How a brilliant woman's 400-year-old paintings speak to us today

Detail from Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi's work is urgent, immediate, compelling and often ignored

The grisly scene seems spot-lit. A man is lying on a bed, he is in the process of being decapitated. One woman holds him down, while the other does the deed with an ornate sword. Small details: the gauzy, blood-soaked sheet alone is a masterpiece of painting – delicate drapes, the hint of a lace edging. The man, Holofernes, is trying to fight one of the women off. The other, Judith, is dressed in rich blue velvet, cut fashionably low. She is focused on the job at hand. Her expression is one of practical necessity and determination with, perhaps, a spark of disinterested fascination at what life has brought her to, at what she is capable of. She could equally be wringing the neck of a goose.

The painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, was one of at least two made more than 400 years ago, by an Italian woman, Artemisia Gentileschi. A later version differs in that Judith is wearing yellow rather than blue, and there is a great deal more spurting blood. But who was Gentileschi, and what drove her to engage with such relish, with such gore?

Through the pages of Jonathan Jones’s new book, and in a forthcoming exhibition at London’s National Gallery, her extraordinary story comes vividly to life. How did a woman even become a professional painter back then? And why did she elect to paint such a grisly subject, more than once? “It leaps out of the past,” says Jones of the painting. “We relate to it very directly.” As art critic for the Guardian newspaper he has returned to her life and work on numerous occasions. For Jones, art matters not only because it can teach us about life, but because it is a fundamental part of life, and that comes through in his writing.

“I have always found her very powerful,” he says. “We’re in an age of gender revolution. People are looking at women’s art, gender and power, and this is the woman who articulated almost feminist rage 400 years ago. Everything that Artemisia did was so ahead of her time, was almost inconceivable for her time, and yet she was famous in her time.”

Pre-modern art

“I will show what a woman can do,” wrote Gentileschi. And by god she did. She was the first woman to be accepted into Florence’s Accademia delle Arti del Disegnio (the Academy of the Arts of Drawing), and she enjoyed the patronage of the courts both of the Medici of Florence, and Charles I of England. She was so good that for many regrettable periods in history, scholars reattributed her works to her dad, Orazio Gentileschi, or said that, at the very least he must have helped her.

For centuries, she was more or less ignored. Perhaps that’s because her subject matter, fell out of fashion for a while. It’s more likely because she was a woman

For anyone who thinks that history is something that happened ages ago, and Baroque art is that stuff you see in the cool of churches, and aloof, in heavy gilt frames, think again. In the world and words of Jones’s book, the 17th century could have happened yesterday, it is urgent, immediate and very compelling. He’s equally fascinating in conversation, and passionate about his subject.

The Gentileschis, he tells me, Orazio and Artemisia, were both disciples of Caravaggio. “She must have met him as a child,” he tells me. “Imagine that! A completely dangerous character.” In her life, she was also commissioned by Michelangelo Buanarroti, to create work in celebration of his stellar namesake uncle, and was pals with Galileo. But then, for centuries, she was more or less ignored. Perhaps that’s because her subject matter, biblical and history paintings, fell out of fashion for a while. It’s more likely because she was a woman.

“It’s harder for people to engage with pre-modern art, when they’re surrounded by contemporary and modern art,” agrees Jones. Some of that is because the world surrounding contemporary and modern art is more amenable to cocktail parties, VIP openings and market hype. It’s paradoxically harder to make an asset class out of something relatively scarce. “A lot of posh people have less commitment to the great artists of the canon,” he agrees. “But for me that is where it starts – at the top.” Art didn’t feature hugely in his background, he grew up in North Wales, but his parents, who were teachers, brought him to galleries on family holidays in France and Italy. It evidently stuck.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

He grows increasingly enthusiastic as he sets the scene, telling me how in 1603, Orazio and Caravaggio had been on trial for libel: “They’d been going round insulting this artist, Baglione. He had essentially accused Caravaggio of sodomy – in a painting, And you can’t leave it at that, not in a world where you can be burned at the stake for sodomy. It’s a fascinating weird world,” he continues. “This is Rome during the Counter Reformation, when they’re rebuilding Christianity, and yet Caravaggio creates this criminal artistic subculture. They don’t only imitate his style, they imitate his lifestyle, and she’s exposed to that as a child.”

