The most powerful self-portrait in history?

March 20, 2018

​The 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi had a lot to be angry about.

Quick transcription of Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) c.1638-9

​As a teenager she was raped by her art tutor. She suffered the shame of a public trial. Art academies and guilds across Rome shut their doors to her because she was a woman. History shut its door to her too – despite forging a career for herself, until recently most of her work had been attributed to her father.

Her anger comes through in her paintings. In a 1621 work, two young women, having rolled up their sleeves, slit a man’s throat. The biblical scene, which depicts Judith killing Holofernes, was tackled by many painters including Caravaggio, but Artemisia’s is a particularly violent interpretation. Rivulets of blood spurt from Holofernes’ throat, the sword glistens in the light. It’s difficult not to see the work as pure, pointed, painted revenge.

But in my view Gentileschi’s 1638 self-portrait is more powerful for being less violent. Artemisia is alone this time. She has rolled up her sleeves once more, but not to fight. Wielding a brush in one hand and a palette in the other, she reaches up to paint on a prepared canvas, a look of intense concentration and determination on her face.  So often women depicted in paintings and poetry were silent muses, sleeping beauties, but here Gentileschi takes control of her own image, and the resulting painting is, in my view, one of the most powerful and singular in history. Where many male artists would paint themselves to elevate their social status, surrounding themselves with symbols of their wealth, Artemisia shares the painting only with the canvas she paints on. She shares it almost equally, in fact, suggesting symmetry between the curve of her body and the blank canvas. And where most painters look out towards the viewer, we see Artemisia in profile – a clear and unusual artistic choice which would have required meticulously positioning several mirrors in her studio.

But what makes it particularly clever – modern, almost – is that Artemisia uses the conventions developed by male painters to achieve something they never could. At the turn of the century, a famous emblem book titled ‘Iconologia’ translated abstract concepts into visual images. These allegories became commonplace and were widely adopted by many painters. One of them, ‘La pittura’ – painting – was allegorised 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’.

Artemisia consciously recreates this image in and as her self-portrait, her dark hair messily tied back and a mask pendant hanging from her neck. She is not only painting herself, then, she is painting painting – her self-portrait is also a personification of art. She becomes an embodiment of creation, conflating allegory and self-portraiture, which male painters had no choice but to keep separate. This is strengthened by the sense that she is really lurching, bursting, out of the canvas, just as, on a smaller scale, her thumb seems to burst out of the palette, asserting its vitality. Artemisia’s body is made of paint and comes out of painting. 

This self-portrait is a display of Artemisia’s strength. Technical strength shown in the painting’s composition and execution. Strength to turn away from the viewer, to paint herself, by herself, and for herself. The brush is mightier than the sword. It’s telling that Artemisia’s brush reaches the very edge of the self-portrait, as if she is literally defining her own boundaries, moving the goalposts. And of course, in her interpretation of ‘la pittura’, her mouth is not ‘covered with a cloth tied behind her ears’. Her painting is her voice, and she uses it to set the stage for her urgent, dramatic performance, articulating in paint what is difficult to articulate in words.