The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.
The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)
One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.
Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)
Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all the more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for any woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.
Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.
Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.