Genius unites a father and daughter

Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi put their own stamp on Carvaggio's vision and created masterpieces.

She was the greatest female artist of her time. He was regarded as the link between Caravaggio and Vermeer. Now they are together for the first time in a major exhibition: "Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until May 12.

Luring droves of viewers is the larger-than-life enigma of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652/53). Three centuries ago, she managed her public image as effectively as her brush to become the first woman to earn a living through her art.

Today, Artemisia is a magnet for feminist scholars and the subject of three fictional biographies, a film, a play, and an Italian tour package. Stops in Rome include the Gentileschi house and studio where she was raped at 17 by her father's co-worker, who was tried and sentenced to exile. The public trial overshadowed Artemisia's art career, but she persevered.

Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) trained and promoted his daughter and for a time eclipsed her in fame. But today, few know him except connoisseurs.

This first in-depth survey of the Gentileschi family lets their paintings speak for themselves.

Drawn by Artemisia's star power, audiences are rediscovering Orazio. Some prefer his subtle and sublime works.

"The viewer will leave haunted by these extraordinary paintings of Orazio's, which are among the most beautiful pictures I've seen," says Keith Christiansen, a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an organizer of the exhibition. The show is a joint project with the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici di Roma, a government department responsible for Roman monuments and treasures.

"Orazio's singular achievement is to have taken Caravaggio's vision of art – with that dark, dramatic, focused light – into the daylight," says Mr. Christiansen.

"He is one of the great colorists. Artemisia plunged into the dramatic, theatrical vein at the heart of Caravaggio and put her own stamp on it."

Caravaggio (1571-1610) arrived in Rome just as the Counter-Reformation was calling for direct, stirring depictions of sacred subjects. His violent, earthy, and boldly lit scenes were an antidote to late Renaissance languor. Instead of contrived poses, he injected a bracing street realism, elevated observed experience over idealized images, and painted from live models.

Then 37 years old and a lackluster painter of frescoes, Orazio was an unlikely disciple. But he sought out and emulated Caravaggio. He shifted to canvases, recruited neighbors as models, and shared props with the master.

The exhibition engagingly presents Orazio's evolution as he blended Caravaggio's naturalism with his own ever-more lyrical handling of color, light, and texture.

An early, post-Caravaggio work, "Madonna and Child" (1609), captures the beauty of an ordinary woman nursing her child. Painting for the papal state in Rome, Orazio created a succession of masterpieces large and small.

The altarpiece "Vision of Saint Francesca Romana" (1614-1620) renders a mystical experience with human intimacy. The newly canonized saint holds the infant Christ, her middle-aged face aglow with ecstasy. No less exquisite is a miniature on copper, "Saint Christopher" (1615-20), with its play of light on leaves, water, and the faces of the saint and Christ Child.

"Rest on the Flight to Egypt" (1620-22) is an endearingly human portrayal of the Holy Family. The textures of the donkey's fur, pocked stone wall and Joseph's wrinkled brow are palpable. The foreshortened figure of Joseph conveys his exhaustion with touching immediacy.

Orazio moved on to paint for Marie de' Médici in Paris and Charles I in London. But in later works, his fresh, serene luminosity gives way to a muted formality.

The sole female among the followers of Caravaggio, Artemisia moved in a less tender direction than her father's. Her erotically charged renderings of biblical and mythological themes suited her gifts as a storyteller and genius at self-invention.

Like her father, Artemisia defied boundaries. Although she lacked the privileges and education of other female artists of her time, Artemisia had prodigious talent and ambition to match.

At 17, she made a stunning professional debut with "Susanna and the Elders" (1610). The composition emphasizes Susanna's vulnerability by contrasting her pale nudity with the dark mass of the two elders leering above her.

Two years later, Artemisia married a minor painter and moved to Florence, where she painted for Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici and in 1616 became the first female member of the prestigious Accademia del Disegno.

Within a decade, she was back in Rome living apart from her husband. She ultimately established herself in Naples, where her theatrical brand of Caravaggism won long-term patrons and lucrative altarpiece commissions. She brought along her daughter Prudentia, the only one of her four children who lived to adulthood.

Reaching beyond still-life and portrait painting, the accepted genres for female painters of her day, Artemisia chose epic themes. Allegorical and mythological heroines were a specialty.

Although she employed models, Artemisia often cast herself as the protagonist. Her fleshy body, voluptuous features, and tousled hair lend an earthy beauty to her versions of Saint Cecilia, Magdalene, a lute player, a female martyr, and an amazon.

Her boldly posed women take charge. Their gaze is direct and even provocative. Their hands grip weapons and express inner states.

These images merge with the persona created by Artemisia, who could surely be as unflinching and dynamic as her heroines. Writing to a patron in 1649, she says of herself, "You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman."

A recurring subject is Judith, the Jewish widow who charms, inebriates, and then slays the Assyrian general Holofernes before he can conquer her people.

In "Judith and Her Maidservant" (1625-27), the widow and her maid have just beheaded Holofernes. About to leave his tent, they pause, responding to a sound. Candlelight shimmers on Judith's gold fabric, pearl earrings, tiara, and gilt sword. Emerging from the shadows, Judith's face is alert, and her commanding hand hovers above the slain warrior's discarded gauntlet.

The masterpiece shows Artemisia at her strongest, creating a taut, economical freeze-frame of an unfolding drama.

• After its New York showing, 'Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy' travels to the Saint Louis Art Museum, June 15 to Sept. 15.

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