The Passion of Artemisia
by Susan Vreeland
Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman admitted into Florence’s Accademia dell’Arte, and one of the first female artists to paint nudes and epic history scenes from the Bible and mythology. (Earlier women painters tended to focus on portraits and still lifes.) In her novel, author Susan Vreeland sought to explore how the events and turmoil of Artemisia’s life influenced her painting. At age seventeen, Artemisia is raped by her father’s partner, Agostino Tassi, and endures a humiliating trial that makes her the laughingstock of Rome. She is hastily married off to Pietro Stiatessi, and joins him in Florence. Her husband is also a painter, and becomes jealous when Artemisia rapidly gains commissions from the most powerful men in Florence when he is barely able to get work restoring other artists’ pieces. When she is accepted into the Accademia before him, Pietro moves out of the house, effectively ending the marriage. Artemisia must support herself and her young daughter, and her quest for patronage leads to them traveling all over Europe.
This is the second novel I’ve read about a female painter this year (the first one being The Creation of Eve) but being an art history nerd I enjoy it. Susan Vreeland’s novel is heavily fictionalized, but I was surprised that many of the events I thought would be pure fiction had basis in fact. For example, in the book Artemisia was good friends with Galileo. I thought for sure this was an author’s creative license, but it seems that they did, in fact, know each other and corresponded via letters for many years.
Throughout her life, Artemisia struggled to balance the demands of her career with the demands of being a wife and mother. If she was not so dedicated to her painting, she probably could save her marriage, but Artemisia knows her talent and believes it would be a sin not to paint to the best of her ability. In that sense, she’s a very modern character, and very easy to relate to. She also has an extremely difficult relationship with her father. After her rape trial, she learns that her father has again partnered with Agostino, and the betrayal she feels keeps them apart for many years. Always, her emotions are reflected in her paintings.
I listened to an audio version of this book, and enjoyed it so much that I hope to read the text version sometime soon.
A self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi