Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe by Mary D. Garrard. London: Reaktion Books. 2020. Pp. 320. £15.95 (hardback), ISBN 9781789142020.

Artemisia Gentileschi is an artist whose time has more than come. New acquisitions of her work continue to emerge with great fanfare into the gallery spaces of the world’s most august art institutions, the most recent being the Getty Museum’s acquisition of her Lucretia (1627). In 2020, London’s National Gallery built an important show around the acquisition of Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17). Gentileschi’s paintings are reentering a world in which not nearly enough has changed for women since the time when she was painting her original visions. In a climate of feminist protest, in which women’s voices are rightly loud and insistent, Gentileschi’s work retains a force of resonance, a relevance, that renders it as compelling and urgent as ever it was.

Not least, the parallel between Gentileschi’s experience of taking a rape complaint to trial and the experiences of women today who enter a courtroom in the hope of obtaining justice is painfully obvious. It is by now impossible to approach Gentileschi’s oeuvre without knowledge of this crime against her, and of the horror of her trial. The MeToo movement has highlighted how common it is for women to experience the crime of sexual assault and how rarely such crimes are punished. Society continues to accommodate systemic violence against women and girls. The crime of rape, then, is apposite to women’s reception of her work at this contemporary moment. It cannot be evacuated from Gentileschi’s history as an artist without enacting a distortion.

Yet too often, Gentileschi’s works of art have been framed as materially indexical to her rape, as symptoms arising from a private trauma. At their worst, such framings figure Gentileschi’s artistic agency as secondary to that of her abusers, whose actions not only “author” her works but provide their natural interpretive framework. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between telling the whole of the important story of this female artist and allowing the undoubted quality and originality of her work to stand on its own terms. This can only take place outside of the tired psychobiographical framework that serves only to suppress Gentileschi’s painterly originality within a reductive teleological narrative of victimhood.

Eminent scholar, founding member of the field of feminist art history and pioneer of Artemisia Gentileschi studies, Mary D. Garrard is perhaps uniquely equipped to plot a course through these rocky waters. If, as Garrard argues, the repetition and magnification of artists and their work is a central strategy for canon formation, then Garrard is rightly feted for having been responsible for some of the most effective and transformative repetition and magnification of women’s art in the discipline of art history. Her new book represents a new and full account of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life and work. There are seven chapters, organised around recurring and important themes in Gentileschi’s work. This structure facilitates an interrogation of the contemporary visual and literary context illuminating these pictures and their subjects – their Judiths, Susannas, Lucretias, musicians, saints and allegorical figurations.

Garrard’s strategy of situating Gentileschi’s paintings within the contemporary writing and patronage of women avoids the shallows, contextualising the paintings within a broad and lively field of female authorship, creativity and crucially, feminism avant-la-lettre. This does not render the emotion in Gentileschi’s paintings insubstantial, but rather rebalances it against a feminist intellectual ballast, recuperating this extraordinary artist’s richness and range. It reframes Gentileschi’s work as a deliberate intervention in public debate.

Garrard’s book establishes Gentileschi very firmly as a player within the artistic and intellectual networks spanning Europe’s great courts and cities. This is really fascinating stuff, which, moreover, serves to situate Gentileschi’s art within a transterritorial conversation, as visual currency circulating within an intellectual exchange, that both draws on and responds emphatically to contemporary discourses. Moreover, Garrard demonstrates how Gentileschi’s paintings intervened in the flourishing feminist debates then known as the querelles des femmes, resituating her oeuvre within a lively community of early modern women who thought, knew, spoke, wrote, performed and painted. Intriguingly, Garrard argues that Gentileschi’s painting visualises this community of women as one which crosses class lines. Garrard extends this idea beautifully throughout, showing how Gentileschi’s work too spans historical time, forming a rallying point for the entry of new members into this feminist community persevering into our own present day.

While acknowledging the dangers of the biographical fallacy, Garrard makes a good case for reading Gentileschi’s pictures with her biography in mind. She argues convincingly for the painter’s use of her own likeness in her paintings, a matter of some recent debate. Garrard’s love for her subject is apparent, certainly no bad thing, and her connoisseurial, but also heartfelt, engagement with her subject produces a rich intimacy in her treatment of the artist’s history. Garrard’s use of the painter’s first name throughout is indicative of this intimacy, which feels very genuine, even ethical, as the evident product of so many years of patient study (I don’t claim the same privilege for myself here, although Garrard’s point about the status of Gentileschi’s celebrity, her name brand recognition, is well made). Accordingly, Garrard works hard to centre the originality of Gentileschi’s style, of her painterly voice, and points to several areas fertile for new research, not least, early modern women’s feminist patronage of women artists.

This intimacy extends into Garrard’s formal discussions of Gentileschi’s paintings, their remarkably palpable women, livid with corporeality, their straining hands, solid forearms and locked elbows, their stolid calm in the face of blood and danger. Gentileschi’s painting of women psychologically and physically absorbed in the back-breaking work of political murder, their total commitment to assassination, retains the power to arrest the gaze. Both Gentileschi and Garrard debunk the cherished myth that women of early modern Europe were all as modest and submissive as the conduct literature of their own day and an art historiography rooted in the nineteenth century would have them be.

