‘My illustrious lordship, I will show [you] what a woman can do.’
In the seventeenth century in Europe, a moment in history when women artists were not easily accepted, Artemisia Gentileschi was exceptional. Artemisia was born in Rome, the daughter of the celebrated painter Orazio Gentileschi. As a young girl, she served as an apprentice to her father and learned the skills essential to becoming a professional painter. When her father recognized that she had advanced beyond his ability to train her, he hired the painter Agostino Tassi to further her painting skills. In 1612, Tassi raped Artemisia, an event now inextricably linked to her name. After a lengthy trial, Tassi was found guilty and jailed for eight months. The event had a hugely negative impact on Artemisia’s reputation, and she suffered from gossip branding her a promiscuous woman. Shortly after the trial, Orazio arranged a marriage for his daughter, after which she moved to Florence, where she earned the patronage of the Medici duke, Cosimo II. During her Florentine period, Gentileschi was held in high esteem by both the royal court and scholars, and even established a relationship with the astronomer, philosopher and physicist, Galileo. She and her husband had two daughters, both of whom eventually became painters. When Gentileschi and her husband separated, she became the head of her own household, enjoying a freedom and independence known by few of her female contemporaries. She and her daughters moved frequently for career opportunities and to accommodate patrons, a group that included various members of the Medici family and King Charles I of England. In 1641, Gentileschi relocated to Naples, where she lived for the remainder of her life. While a well-known painter in her lifetime, after her death a great deal of Artemisia’s work fell into obscurity, often attributed to other followers of Caravaggio or to her father.
The art historian Mary Garrard has noted that Artemisia Gentileschi ‘suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her caliber’ (M.D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, New York, 1993, p. 3). Today, in the light of recent scholarly activity, Gentileschi is recognized as a remarkable figure who challenged conventions and defied expectations to become a successful artist and one of the greatest storytellers of her time. Current events, too, have made her paintings timely, given their emphasis on female figures rebelling against men in power. The last several years have witnessed a sudden surge in market interest for Gentileschi, with her works achieving record prices, and, in the spring of 2020, the National Gallery, London, will stage a major exhibition of Gentileschi’s work to celebrate their 2018 acquisition of Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria of circa 1615-17 (fig. 1), the first work by a female artist acquired for the gallery’s permanent collection in twenty-seven years.
The present painting depicts the Triumph of Galatea. According to both Homer and Hesiod, the sea nymph Galatea (meaning ‘she who is milk-white’) was the fairest and most beloved of the Nereids, the fifty daughters of Nereus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Galatea appears as the beloved of the shepherd Acis. Their love inspired the jealous fury of another of her admirers, the cyclops Polyphemus. In a rage, Polyphemus killed his rival with a rock. Galatea then transformed his blood into the River Acis. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, painters depicted various episodes from Ovid’s story, and poets and opera librettists explored this famous classical love triangle. The Triumph of Galatea also became a popular subject, thanks in large part to Raphael’s fresco in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, completed around 1514 (fig. 2). The painting established the basic conventions for the depiction of the subject by subsequent Italian artists, showing Galatea, a nude figure encircled in a billowing cloak, riding atop a large shell pulled by dolphins and surrounded by nymphs and tritons frolicking upon the waves. The ultimate source for these depictions is a lost wall painting described in the third century by Philostratus the Elder in his Imagines:
‘The nymph sports on the peaceful sea, driving a team of four dolphins yoked together and working in harmony; and maiden-daughters of Triton, Galatea’s servants, guide them, curving them in if they try to do anything mischievous or contrary to the rein. She holds over her heads against the wind a light scarf of sea-purple to provide a shade for herself and a sail for her chariot, and from it a kind of radiance falls upon her forehead and her head, though no white more charming than the bloom on her cheek; her hair is not tossed by the breeze, for it is so moist that it is proof against the wind. And lo, her right elbow stands out and her white forearm is bent back, while she rests her fingers on her delicate shoulder, and her arms are gently rounded, and her breasts project, nor yet is beauty lacking in her thigh. Her foot, with the graceful part that ends in it, is painted as on the sea and it lightly touches the water as if it were the rudder guiding her chariot. Her eyes are wonderful, for they have a kind of distant look that travels as far as the sea extends.’ (quoted in A. Fairbanks, ed. and trans., Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, London, 1931, book 2, chapter 18.)
