HARTFORD — Artemisia Gentileschi might have been forgotten entirely if not for one deeply unforgettable picture: “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” painted at the height of late Renaissance in Florence. It captured an oft-depicted Biblical tale, but Gentileschi’s version was anything but conventional. In the piece, Judith and a female accomplice are stone-faced, strong-armed, and all business: Her accomplice holds the burly Holofernes down while Judith draws a blade dispassionately across his throat. You can feel his terror as blood geysers from his jugular; in the women, there is only cold resolve.
In the story, the Assyrian general Holofernes was poised to wipe Israel from the map; Judith stole into his military camp, seduced him with drink, and killed him while he was addled, saving her home from his hordes. But in Gentileschi’s picture, allegory and myth succumb to the raw purpose of the act itself. In her hands, it is a pictorial embodiment of justice.
Justice surely mattered to Gentileschi, who, like so many women — whether in her time, ours, or any moment in between — had seen it brutally denied her. When she was 17, she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a lesser painter in Florence, where she had learned her craft from her artist father. During the trial in 1612, her testimony against Tassi was subject to an agonizing form of scrutiny: With cords tightening around her fingers, the court asked her again and again if she was lying. With her hands — her livelihood, her life — painfully constricted and losing sensation, she cried out: “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true!”
It’s unlikely a coincidence that she painted “Judith Slaying Holofernes” within a year of the trial. Tassi was found guilty but went free because Pope Innocent X was a fan of his work, leaving her to a personal vengeance on canvas. The piece is seen by many as a self portrait; you can guess which of the two women resembles her most closely.
That picture isn’t part of “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800,” which opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford earlier this fall (the show does include “Judith and Her Maidservant,” 1625, her depiction of its immediate aftermath: both women skulking in shadow, with Holofernes’s severed head dumped at their feet). However, it looms over any exhibition of her work. “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is an avatar of the artist’s own tortures — so much so that she painted the exact scene again a few years later, the second version more graphic and blood-soaked than the first. But it’s also an emblem of the absurd hardship women have endured for centuries in the struggle to be seen not as equal, but at all.
Granted, what Gentileschi herself overcame was extreme; most other stories found here are rooted in the everyday paternalistic gender discrimination that has framed much of human history. There’s a grotesque symmetry to be writing this in a week where the Supreme Court of the United States appears poised to erode the constitutional right to abortion — settled, or so it seemed, decades ago. Plus ça change. But the exhibition is ultimately a story of sly triumph, both for Gentileschi and her many peers.
Her three self-portraits that grace the entrance suggest as much. In the middle, she is a lute player, a gesture of agency (women were rarely musicians.) On left and right, she is Saint Catherine of Alexandria, an assertion both of her own exceptionalism and its cost: Catherine, brilliant and pure, campaigned for Christian enlightenment against a violent and cruel Egyptian empire, for which she was tortured and beheaded.
They share more than her image: By her own hand, the artist radiates confidence and simmers with resolve. A student of Caravaggio and now widely seen as the most gifted of his many followers, she made each of her self-portraits glow with a cinematic aura, light falling from a single source somewhere offstage. They share an unmistakable look of weary defiance, her sideways glance almost a dare. In her time, self-portraits by women were all but unheard of. Just making them, she had dared far more than most.
“By Her Hand” isn’t just Gentileschi’s story; but she is, as ever, the perfect gateway. The exhibition unspools in narrative chapters that outline artmaking for women as an act of subversion over the centuries. A vitrine holds Giorgio Vasari’s “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects,” published in 1550; of the 161 mentioned, only one was a woman. One section of the show describes how women found an outlet in so-called lesser-forms like miniatures, pastels, needlework, or calligraphy; another explains how women artists often worked directly for society women whose husbands permitted them the indulgence as a feminine frivolity.
They rarely developed reputations outside those confines. One who did, Sofonisba Anguissola, had her reputation buried in the centuries after her death as her work was misattributed to such artists as Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. You can see why: Her work here is luminous. “The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun,” 1551, is both lively and haunting.
Like Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani was one of the very few to achieve renown in her own time. Also like Gentileschi, she used that renown to both seize the traditional domain of her male colleagues — big, broad canvases and epic scenes — and subvert the narratives they had claimed as their own.
Sirani painted the standards, though with feminine panache — her “Madonna and Child,” 1663, which is in this show, feels vibrant and alive; it captures an authentic connection between any mother and her child. She also used her position to reimagine totemic stories from a female perspective.
One of them, hung here in a chapter of the show called “The Image of the Female Hero,” captures Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar’s murderer, Brutus. She’s most often depicted committing suicide, devastated by news of her husband’s death. In that common telling, she’s a victim of political consequence; in Sirani’s picture, Portia tears open her thigh in an act of loyalty to her husband’s planned sedition. She’s no victim. She’s a collaborator, signed in blood.
Gentileschi’s work appears in this section, too, which is only right. Her “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,” a 1620-25, portrays the tortured Biblical figure as serene and self-possessed. It shimmers with her command of her craft: The lustrous drape of blouse and skirt, the beatific face of Mary in quiet rapture. But Gentileschi was as much a hero as any she painted.
At the Wadsworth, her work leaps off the walls. Painted between 1636 and 1638, her depiction of Lot and his daughters after fleeing Sodom is tenderly suggestive and imbued with solemn purpose. Frequently painted, often lasciviously, the Biblical tale sees Lot seduced by the girls to perpetuate humanity. Gentileschi subtly renders the scene as a collision of agony and grace.
Another of her large canvases, one of three here, is “David and Bathsheba,” 1636-37. A female nude, Bathsheba, is the central figure, her pale skin shimmering like polished marble. Art history, of course, is a buffet of female flesh, laid for the male gaze to greedily consume. But Gentileschi’s Bathsheba nervously shields her breasts; servants attend her while King David, who will eventually lure her into adultery (she is the wife of his military leader, Uriah) watches from afar. It is grossly violative, a scene of impending doom. In the Biblical telling, Bathsheba is a temptress, a test of his moral fiber. Gentileschi reverses his gaze and, chillingly, tells a very different story from her point of view.
About that “forgotten” part: Like so many artists who didn’t fit the mold, Gentileschi’s work survived for centuries due to her vast, undeniable gifts. I’m all but sure her low profile had entirely to do with her priorities. Her work is all about women taking action, self-declaring, and having agency. That made her an outlier and a poor fit for the span of western history, art or otherwise. Today, her story is a juicy biopic ripe for the moment and waiting to be re-made at Hollywood scale — starring Scarlett Johnson, maybe? (”Artemisia,” with Valentina Cervi in the lead role, was released in 1997).
It’s no surprise that, in this fast-moving moment of righting wrongs, she’s a poster-child for a new era of gender enlightenment (pending Supreme Court decisions not withstanding). The reclamation effort started recently enough that it only culminated last summer when the National Gallery in London held the first solo exhibition of her work in a major museum. With Gentleschi, the art world has another supernova talent, better late than never. More than that, the larger world has another powerful woman who refused to be cowed by a society determined to keep her down. There can never be too many too soon.
BY HER HAND: ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI AND WOMEN ARTISTS IN ITALY, 1500-1800 Through Jan. 9, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford. 860-278-2670, www.thewadsworth.org