The feminine mystique

Artemisia Gentileschi takes on male chauvinist pigs in the 17th century

In 1999, Susan Vreeland published a haunting little novel about a Vermeer painting. "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" joined several other fine Vermeer novels that happened to come out at the same time, and it's hung on the paperback bestseller list ever since. Her story began in the present day and moved backward to 17th-century Holland through a series of brief, carefully composed scenes.

The subtle shading of that treatment is, unfortunately, replaced by primary colors in her latest work about another great artist. Artemisia Gentileschi was a remarkably talented painter in Renaissance Italy. She was also the first woman elected to the Accademia dell'Arte, and the first woman to dare to portray large historical and religious subjects. Her life provides all the drama for an opera, and Vreeland sweeps from trauma to struggle to triumph in this entertaining narrative.

The story opens with the most famous and horrible moment of Artemisia's life: a rape trial in 1612, when she was 19. Her father has brought a complaint against his partner for the loss of his daughter's "value." Artemisia fully expects to prevail until she realizes that, as the female accuser, she must prove her veracity under torture and a public gynecological exam.

To escape her sullied reputation, Artemisia is married off to a cash-starved artist in Florence. At first, Pietro Stiattesi seems an appropriate mate for a strong-willed woman who dares to walk in the path of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli. "I just want you to know," she tells him on their first day together, "that as soon as I am able, I intend to earn my own way."

"Fine with me," he replies in the jarringly modern diction of this novel. But, in fact, it's not fine with him. Torn between wanting the money she brings in and resenting the talent she demonstrates, Pietro grows increasingly aloof and then openly disloyal. Artemisia realizes that what she originally mistook for his acceptance is really resentment of her budding success. Soon, as she attracts the attention of the Medici family and other wealthy patrons, she finds herself struggling along the "mommy track," trying to balance the needs of her young daughter with the demands of her career.

Indeed, the resistance she initially meets from the Academy is not just to her gender, but to the treatment of gender in her paintings. Vreeland provides a dramatic and incisive analysis of the way Artemisia's humiliating trial animates her work, particularly her most famous paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes.

In once sense, her position as a woman gave her the advantage of full access to female models that her male counterparts were denied by standards of decency, but of course her success stemmed from something far more profound. Artemisia rejected the idealized women of her time in favor of women caught in moments of complex consideration, dramatic action, or conflicted regret.

Unfortunately, "The Passion of Artemisia" sees the passion of Gentileschi without such intricacy. Planning her painting of Mary Magdalene, the artist thinks, "She must be ironic, contradictory, and ambiguous," but Vreeland denies her own heroine that depth. What should have been a restoration of the great-great-grandmother of women artists is rendered here as a projection of a modern woman into 17th-century Italy.

Vreeland confesses as much in an introductory note in which she claims historical novelists work "like a painter who clothes figures from centuries earlier in the garb of his or her own time." In fact, the outer-garments are perfectly authentic. The trouble is underneath, where Vreeland has dressed Artemisia in a bra and then burned it. Her psychological struggle appears so uncomplicated by the indoctrination of Renaissance culture or 17th-century Catholicism that I expected to spot an ERA button on her shawl.

The setting - from city, to studio, to canvas - is drawn with wonderful fidelity to history, but ideologically, the novel is a chaotic time traveler, an impression exacerbated by its hip dialogue. The men, except for a thoroughly post-modern Galileo, spout the misogynist attitudes you'd expect, but the cloistered nun who advises Artemisia sounds like Oprah Winfrey: "Nothing can stop you from bringing your talent to fruition. See yourself as God made you." A precursor to Vatican III?

But such complaints will sound peevish to the many readers who will undoubtedly enjoy this exciting, often tender story of a woman struggling to heal her resentment and balance the demands of career and motherhood. If "The Passion of Artemisia" doesn't carry us back to her time, at least it wrenches her into ours.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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