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Updated: Aug 20, 2021





The catalyst for this sweeping exhibition making a storm at the National Gallery is twofold. The National Gallery acquired Artmesia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17) in 2018 and around the same time explicit letters from Artemisia to her lover were discovered. And so, we have the pleasure of the first major monographic exhibition of her work in the UK. The exhibition is arranged chronologically and also includes the original transcript of her rape trial.

Left to right: Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria; Judith and her maidservant with the Head of Holofernes c1608; Self Portrait as a Lute Player 1615-18

The personal history of Artemisia (1593 – 1654) is particularly fascinating and underscores her genius. Her seventeenth year was significant; at times it eclipses her reputation as one of the great Baroque artists. Born at the end of the 16th Century in Rome, 1593, she was the only daughter of the great painter Orazio Gentileshi. She trained in his studio and completed her first painting at the age of seventeen (Susannah & The Elders) but in the same year she was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist who collaborated with her father. She underwent “judicial torture” to prove (“successfully”) her innocence.

She had five children, but only one survived her, her daughter Prudenzia, named after her late mother. When her last remaining son Chrisofano died, Artemisia scandalously left her husband for a wealthy nobleman. Interestingly, she visited London in 1638 to assist her father in painting the ceiling at Queen’s House in Greenwich for Charles I.

Artemisia is renowned for so much, for being a gifted portraitist, painting striking female heroes and audacious biblical stories. Just reading about her personal experiences signals why she may have leaned towards such topics. She was a celebrity in her time; her fortitude was astounding. She once described herself, perfectly accurately, as having “the Spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”.

Her heroines are mythological and biblical. She returns again and again to Susanna and the Elders, her first 1610 and last masterpiece 1652; she paints Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, such an audacious piece in which the subject is orgasmic; she paints Lucretia (about 1620 -25) who commits suicide after being raped by Sextus, “a woman wronged but in charge of her own destiny” and Cleopatra 1633-35 succumbing to poisonous snakes in attendance by her black servants and the literally, unbearably gory Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes about 1623-25.

Mary Magdealene in Ecstacy; Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting 1638-9; Cleopatra

“Becoming Artemisia in Florence” is a section of the exhibition which fills a room with her sublime “selfies” (forgive the diminutive). It is an autobiographical period in her life around 1612-20. She paints Self Portrait as a Female Martyr, Self Portrait as a Lute Player, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. These self-portraits are remarkably similar in many respects. Her skin tones are pearlescent. The lighting is direct. Later in life she paints another, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, and commits a common transgression depicting herself much younger. This cleverly angled painting is surely a precursor for Renoir and the Impressionists?

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