intent, her talent as well as her father's is impressive to behold. This is the first major joint exhibit of the works of both Gentileschis, with about 50 works by Orazio and 30 by Artemisia. Side by side, you can see the similarity in their styles, says Mann, along with one key difference: "Artemisia is a gifted storyteller, something her father rarely is," says Mann. "He's a sublime painter, but he never pays as much attention to the details of the story as Artemisia does."

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