She was exposed to a great deal more. In 1611, Orazio hired his friend and colleague, the artist Agostino Tassi, to tutor his talented daughter. Tassi was a nasty piece of work. He had already slept with his own sister in law, and hired bandits to kill his wife. “Tassi’s art isn’t like Caravaggio’s,” says Jones. “But his lifestyle is almost a parody of Caravaggio’s. Caravaggio almost certainly created the idea that a bad lad is a good artist,” he adds.

Tassi raped Artemisia, denied everything then tried to claim it was consensual. The story is completely detailed, as the ensuing rape trial was thoroughly documented. Gentileschi’s letters also survive. And her incredible paintings. Another subject she returns to time and again is Susanna and the Elders, in which a naked women is perved at by two creepy, fully dressed older men. It’s a story from the Book of Daniel, in which two men spy on Susanna, and then try to threaten her into having sex with them.

“The entire transcript of the trial survives. It’s like a play. Though what I’ve done,” Jones says, “is not a fiction. It’s not a novel, it’s based on those sources, and on the paintings. Because they’re the evidence. They’re what’s most original about her, she puts her own experience into art.” In this, he agrees, the Susanna paintings are like a therapy. “The original of Judith and Holofernes was probably being painted while the rape and the trial were going on. And that first painting of Susanna and the Elders, painted when she was 17, it’s already full of weird psychological tension. And she comes back to the subject again and again, she comes back to it in almost every decade of her life. She needs to paint these subjects.”

‘She’s expressive’

The rape was an ordeal, and the trial was too. She was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth. “She was tortured by having her fingers crushed. She’s a painter…” Jones’s voice pauses in outrage – four centuries on. Then, leaping forward through art history, he likens the way Gentileschi’s life is fully present in her work, to more recent artists: Frida Kahlo; Louise Bourgeois; Tracey Emin. “Artemisia is an artist who can speak directly to us today. Not just to the themes of power and anger: she’s expressive.”

Stories come through time with their resonances intact. Forgetting the past causes us to continue to have to relearn its lessons

So is art gendered, I wonder? “I don’t think so,” he says. Men are just as capable, after all, of putting their lives into art. “But then I do think a man would have done it all differently.” Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes is, he points out, a nightmare. “Hers is different. She imagines what it would really take for a young woman to try to kill a big man. The rape trial tells how she tries to grab a knife to kill him. The women are strong – big beefy arms. It’s really like planning a murder.”

Like Caravaggio, Gentileschi’s best paintings have what Jones describes as a “cinematic immediacy”. So why the book, why now? “I want people to recognise that she’s a great artist. She belongs in the company of Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt; and she’s also very very modern, because she definitely deals with the ways women are oppressed.” As we speak on the phone, the noises of a railway station occasionally intrude. “I’m sitting in St Pancreas Station,” he admits. “I’m looking at a Tracey Emin neon. I learned a lot about Artemisia from knowing Tracey. This thing of adopting personae, Cindy Sherman does it too. With Artemisia, all her art is a self portrait, and yet none of it is.”

Those connections matter. Stories come through time with their resonances intact. Forgetting the past causes us to continue to have to relearn its lessons. And as recent events show, this is a story that we clearly need to keep relearning until we have its lessons down better.

Some of Gentileschi’s story reads like it was made for a movie. There was a French film, made in 1997, by Agnès Merlet, which roused the ire of Gloria Steinem, among others. But why not see the real thing? Artemisia runs at the National Gallery, London from April 4th to July 26th. Including two versions of Judith beheading Holofernes, three of Susannah and the Elders, as well as her self portraits, and newly discovered letters, it looks unmissable. And read the book. Jones is truly passionate, and his words sing. Just like the paintings – but differently.

Artemisia Gentileschi by Jonathan Jones is published by Laurence King stg£12.99. nationalgallery.org.uk