Rare Artemisia painting comes to Glasgow’s east end on grand tour

Larry Keith, head of conservation and keeper, examines the portrait, which was bought with the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery. Photograph: The National Gallery, London.
Larry Keith, head of conservation and keeper, examines the portrait, which was bought with the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery. Photograph: The National Gallery, London.
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She was the most celebrated female artist of the Italian Baroque who became a feminist icon many years after her death in about 1656.

Now a rare, recently disc­overed self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi will make its first appearance on a “grand tour” of five unusual and unexpected venues across the UK at the Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) in Bridgeton in the east end of the city on 7 March.

Artemisia’s life story has been compared in some feminist writing to the modern-day concept of “slut-shaming” while others argue that it is time to move on from her being portrayed as a victim.

The painting – Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria – will be go on show on Thursday, a day ahead of International Women’s Day, until 19 March, at the library which is the only accredited museum dedicated to women’s history in the UK.

The work was bought by the National Gallery in London for £3.6 million in 2017.

There are only two other paintings by Artemisia in the UK – one of which is owned by the Queen.

Artemisia, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence and counted the Grand Duke of Tuscany and King Philip IV among her clients.

However, her reputation was overshadowed by a brutal event when she was aged 18 when she was raped by Agostino Tassi, another painter.

Artemisia underwent a seven-month trial during which she was subjected to gruelling questioning and physical torture. Every word of the intrusive trial transcript has survived.

Artemisia was married off and sent to live in Florence. Tassi was to be banished from Rome, but this was never enforced.

Artemisia’s work is characterised by strong female heroines as the main protagonist in settings where previously they had tended to be depicted as passive.

Sue John, the library’s enterprise development manager, describing the moment she realised the painting was being offered to the library, the only Scottish museum to be shortlisted for the prestigious 2018 Art Fund Museum of the Year, said: “They approached us last year.

“I remember squealing with delight when I read the email, not believing what it said. They actually asked, somewhat tentatively it seemed to me, if we were interested.

“The team here looked at me and I said ‘you’ll never guess here’ and we wanted to make sure we did everything to make it happen.

“The National Gallery really wanted the GWL to be the first stop because there was a real alignment with the kind of work we do here in Glasgow and the portrait and the life of Artemisia.”

John said Artemisia’s reputation as an artist had changed dramatically over the years. “She was greatly admired in her lifetime, but then overlooked in art history over the centuries by critics. If her work was discussed it was examined through the lens of the rape.

“But we can’t examine her work through the single lens of the rape. While surely it must have influenced her, there needs to be another set of discussions about her life and work. She was a fighter and an incredibly gifted, highly skilled painter who was painting with a message. That’s how I would read it.”

The library will hold a special story cafe on the day the portrait is unveiled, including a short story and readings from novels about the artist.

The National Gallery will be providing 24-hour security.

The National Gallery plans to more than double the amount of work by female artists when it opens a new exhibition dedicated to Artemisia in April 2020. It will include 35 of her works.