The book’s approach stands on it own in quite a busy field. Much is being published on Artemisia Gentileschi right now, but nothing quite like this. The book is written in an engaging and conversational style appealing to a generalist audience, but there is plenty here for specialists to value. As standard with Reaktion Books, there are lovely endpapers and a cloth cover, and many high quality colour reproductions. There is a useful bibliography. A small caveat: I would have liked more information in the image captions, where the dimensions of paintings and their locations are not usually listed; it’s important for us to know the scale at which Gentileschi worked.

Dr Sara Ayres

Affiliate Researcher

Centre for Privacy Studies at Copenhagen University

Reminder: WSG seminar April 2021

The seventh seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 12.50pm (BST), 17 April 2021.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 12.50 BST (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 2.50pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

April 17, 2021

Francesca Saggini: From St Martin’s Street to “Camilla Cottage.” Frances Burney’s Houses between Fact and Fantasy.

Anna Jamieson: “Comforts in her Calamity”: Dorothea Fellowes’s Shopping and Spending in the late Eighteenth-Century Private Madhouse.                       

Julie Vig: Women and martiality in the Sikh literature of early modern Punjab.

Reminder: WSG seminar March 2021

The sixth seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (GMT), 20 March 2021.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm GMT (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

March 20, 2021
Cheryll Duncan: ‘Much want of judgment’?: new evidence concerning the singer Jane Barbier.

The contralto Jane Barbier enjoyed a long and illustrious career on the London stage, performing in Italian and English operas, masques, pantomimes and afterpieces at leading theatres between 1711 and 1740. Her personal life was subject to some colourful contemporary comment, particularly in response to her reported elopement in 1717. This paper presents a number of archival discoveries which significantly expand Barbier’s known biography; these include new information about her family, the man with whom she eloped, her financial activity and details of the contract for her final season at Covent Garden. The findings prompt a reassessment of Barbier’s reputation and allow a more nuanced portrait of the singer to emerge.

Maria Clara Pivate Biajoli: Understanding Current Readers’ Reception of Jane Austen through Fan Fiction.

Over the last two decades, mostly due to the “Austenmania” encouraged by several TV and movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s work during the 1990s, an overwhelming amount of sequels, variations, and modern retellings have been produced by fans who were not satisfied with the six completed novels Austen has left us. They constantly bring their favorite characters back to life by giving them new stories, new settings, new problems to solve, but never missing the chance to relive all the emotions created by their happy ending. Since Pride and Prejudice is, today, Austen’s most popular novel, it should be no surprise that it is also the one with the greatest number of sequels and variations. Fans have taken Elizabeth and Darcy from adventures with pirates to a shelter for the homeless in Canada, always making sure that their love would conquer it all.

Although the happy ending is indeed the destiny of all of Austen’s heroines, it is difficult to say for sure that it was the main purpose of their journey in the novels. On the contrary, many critics have argued that there are complex issues present in Austen’s text that we risk disregarding when we look only at the love story. Although Austen has probably never been more popular than today (a “global brand”, according to Janet Todd), this phenomenon was built on a very specific image of the author – the writer of romantic and naïve novels. Since the love story is exactly what current fan fiction focuses on, it can be said that they are both part of the cause and the consequence of the loss of other “Austens” in the public’s mind, such as her social criticism and acute perception of gender roles in her society.

This paper will address then the paradoxical question of how current fan fiction helps to promote Austen’s long-term popularity and, at the same time, her death. By presenting examples from sequels, variations, and modern adaptations, I will explore how the analysis of fan fiction can further our understanding of the current reception of Austen’s work. My premise is that fan-authors rewrite the novels according to their interpretation of the story, highlighting aspects they like, seeking repetition of the pleasures of the first reading, and changing or excluding aspects they didn’t like. In this sense, fan fiction could be a strategic source of information to answer the famous question “Why Austen”.

Miriam al Jamil: The Grand Duchess of Tuscany’s Birth Days: Weary and Waiting at the Florentine Court.

The late eighteenth-century Court of Leopold II, Arch Duke of Tuscany does not receive much scholarly attention in its own right. Leopold’s wife Maria Luisa attracts even less interest. Described as gentle and kind, she fades into the background of the wider political picture, as she quietly fulfils her duty and produces children destined for strategic dynastic Hapsburg marriages.

However, archival research into the State Papers records between Whitehall and Sir Horace Mann, British Resident in Florence, has enabled an unanticipated focus on Maria Luisa’s life through Mann’s regular reports and observations on the Ducal Court. His presence there for the frequent birth days of Maria Luisa’s children, together with details of her health and birthing practices offer insights which are unavailable elsewhere. His comments also counter the assumption that Maria Luisa did not participate in Court functions and ceremony.

This paper both charts the Ducal couple’s lives together and celebrates the potential for archival material to contribute to a range of hitherto untapped historical inquiry.

Early Modern Women: Lives, Texts, Objects. Edited by Martine van Elk. https://martinevanelk.wordpress.com/ Accessed 11 February 2020.

