Getty Buys an Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, about 1627. J. Paul Getty Museum

The Getty Museum has acquired a Lucretia by Artemisia Gentileschi. Discovered in a Lyons, France, collection, the painting was auctioned for a record $6.1 million at Artcurial, Paris, in Nov. 2019. The website of Matthiesen Gallery, London, says it sold the painting to the Getty.

Famed for depictions of righteously violent females, Gentileschi is now the best-known woman "Old Master." She is admired for her subtle treatment of light and shadow and the naturalism of her female nudes. Both attributes are evident in Lucretia. At the Getty the painting will join two large canvases by the artist's father, Orazio Gentileschi. In life both father and daughter were renowned throughout Europe. Each was subsequently forgotten as baroque art fell out of favor. The 20th century re-appraisal of Caravaggism first cast Artemisia as a sidebar to Orazio's brilliant career. Now the daughter is more famous, and Orazio has to be identified as "Artemisia Gentileschi's father."

There's an L.A. angle to that. LACMA's 1976 show "Women Artists: 1550-1950," curated by Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris, included six works by Artemisia, re-introducing her to scholars and the public. That exhibition put Artemisia's biography front and center. At 17 she was raped by fellow artist Agostino Tassi. Artemisia's testimony, given under thumbscrew torture, convinced the court of Tassi's crime. Found guilty, he effectively got off scot-free. This has inspired novels and films, and the reading that Artemisia was a #MeToo feminist before the fact. 

Lucretia was a Roman matron who killed herself as an act of defiance after being raped. The subject must have been popular, for Artemisia painted Lucretia several times, not as repetitions but as unique compositions. One was auctioned in Vienna in 2018 for 1.9 million Euros. Others are in a Milan collection and the Neues Palais, Potsdam.  

Previously assigned to the 1630s, the Getty painting is now believed to have been created during the artist's short time in Venice (1626-27). A 1627 pamphlet has poems dedicated to four paintings Artemisia made in Venice, one a Lucretia.

Today's scholars tend to be wary of importing 21st-century concerns into a 17th-century artist's achievement. Yet it's clear that Artemisia leaned in to her unicorn status as a "great woman artist." Her themes of victimized and vengeful women were standard baroque fare, but Artemisia imagined them from the perspective of a self-assured female protagonist. That was surely as evident in the artist's time as in ours.

Museums are prioritizing adding art by women—a challenge for the Getty's painting department, where the collection ends about 1900. Lucretia becomes only the second oil painting at the Getty known to be by a woman. The other is a portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, purchased in 1985. 

Lucretia will be on view when the Getty Center re-opens.

See also Amy Hood's post with video on the Getty's Iris blog.