Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)
Artemisia Gentileschi was invited to London in 1638 by Charles I, and probably produced this sophisticated and accomplished self-portrait in England. She holds a brush in one hand and a palette in the other, cleverly identifying herself as the female personification of painting - something her male contemporaries could never do.
It was probably during her brief English sojourn (1638-c.1641) that Artemisia Gentileschi produced this painting. She was invited in 1638 by Charles I to come to London to join her father, Orazio Gentilieschi, who had been working in England since 1626. On one level the work depicts an allegorical figure of Painting, and was described as such in Charles I’s inventory. Artemisia follows the standard emblematic handbook of the period, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, where Painting is described as ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’’. Artemisia captures the essentials of this description, leaving out the inscription on the mask and the gagged mouth, intended to symbolise that Painting is dumb. With clothes of evanescently coloured drapery, she holds a brush in one hand and a palette in the other. The work is also, however, a self-portrait: as a woman artist, Artemisia identifies herself as the female personification of Painting. There are precedents for this conflation of identities in representations of female artists. The portrait medal struck by Felice Antonio Casoni, celebrating the Cremonese painter Lavinia Fontana, depicts on the obverse a profile portrait of the artist, while on the reverse appears an allegory of Painting. Artemisia here fuses two established visual traditions within a single image.
Few of Artemisia’s self-portraits survive and the references to them in the artist’s correspondence only hint at what others might have looked like. An engraving after a painted self-portrait of Artemisia by Jerome David, a bronze medal of 1625-8, and the portrait of her by Simon Vouet (private collection, Bergamo) are additional visual sources which may hint at her likeness. Her self-portrait has been identified in many other of her paintings, such as her Woman with Lute (Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis) and the recently attributed Self-portrait as a Female Martyr (private collection), and in many of her other religious paintings, which give some indication of how she represented herself.
It is clear that Artemisia’s image was very much in demand among seventeenth-century collectors, who were attracted by her outstanding artistic abilities and her unusual status as a female artist. The Roman collector and antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo was one of her strongest supporters. Writing to him in 1630, she notes: ‘I have painted my portrait with the utmost care’; in a later letter, she promises that she is sending ‘my portrait, which you once requested’. Some scholars have suggested that these two letters refer to the Royal Collection painting, which for some reason Artemisia never sent to Dal Pozzo, but instead brought with her to England. In 1630 she would have been in her mid-thirties, which corresponds with the apparent age in the present picture. However, it would have been be odd for Artemisia to break her promise to send the self-portrait mentioned in her letter to Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of her most prestigious patrons. Certain scholars have inclined to the view that the Cassiano self-portrait has been lost and that this is another, completed after Artemisia’s arrival in London in 1638 (when she was 46 years old).
Artemisia wears a brown apron over her green dress and seems to be leaning on a stone slab used for grinding pigments in which the reflection of her left arm is visible. Underdrawing along her left arm may indicate where she marked out a position for her arm: quick, expert brushwork can be seen in the way in which she has depicted this arm as barely suggested. The area of brown behind her has been interpreted as background, or as a blank canvas on which she is about to paint. It looks like prepared canvas and was always thinly painted, but it is worn and may bear a closer resemblance than was the artist’s intention. She used the ground left exposed to suggest areas of shadow: particularly striking is the rolled up sleeve of her right arm, where fluid strokes of white delineating the edge of her sleeve meet the brown shadow of exposed ground. The position of the fingers of her right hand are different in infra-red reflectography and x-radiography, suggesting that the artist was resolving this area as she worked, eventually lengthening the index finger.
As a self-portrait the painting is particularly sophisticated and accomplished. The position in which Artemisia has portrayed herself would have been extremely difficult for the artist to capture, yet the work is economically painted, with very few pentiments. In order to view her own image she may have arranged two mirrors on either side of herself, facing each other. Depicting herself in the act of painting in this challenging pose, the angle and position of her head would have been the hardest to accurately render, requiring skilful visualisation.
With this fascinating work Artemisia Gentileschi contributed to seventeenth-century visual arguments concerning the elevated status of the artist.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007