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
They seem to be the same couple as before, the male with the wings, long golden hair, soft feminine face and swirling red cloak, and the female who wears blue and white, the Virgin Mary’s colours.
He looks as if he might be delivering the same message as usual, only this time he’s found her fast asleep outdoors, a gorgeous part of the landscape, lying on her silk drapery, the thin border between luxury and destitution, and clutching an open box, not the little prayer book she used to have.
Cupid and Psyche by Van Dyck, 1639 -40, Oil on canvas. Royal Collection. Image:
She has been drugged.
She looks vulnerable in her nakedness, as if she’s been thrown on to a casting couch, but she is not about to be raped, like so many other beautiful girls in classical myths, by a predatory god.
Though they look the same as Gabriel the Annunciate Angel and Mary, the Virgin Mother, their names are now officially changed to Cupid and Psyche.
Their relationship is still sacred. They love each other, they are married, and have been separated by the jealous conspiracies of other people, including her sisters and mother-in-law. She has been through hell to find her husband.
When Psyche was returned from hell, to the light of the world, she was ravished with great desire, saying, “am not I a fool that, knowing I carry here the divine beauty, I will not take a little thereof to garnish my face, to please my lover withal?”
Immediately she opened the box, but she could perceive no beauty nor anything else save only an infernal and deadly sleep, which immediately invaded all her members as soon as the box was uncovered, in such sort that she fell down on the ground, and lay there as a sleeping corpse.
But Cupid, being now healed of his wound and malady, not able to endure the absence of Psyche, got him secretly out at a window of the chamber where he was enclosed, and (receiving his wings) took his flight towards his loving wife. When he had found her, he wiped away the sleep from her face, and put it again into the box, and awaked her with the tip of one of his arrows…. (extract from Book VI of The Golden Ass by Apuleius, an African platonist philosopher of the 2nd century AD, translated from Latin in 1566)
Psyche has been on a torturous journey of self-discovery and now lives happily ever after, body and soul, physical desires and instinctual feelings at last united with thoughts, reason and conscience.
There was no market for Annunciations in England, or Wales and Scotland, after the Protestant Reformation. The conventions and motifs of religious painting were incorporated into secular courtly art. The cult of the Virgin Mary, harder to eradicate than respect for papal authority, had been adopted by the newly crowned Elizabeth I. Charles I, by taste and temperament drawn to the Roman Catholic symbolism of European Baroque, commissioned Rubens to depict his father, James I, as an Old Testament patriarch looking down from the ceiling of the Banqueting House. Van Dyck transformed Charles I himself into a Christ-like figure, prefiguring the king’s martyrdom on the scaffold.
The Virgin continued to appear, sometimes in surprising incarnations….
Peter Paul Rubens, Annunciation, c. 1628 Oil on canvas, Rubens House, Antwerp.
It is the same astonishing moment as a thousand times before and after – the same winged and muscular messenger, with the same soft feminine face, the same long golden hair, wearing a yellow tunic, accompanied by a dove and flying babies, interrupting a girl reading while a cat sleeps in the corner – but in a different place, light years away.
This is no baby shower, like the time before. This time the stranger does not bring the pure white flowers of virginity to present to the girl from a deferential distance. There are already flowers in a bulbous glass vase on a round table, red and pink roses unfurling petals the colour of flesh, a red tulip like a licking tongue. The dive-bombing cherubs are about to pelt garlands of more roses, a lover’s gift, on the girl’s head.
It’s not the same girl, or she has changed. She reads the same book, but she is not self-composed like the girl kneeling in a room in Urbino, over twenty years earlier. There is no view of a white castle, the room is dark and the floor is made of wooden nailed planks.
There is no sign of the patriarchal puppeteer in the sky. There is no formality, no inhibition, only the visitor’s knowing smile as he alights, his left hand almost close enough to touch her, and her gasp of expectation. Even the watching cherubs are louche.
This time she is aroused by the visitor’s physical presence and does not attempt to hide her feelings. Illuminated by a beam of light, she rises to meet his passion with her own, her lips parted and her uplifted eyes rolling in trance-like ecstasy. Her longing is mixed with reproach. She is worried about consequences.
She is Psyche in love with Eros, who has flown in through her open window. He is beautiful and persuasive. His power will change her life.
She is not sure she wants him yet.
To let the warm Love in!
(Keats, Ode to Psyche, 1819)
It’s not the same cat, either. This one is a tabby, coiled tight in its own sensual world, indifferent to human desires, lying on the hard wooden floor beside a work basket because the girl has forgotten to make a cushioned bed for its sleep.