[I'm no longer in New York, but I fell woefully behind so am continuing my At the Met series of posts this week.]
Today at the Met, I had books on the brain again. So, I started with Alexandra Lapierre's recent novel, Artemisia, which I found in the Met shop. The book is a fictionalization of the life of 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, "the most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century".
From that book, a quick search of the Met's collection database turned up this painting:
Image in hand, I started wandering the galleries in the direction I thought 17th-century Italian paintings should be. I must say, this kind of visual, roughly art-historical search was particularly satisfying, especially once I found the painting. It hangs in a far gallery in the back. As a matter of fact, it's right outside the Francis Bacon exhibition. Meaning, I'd passed through the gallery at least three times in the last week and never even noticed this seven by nine foot painting.
Perhaps for good reason. The wall label declares it as on of Gentileschi's more ambitious paintings, but conspicuously stops short of saying it's also one of her most successful. And they're right, it's not all that terrific a painting. The handling of the fabrics and embroideries are notable but, the overall composition is lacking and the handling of the main figures is rather unconvincing and inconsistent.
Looking beyond the main action of the work though, Gentileschi has a wonderful moment in her handling of the woman at the far left, who's catching the fainting Esther. The way this woman's face is painted, the coloring hidden in the shadow of Esther's neck, her face pressed in, whispering, urging forward in words and action -- very nicely done.
Standing in the gallery, in front of this painting, I kept thinking about the many things that can bring us to a particular work of art. Perhaps we were passing through the gallery and found some moment within it that grabbed our attention. Maybe we had some art historical background and knew that the painter was "the most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century". Or maybe we were one of the thousands of readers who first found the painter in a book.
For further reading about Artemisia Gentileschi, check out Susan Vreeland's novel The Passion of Artemisia, or for the more academically inclined, The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, edited by Mieke Bal.