Artists on Film: Artemisia (1997)



(directed by Agnès Merlet, 1997)

I’ve set myself a little challenge: to track down as many films as I can about the lives and works of the Old Masters. Of course, I welcome any suggestions of titles I should look out for (except The Da Vinci Code, obviously), and I’m sure one or two more modern artists might slip in as I proceed.

My main criterion is that the films have to feature the artists as artists, in a vaguely historically-accurate manner; by which I mean that I’m not about to count Moulin Rouge for Toulouse-Lautrec, nor Ever After for Leonardo. I’ve chosen to start with Artemisia, which I’ve wanted to watch for years and which ticks a lot of the right boxes. It has a gorgeous Italian setting and beautiful 17th-century costumes; it’s very watchable (which is a valuable asset, especially as at least one Peter Greenaway film is on the list); and its heroine is one of the most celebrated female artists in history.

This is nevertheless a controversial film and it has been criticised for its interpretation of Artemisia’s life – a criticism I can’t help but join in, and which I’ll come to in a moment. I had been aware of the controversy and for some reason I hadn’t expected the film to be very good, as a result of that, but this is a case where I have to drawn a line between the story (which is problematic) and the actual filmmaking (which is beautiful). Before I go into more detail: for those who aren’t familiar with Artemisia (1593-circa 1656), she was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639). In his younger days, Orazio had been friends with Caravaggio and his art was heavily influenced by the simple planes of colour and high contrasts of Caravaggio’s work. An interesting fact, for me, is that Orazio Gentileschi spent the last part of his life working in England at the court of Charles I, and Artemisia also came to London in 1638, to fulfil the commissions given to her father before his death. I’ve often felt that art history generally happens somewhere else – somewhere sun-drenched, with elaborate churches and good wine – and so I find it rather wonderful that both of the Gentileschi actually lived and worked in London for a time.


Artemisia (Valentina Cervi) in her studio

This film focuses on Artemisia’s early life: the manifestation of her artistic talent, her early training in her father’s studio, and her ill-fated lessons with her father’s friend and collaborator Agostino Tassi. Even though her father (Michel Serrault) recognises her talent, Artemisia (the luminously beautiful Valentina Cervi) finds herself restricted by her gender: as a woman, she is forbidden to become a pupil at the Roman Academy, forbidden to improve her anatomical understanding by drawing male nudes and doomed to be little more than a curiosity in Orazio’s workshop. As a virgin, she has no obvious means of observing male nudes in any other way, until she persuades her friend, the young fisherman Fulvio (Yann Trégouët) to pose for her. With the arrival in Rome of the tumultuous Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), Artemisia’s art and emotions become ever more confused. Tassi is arrogant, much too fond of women and – despite their claims of friendship – Orazio’s direct rival. But he is also a talented and creative artist who has something new to offer Artemisia: a painter of pure landscape and marine views (he would later become the master of Claude Lorrain).

Artemisia persuades Tassi to take her as a pupil, an arrangement which soon develops into a passionate and ultimately misunderstood love affair. Throughout the film everything looks gorgeous: Artemisia’s costumes could have been taken straight from one of her paintings, with billowing red or yellow skirts; and the landscapes, whether views over the crumbling buildings of ‘Rome’, or vistas of the seashore, are shot with a very painterly eye. Moreover, we get to see a lot of the technical aspects of a 17th-century workshop and this was something I particularly enjoyed: the scaffolding and bustle of a big fresco commission; the use of perspective grids like that shown in Durer’s famous print; and – de rigueur for an art-historical film – the inclusion of a token tableau of a famous painting (in this case Orazio’s Sts Cecilia, Valerianus and Tiburtius in the Brera). If I were being very pedantic, I would note that this painting is generally thought to have been painted in around 1620, rather than at the period (circa 1610-12) covered by the film. But that would be nit-picking, wouldn’t it?


Artemisia and her family

What does trouble me slightly is that the film presents itself as a champion of women’s freedom to express themselves, to learn, and to follow their hearts; but in fact it becomes an apologia for Agostino Tassi’s treatment of Artemisia. I hesitate to call it ‘rape’ straight out, although that’s what I believe, because how can we be sure of anything four hundred years later, when the main evidence is a criminal trial in which everyone had their own interests to protect? It’s also true that in recent years Artemisia has become popular among feminist writers, who emphasise the rape angle because it supports their arguments, that she was an immensely talented painter who suffered at the hands of the men around her, and who was mistreated as a piece of property, to be haggled over and compensated for, without any recognition of her innate gifts. My exposure to Artemisia’s story has been largely through books which take this approach and so I’ve only ever seen her relationship with Tassi as a violent and uninvited violation.

