Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1654), the best-known female artist of 17th-century Italy, painted a number of biblical scenes, such as the story of Judith and Holofernes, and episodes from ancient Roman history featuring women, as well as self-portraits in a variety of guises. Public interest in the painter and her work has increased in recent years, and more works attributed to her have been steadily coming to light. One is her painting of Lucretia, rediscovered in 2019 having been in private collections for centuries. This dramatic work has been acquired by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it is now on view. Artemisia trained with her father Orazio Gentileschi, and her Lucretia joins two of his works in the Getty collection.
The composition shows the legendary figure of Lucretia, a noblewoman who was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the king, and then killed herself. This give rise to a rebellion that ushered in the Roman Republic. She was upheld by the Roman historian Livy as an exemplar of female courage and virtue.
It is not the first painting of Lucretia that Gentileschi produced: one in a private collection in Milan, Italy, dates from 1623 to 1625. Lucretia was a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque art, and she may have had particular resonance for Gentileschi, as she had herself been raped as a young woman by an associate of her father, and underwent torture during the subsequent trial to – according to the law at the time – confirm her statement.
Davide Gasparotto, the Getty’s senior curator of paintings, commented on the work, ‘Lucretia is a powerful and compelling example of Artemisia’s most significant type of subject, the representation of dynamic female figures who appear in control of their own destiny; but with its lyrical and sophisticated expressivity, its creamy impasto and vibrant brushwork, the painting is also suggestive of new directions in her artistic itinerary.’
It is thought that Gentileschi produced the work in the late 1620s when she was in Venice; in 1627, a pamphlet of poems – probably by Giovanni Francesco Loredan – in praise of four works the artist painted in Venice appeared. Three of these poems are devoted to a painting of Lucretia. The painting signals a time when Gentileschi was moving away from the influence of the Baroque artist Caravaggio (1571-1610) that marked her early work ‘to a more graceful and idealised manner which will characterise her maturity’, said Gasparotto.