The spirit of Caesar… in the soul of a woman

An interview with Mary Garrard

Jane Fortune
September 10, 2015

socArtemisia Gentileschi's Mary Magdalene, Apelles Art Collection, Luxembourg. Copyright: Kik-irpa BrusselsJane Fortune: Nearly 25 years ago you wrote ‘Artemisia has suffered from a level of scholarly neglect that is unheard of for a male artist of her caliber.’ Is this still true today?Mary Garrard: No, it’s no longer true today. But it’s one thing to be noticed and talked about and another to be understood. There’s a strong contingent of art historians who think that Artemisia has gotten unwarranted attention and believe that the feminist interest in her is just a passing fad. Certainly, she wouldn’t necessarily be as distinctive as she now is if the feminist content of her work had not sparked initial enthusiasm. But you can’t separate form and content. It is all about the quality of her art! Artemisia hasn’t yet been put to the same test as male artists. For years, the only male painter to whom she was compared was her father Orazio. And even that comparison was reductive. He might have painted better draperies than his daughter, but she was the one who discovered a whole new continent by thematizing the female experience!

JF: How did you first ‘meet’ Artemisia Gentileschi?MG: I was one of the original participants of the feminist movement in the U.S. in the 1970s and I don’t think people coming into the world at a later point can quite imagine the excitement that era brought to women. In a book called Our Hidden Heritage, I found Artemisia’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. It occurred to me that allegories are always female. Women personified activities they weren’t expected to practice—like art, and that’s why they worked as an allegory. Instead, there was Artemisia breaking tradition. She did something no male could do: paint and symbolically represent painting! I saw this gesture as extraordinary self-exertion of identity. Not only did she not accept limitations, she took advantage of them. Today, many people praise Artemisia by saying she was a ‘survivor’. She was more than that—she was a victor!

JF: Artemisia’s correspondence has been widely studied, beginning with your publication of nearly 30 letters to her art patrons and now with Francesco Solinas’ discovery in the Frescobaldi archives. Do you agree with the theory that this second set was written for Artemisia’s lover?MG: The language of those letters is so very complex and coded. One part of me hopes she did have an affair with someone she chose herself… she had had so much imposed on her. Yet, once you say ‘love affair’, it tends to end the discussion. I’m usually leery of these stereotypes. In those letters, Artemisia refers to herself as Fortunio Fortuni. If that were an effort to disguise the relationship, then using a male pseudonym within the love exchange wouldn’t have made it better!

JF: Many new Artemisia attributions have recently come to light. What are your thoughts on this ‘Artemisia boom’?MG: We need to be extremely careful. Artemisia had amazing creative intellect. I openly question the idea of her as a chameleon—a paintress willing to adapt herself to whatever style a patron wanted. I also shy away from the tendency to call every portrait she painted a self-portrait. Though Cosimo I de’ Medici said that, ultimately, every artist paints himself, I think the lady protagonists of her Florentine paintings simply characterize a type she likes. I don’t believe them to be intentional self-images.

JF: Are there other women artists who have come close to achieving Artemisia’s level of success?MG: I always feel uncomfortable saying that she was only one. In the modern era, two artists come to mind: Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt. As far as pre-modern artists go, Sofonisba Anguissola was certainly aware of gender constraints and almost teasingly reversed them. But she, like Judith Leyster and innumerable others, continues to be relegated to the ‘woman artist’ category.  Artemisia has transcended it and is simply considered an artist of great magnitude… who just happens to be a woman.  





 Author's Note

  “The chance to meet Mary Garrard has always  been a dream of mine. One of the founders of  feminist art theory and author of the  groundbreaking book Artemisia Gentileschi: The  Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art,  Mary is a pillar of knowledge for all those    working toward the advancement of women in  the arts… and of women, in general. During our interview, I was happy to discover that her  knowledge is matched only by her warmth and engaging personality.”

   Jane Fortune







Save the date!When the World Answered, the new PBS documentary based on the book by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone, will premiere at Florence's Odeon Cinema Hall at 6.30pm on October 20. More info here.


Support The Florentine

The Florentine: keeping you connected.

Established in 2005, The Florentine remains true to its mission as a community magazine. Whether you live in the States, the UK or here in Italy, our aim is to keep you connected to Florence through news, events, arts + culture, food + wine and much more.

Please make a contribution, small or large, so that we can continue our coverage from Florence.

Personal Info

Donation Total: €20,00

more articles