When the present painting was sold in these Rooms in 2007, it was attributed to Bernardino Cavallino, one of the leading artistic figures in Naples during the first half of the seventeenth century. This attribution was based in large part upon its affinities with another large canvas depicting the Triumph of Galatea, similarly dated to around 1650, and generally accepted as a work by Cavallino (fig. 3; National Gallery of Art, Washington). Similarities between the mature works of Artemisia and those of Cavallino in Naples have led to numerous confusions and conflations of their respective oeuvres. Indeed, the composition, figure types and coloring of the Washington painting and the present work undoubtedly compare well, and it is therefore unsurprising that the present painting was initially attributed to Cavallino rather than Gentileschi. Nevertheless, when both works were exhibited in Naples in 2009-10 and then in Rome in 2011-12, scholars were able to reconsider the relationship between the two works and re-evaluate the present painting’s attribution, correctly recognizing it as the work of Artemisia.
Surrounded by a billowing mantle of intense ultramarine, Galatea sits upon the edge of a large, scalloped shell, on a seat fashioned from brilliant red coral. In one hand she loosely holds the reigns of the dolphins which draw her ‘chariot’ through the waves. Galatea’s pose finds comparisons in other later works painted in Naples by Artemisia, like her Lucretia of around 1645-50 (Private collection), while the upward gaze of the figure’s head, dramatically thrown into shadow, can likewise be found in her Neapolitan paintings, such as the Cleopatra of circa 1640-45 (Private collection, Naples). This pose, in turn, seems to have been adapted from works by Orazio: throwing her arm upward, with her torso twisted slightly and her head thrown back, Galatea clearly echoes Orazio’s Danaë of circa 1621-23 (fig. 4; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).
Artemisia was, without a doubt, responsible for the central figure of Galatea and the shell, and probably the two tritons in the foreground of the painting. Riccardo Lattuada has attributed the work in its entirety to Artemisia, but Nicola Spinosa has proposed that the tritons in the background might have been completed by another artist working in collaboration with Gentileschi, perhaps Onofrio Palumbo. Palumbo worked in Naples and collaborated with Artemisia there, following her return from England around 1642, together painting works like the Susanna and the Elders of 1652 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). Spinosa has suggested that the tritons manifest the more rugged naturalism favored by Palumbo. However, a great deal about Artemisia’s workshop and collaborative practices in Naples have yet to be explored and clarified by scholars, and until they are, such hypotheses must remain speculative.
The painting’s provenance merits note. An inventory made in 1703 of 364 paintings in the possession of Don Antonio Ruffo, an important collector in Messina and a major patron of Artemisia in this period whose collection included Rembrandt's Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer (fig. 5; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), references a painting by the artist, described under no. 80 as ‘Galatea seated atop a large crab, drawn by two dolphins and accompanied by 5 tritons, measuring 8 s 10 palmi’ (transcribed in Artemisia Gentileschi. Storia di una passione, p. 254). For a long time, this picture was identified with Cavallino’s Galatea in Washington. However, a number of discrepancies between the inventory description of the Ruffo canvas and the National Gallery painting – including the dimensions and number of tritons – called this provenance into question. Furthermore, technical examination of the Washington painting has found no evidence of the separate hands of both Artemisia, to whom the commission was awarded, and Cavallino. It is therefore unlikely that the National Gallery painting is the one described in Ruffo’s collection, which is instead the present canvas.
Gentileschi corresponded frequently with Ruffo between January 1649 and January 1651, and these letters demonstrate that between 1648 and 1649 the artist was working on a painting of Galatea for Ruffo, which must of course be the work later described in his inventory. According to the correspondence, the process of completing the work seems to have faced various difficulties and delays, and it is not impossible that Artemisia sought out a collaborator to assist her in completing the commission. It was, moreover, in her correspondence with Ruffo that Artemisia famously wrote: ‘My illustrious lordship, I will show [you] what a woman can do.’ Without a doubt, this impressive painting, created for a significant patron, attests to Artemisia’s superlative skills as a painter, achieved through uncompromising self-confidence and vision.