by Mary D. Garrard. Reaktion Books, September 2020. 320 p. ill. ISBN 9781789142020 (h/c), $23.50.
Reviewed January 2021
Sara Ellis, Art Librarian, Music, Art & Architecture Library/University of British Columbia, email@example.com
Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe is a recent publication from Mary D. Garrard, professor emerita in the Department of Art at American University. The publication coincides with the ongoing major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, London, simply titled Artemisia. Garrard is known for her scholarship examining key figures and topics in Italian Renaissance-Baroque art history through the lens of feminist theory. Here, Garrard returns to Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-ca. 1656), a subject she has written about throughout her career. Garrard’s groundbreaking 1989 monograph Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art was the first full-length study of the artist. It invigorated research on Artemisia while untangling her work from that of her father, painter Orazio Gentileschi, and Caravaggio, whose dramatic style she is closely associated with.
Garrard’s present work is part of Reaktion Book’s Renaissance Lives series, edited by Francois Quiviger. It includes twenty-one titles on early modern European artists, intellectuals, and literati, of which Artemisia is the only woman represented. Garrard’s objective is “to situate Artemisia’s art firmly within a [feminist] discourse that is now taking clearer historical shape, and to show how her paintings played a part in that discourse.” Throughout seven chapters, key arguments from Garrard’s earlier works are reiterated and expanded by engaging with prevailing feminist literature and art historical research as well as new attributions to Artemisia’s catalog.
Chapter one traces Artemisia’s biography from Rome to Florence, Venice, England, and Naples. Though isolated as an artist, with no immediate female cohort, Garrard connects Artemisia to a network of humanist and courtly women scholars (orators, writers) as well as artists (painters, sculptors, printmakers) throughout northern Italy, Holland, England, and France. She identifies Artemisia’s agency in securing patrons, managing finances, joining the Florentine Accademia del Disegno (the first female artist to do so), and shaping her public image.
Chapter two examines Artemisia’s pictorial responses to conflicting cultural expectations that women be chaste, modest, and the willing object of masculine desire. Connections are drawn to sexual misconduct and violence depicted in Artemisia’s paintings and the artist’s own position at the center of a public rape trial. Garrard states that the experience did not render Artemisia a passive victim, nor does she depict her female figures as such. Chapters three to seven address Artemisia’s ambitious portrayals of female heroism in biblical and allegorical figures that subverted expected visual typologies and pushed at limitations imposed on female identity.
Garrard’s research is extended by forty-eight pages of references, and a twelve-page index facilitates navigation of the art works, figures, and concepts explored in the text. It is illustrated with seventy-one full- and half-page images (fourteen black and white, the rest in color). A select bibliography of six pages draws on academic press publications and scholarly journal articles, with some edited and translated editions of primary texts from the fourteenth-seventeenth centuries.
This book is not a singular study of Artemisia’s oeuvre, but documents the artist’s position in a transhistorical network of women who challenged patriarchal structures and expectations. It is recommended for students at undergraduate and graduate levels and to scholars seeking to address the full scope of available research on Artemisia and her socio-cultural milieu.