In the film, however, Artemisia and Tassi are star-crossed lovers. Artemisia’s initial defloration shocks her, but afterwards she grows to love Tassi and he is equally enamoured of her. Their intimacy is shown as a consequence of the close teacher-pupil relationship and the intensity they both feel about art and perception. Here, Artemisia’s work on her searing Judith and Holofernes (traditionally seen as an attack on Tassi) is interpreted as a love-letter to her teacher, who poses for her in the intervals between their lovemaking. Merlet therefore argues that the finished picture is not (as often claimed) a celebration of female agency, by a betrayed and outraged woman, but instead a record of a transgressive but cherished physical intimacy. The true villain here is Orazio Gentileschi, who drags the case into court. I couldn’t help feeling deeply uncomfortable that the most notorious experience of Artemisia’s life had been changed into a soft-focus tragic love affair.


Artemisia (Valentina Cervi) and Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic)

Moving into spoiler territory (if history can be called a spoiler), the film isn’t completely honest with us either. The trial documents suggest that Tassi really was a nasty piece of work, a far cry from the benevolent lover we see here. Moreover, his sentence is given in the film as two years’ imprisonment, but in fact I think I’m right in saying that he was acquitted (after spending some time in prison during the trial) and merely prevented from working in Rome for some months. As he had powerful patrons in the city, he was assured of protection during that period and it had little impact on his long-term prospects. Another oversight (it’s not exactly an inaccuracy) is that, watching without an awareness of the facts, you’d think that the film ends with Artemisia going off independently to make her own way as a painter, having freed herself from her father, newly empowered by her sense of her own potential. Not so. This is a distinctively romantic view of what really happened. In reality, almost immediately after the rape trial, she was quietly married off to one of her father’s workshop assistants and dispatched with him to Florence, away from the scandal. Once again, Artemisia’s fate was being dictated by the men around her.

If you want to find out more about Artemisia and Orazio, there was an exhibition at the Met in 2002, for which you can buy catalogues second-hand; and there is a wealth of literature on Artemisia herself, often of the gender studies variety. I’ve no idea how good or readable most of it is, but from a historical fiction angle I can recommend Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia and (more strongly) Alexandra Lapierre’s excellent Artemisia: A Battle for Greatness, which is technically a novel but is very well-researched and seems to be pretty reliable historically.

Buy the film


Artemisia (Valentina Cervi)

7 thoughts on “Artists on Film: Artemisia (1997)

  1. Heloise says:

    I have to confess that up to now, I never even heard of Artemisia – but then, the visual arts and I do have a somewhat strained relationship. 😛

    As for movie suggestions – you probably already know Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, but how about something adventurous, Tarkovski's Andrei Rubljow. Since you mention Greenaway I assume you're already planning on watching The Draughtsman's Contract? (which, on a sidenote, probably also makes for good complementary viewing to reading Merivel). And if you indeed do include fictional painters, I'd also suggest Frenhofer in Rivette's La belle noiseuse.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Actually, Peter Greenaway is on the list for “Nightwatching”, his film about Rembrandt. But depending on how things go I may turn to fictional painters as well. 🙂 I watched “The Draughtsman's Contract” once at a screening at the National Gallery and was so confused by the entire thing that I have virtually no recollection of it, so it's probably time to watch it again! Good call on Tarkovski – that wasn't on my list yet but of course should be. I haven't come across “La belle noiseuse” but if I start branching towards fictional painters, I'll see if I can track it down.

    Oh yes, Derek Jarman's “Caravaggio” is on there: you know me too well! I have an old VHS tape of it at home but haven't watched it for years. Very excitingly, I've just found that there was an Italian TV drama series on Caravaggio a few years ago, which I'd never even heard about before, and in which the lead actor really does look remarkably like him. It's winging its way to me as we speak. I just can't get enough of 17th-century Roman swagger 😀

  3. Heloise says:

    Oh I was not even aware Greenaway had made a movie about Rembrandt – I somehow lost contact with current movies some time during the nineties, and really do not have a clue what is going there these days. I watched The Draughtsman's Contract like five times in two weeks when it came out though – I loved it and think it might even be one of my favourite movies. Greenaway made better and artistically more daring films later but I think in that one he stroke the perfect balance between narrative pull, intellectual puzzle and visual gorgeousness.

    Both the Tarkovski and the Rivette are great, visually strong movies – they are also both very long and pretty much devoid of any kind of plot. Just a warning. 😛

    In any case, this looks like an exciting project, and I'm very much looking forward to your posts for this challenge. 🙂

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    All the more reason to watch it! I presume you would recommend the 1988 film with Isabelle Adjani over the recent film with Juliette Binoche that apparently came out in France earlier this year? I guess ultimately, if I want to be thorough, I shall have to watch both and compare them. 🙂

  5. jane says:

    Have you put the Camille Claudel film on your list? Can imagine it being discussed in conjunction with the above in Universities across the land . . . Wummin can never win, it seems.

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