All in the family

I’m not sure it was worth the effort putting Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi together for the joint exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Maybe the thought was that neither is worth a major exhibit alone, but if you put them together Orazio provides artistry and Artemisia notoriety and then you’ve got something.

It’s not that Artemisia is a bad artist, but she’s not as good as her father, a painter well worth spending time with. Much of the interest was of course nonartistic. I don’t know what the principle of selection was, but Artemisia must have had subjects other than female murder and victimization: Judith and Holophernes, Jael and Sisera, Susannah and the elders, the suicides of Lucretia and Cleopatra. And there must have been a motive for hanging Orazio’s canvasses of Lot and his daughters next to such images.

It was hard to untangle the personal aspects of all this, and for that matter the curatorial bias, from more general issues. The Gentilescis weren’t the only artists of the time who produced both ecstatic devotional works and images of perverse and violent sexuality. And the repetition of subjects, figures, postures, compostions and so on—a labor-saving move—suggests they were in it to make a living, and so painted what sold as efficiently as possible. These were the things their public wanted, so they produced them in bulk.

Still, it’s hard to force good artists to follow the program altogether. There were a couple of remarkable studies by Orazio of women as intelligent and attentive doers—one of a lutenist and one of the penitent Magdalene. And in any case curatorial oddities become less important if there’s good painting by an interesting artist, and that there was.

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