'This wonderful painting is an incredibly bold statement of a confident painter at work made more incredible by having been painted by a woman in the 1630s.'

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, about 1638/9, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652/3), 383⁄4in by 291⁄2in, Hampton Court Palace, Surrey. Bridgeman Images.

Sandi Toksvig says:
‘Anyone with an interest in the history of art might be forgiven for thinking that women either haven’t been very good at it or not interested. The truth is that there have been astonishing female artists, but many historians have chosen to overlook them. This wonderful painting is an incredibly bold statement of a confident painter at work made more incredible by having been painted by a woman in the 1630s. I love her intense focus, reflected in the lack of attention she’s paid to her hair. The mask around her neck looks like a memento mori, reminding us all to get on with creativity while we still have time.’

Sandi Toksvig is a TV and radio broadcaster who currently presents The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4.

John McEwen comments:
Artemisia Gentileschi was a footnote until 40 years ago. Even in the 1997 edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, she is mentioned as a mere adjunct to her father Orazio, Court painter to both Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria. Today, she is acknowledged as the first noteworthy woman painter and no work proclaims the fact more assertively than this presumed self-portrait.

Artemisia was taught by her father and benefited from his support, but her story is also a personal triumph. As a teenager, she was raped by a friend of her father, the landscape painter Agostino Tassi. The trial that followed meant the loss of her virginity was made public. Despite this marital blight, she was found a husband, but the marriage didn’t last, leaving her to raise a daughter.

Marriage took her to Florence, where, on the recommendation of her father—who said she was ‘without equal’—she enjoyed the patronage of the Medici. She was the first woman admitted to the city’s Accademia delle Arti del Disegno and proceeded to have a successful 40-year career. This picture may have been commissioned by Charles I, when she was visiting London to see, and possibly assist, her father. It broke convention by showing an artist at work. The pose was suggested in the 1593 iconologia, a popular iconographic handbook in which the spirit of Painting is described as: ‘A beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled… with a chain of gold at her throat…she holds in her hand a brush, and in the other a palette.’

This article was originally published in Country Life, March 11, 2015

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