I’m still looking at her. I lied in the previous post about ambivalence. I know very well that she is informed, not defined, by other people’s abuse. This post is too long for comfort, but if you want to see Artemisia Gentileschi meet Jane Austen, read on.
The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA
“Till this moment I never knew myself”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
Of all women, why should the Magdalene repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a triumphant victim of patriarchy who earned her own living, became a player in global religion, and a legendary heroine of romance, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not patronize her.
Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account. We are looking at her at the moment she knows herself.
Gentileschi also cast Mary Magdalene, the sinning woman, as the personification of Melancholy, an ambivalent attribute.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Maddalena come la Malinconia 1621 -25.
Oil on canvas. Museo del Soumaya, Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia.
The Renaissance began the modern cultivation of melancholy, or predisposition to depression, as a desirable creative condition, on the dubious premise that the more you suffer, the better your art. This has been proved true only in cases where there is pre-existing talent and a strong technique. Intensity of feeling alone never wrote a good book or painted a great picture. greatest struggle is to transmute personal experience into art
Gentileschi’s interpretation of a passive Temperament is characteristically unromantic: the sensual, dishevelled Magdalene is slumped in her chair, looking like a lethargic and sulky teenager, the opposite of her usually dynamic heroines.
Gentileschi (the daughter, not the father, the overshadowed Orazio, a dutiful father and fine painter in his own right) is a colussus straddling art and gender history. Continue reading
Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO
Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.
Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.
“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo
Hecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA
Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.
Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA
Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.
Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.
In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.
The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.
Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.
She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814
After the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, the fashionable ruling class no longer wanted to be portrayed in an elevated spiritual sphere where they knew they didn’t belong. The reward they claimed for going to hell and back was instant gratification, not introspection. Some of them were still secretly very religious, but knowing how short and brutal life could be, waited till their deathbeds for their conversions.
They had lived through Civil War and exile, and they didn’t want to look other-worldly like the previous generation. Nothing was sacred, except survival. A new generation of court painter was happy to oblige with contemporary takes on traditional allegory in a flashier, worldly-wise presentation. The studied nonchalance of Van Dyck’s figures, inspired by Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, crumpled into the straight out of bed look.
On the great consensual casting couch of the Restoration Court, Charles II‘s mistresses competed to make him laugh as much as get into his bed, and one of Lady Castlemaine’s jokes was to have herself painted as the Virgin Mary with her eldest bastard son by the king playing baby Jesus.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child
by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1664. National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia
Like a modern supermodel, but without make-up, she set the look of the day. Lely used her sensuous features, the heavy-lidded eyes and full lips, as the template for all his portraits of high society beauties, so there were complaints (from Pepys, for instance, and Rochester when he saw the portrait of his wife) that nobody else looked anything like themselves.
She was a sex-addict with a terrible temper and a gambling addiction. Today, she’d be diagnosed with a personality disorder. If she was a man, we’d be terrified of her, and prosecute her for harassment. Instead, we find her entertaining, titillating, challenging, ultimately pathetic.
Barbara is famous for being the most promiscuous, and unfaithful, of Charles II‘s mistresses, portrayed as the nymphomaniac Fuckadilla in a contemporary pornographic satire. Her list of lovers, including Jacob Hall the tight-rope dancer, John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, England’s most victorious general, and the playwright William Wycherley, shows she picked talent. She also paid them generously.
She was a life-force, and could be great fun. She enjoyed the thrill of power, or its illusion, and exerting political influence whenever she could, but for purely selfish reasons, to settle personal scores. She acted from the heart, not the head. She was unsentimental, and sometimes compassionate, an important distinction that we have lost sight of.
She was shocking to the country outside the King’s circle, the incarnation of the immorality and waste at Court, a curse on the country, a scapegoat for all the frustration and disappointment with the restored monarchy.
She was politically useful, that way.
She was not popular, like the People’s Choice among the King’s Ladies, Nell Gwyn; she was the Bad Girl, the Dirty Girl, the Bunny Boiler, the Alien Succubus, the space vampire played by Mathilda May in Lifeforce; she was X-rated, HBO, not terrestrial TV.
She was culturally essential, that way.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers) as The Penitent Magdalene by Sir Peter Lely.
There was one gender injustice she could not defy, the plight of the older but still sexual woman. Barbara was forty-five when her protector, the King, died, and everything started going wrong. She got desperate and stopped discriminating. The once gorgeous predator became the prey of bad actors and con-men. She made a disastrous second marriage when she was sixty-five to a bigamist who was after her money.
The last years of her life read like the moralists’ revenge. It is documented in the DNB that in her final illness a dropsy “swelled her gradually to a monstrous bulk”, exactly the kind of private detail about our own or our beloveds’ deaths that we would want kept quiet.
There is a very sad ghost story about Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland as an old woman lamenting her lost beauty as she walks in her high heeled shoes tapping on the wood floor to stare out of the windows of her house on Chiswick Mall.
Good plastic surgery might have prevented that.
The woman while she lived was not penitent. She seized her moment, enjoying the sexual, and bi-sexual, liberation of the Restoration Court as much as any man. Her appetites, or addictions, and her temperament were entirely suited to her time.
The female libertine did not see herself as objectified or victimized, and we should not judge her differently.