Martine van Elk’s Early Modern Women: Lives, Texts, Objects is a fascinating blog that offers interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of early modern women authors and artists. The blog emphasizes that authorship, writing, and artistic endeavors were often interlinked as different aspects of self-expression. It has a search function, as well as an archive drop down by month and a category filter with options such as courtesans, biography, marriage, and religious women. Van Elk also accepts guest posts, which seem to represent more than half of the entries.

Its greatest strength is that Van Elk highlights the lives and works of a transnational group of women, typically English and Dutch, which reflects her 2017 monograph on early modern women writers in England and the Dutch Republic. She argues that seventeenth-century women need to be examined from a cross-cultural perspective to more fully understand the collective experience of early modern women as a whole.

The blog is suitable for both a general and a scholarly audience, as she highlights little know women and topics that could be introductory to students and those interested in the early modern period, yet every entry contains a section with references for further reading and most entries engage with the historiography of the subject. The entries are typically about 2,000 words and take many different foci, from one single object, such as the handkerchief (18 September 2016), to a theme, such as mottos (18 October 2016) or engraving (22 February 2017), to case studies of a specific woman or group of women, such as Celia Fiennes (18 June 2018) and Susanna Teellinck (10 July 2019).

My favorite entry is on female engravers, one written by Van Elk herself. In this post, Van Elk explores to what extent copper engraving was a gendered activity, in that it would have taken place in a male-dominated print shop. She finds print-making to be a collaborative activity between a designer, engraver, and publisher. Seventeenth-century female engravers were rare, but when known, it seems like they also had male relatives who were engravers and they worked within a family business. Magdalena van de Passe (1600–1638) was daughter and sister to male Dutch engravers, and created prints by the time she was 14 years old. Her engravings often were derivative of other engravers, which Van Elk suggests could be understood as translations, in the way that translation of texts was a more suitable activity for women than was original writing.
Sadly, the most recent blog entry is from July 2019, and it was written by a guest. As many of Van Elk’s own posts stemmed from research for her 2017 book, hopefully new posts will arrive as she works on her own new research. She is also a main contributor to the Early Modern Female Book Ownership blog (previously reviewed here), where her newest entries can be found.

Valerie Schutte
Independent Scholar

Valerie Schutte has published widely on royal Tudor women, book dedications, and queenship. Her second monograph, Princesses Mary and Elizabeth Tudor and the Royal Gift Book Exchange, will be published with ARC Humanities Press in 2021.

Review of WSG Seminar: 20th February 2020

Despite the recent cold weather, the atmosphere at the Women’s Studies Group February seminar was as warm and welcoming as ever. We were treated to three very different, but equally fascinating papers, the individual chronologies of which stretched from the mid-seventeenth century to the 1820s and covered subjects as diverse as death and dying, legal and textual subjectivities and observations of nineteenth-century Chilean culture. At the heart of each, though, lay careful analyses of how women in the past constructed themselves and the world around them through the written word. The seminar was conducted via zoom and ably chaired by Trudie Messent.

First to speak was Dr Sarah Ailwood of the University of Wollongong. Sarah lectures in law and has previously authored a book on Jane Austen and masculinities. Her talk for the WSG, however, was entitled ‘In justice to myself’: Legal and Textual Subjectivities in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Memoirs’. Sarah’s central thesis was that by ‘harnessing emerging genres of popular, published life writing’, namely the print memoir, ‘women forged a new form of legal subjectivity.’ She began by outlining the theory developed by Costas Douzinas that those living within a modern liberal democracy will be typically both subjectus and subjectum in relation to the law: that is, simultaneously under the authority of the law and a participant in its creation. In contrast to this, women of the eighteenth century were only subjectus, bound to obey the law without participating in its creation. Sarah also cited the work of Peter Goodrich – that the power of the law rests in its cultural influence, as well as institutions and legal texts. From this theoretical starting point, Sarah explored the idea that the female-authored mid-eighteenth-century legal memoir allowed women to ‘create a new, resistant form of legal subjectivity’ and evidenced this through the work of two eighteenth-century women: Sarah Rippon and Anne Bailey. Rippon published The True State of the Case of Sarah Rippon in 1756 and used the subjectus persona of a poor, vulnerable widow to challenge both the legal system and the men who conspired against her, showcasing her knowledge of the system and her abilities as a litigant as she did so. Bailey constructed a similar subjectus persona through her 1771 text The Memoirs of Mrs Anne Bailey. In this she positioned herself as a victim caught in a cycle of debt, assault and exploitation even though the true purpose of the book was to publicly shame the men who had wronged her. Sarah argued that although both women ostensibly cast themselves as oppressed victims of the legal system, their memoirs speak to their authors’ resistance of that role and their determination to assert agency over the narrative of their life.

The second speaker was Daisy Winter, a PhD student at Northumbria University. She examined the writings of Lady Elizabeth Delaval within the context of seventeenth-century women’s devotional meditations. This was a time when women were expected to examine and reflect upon their behaviours, not least to use written texts to curate a ‘good death’ for themselves when the time came. However, Daisy argued that the motivations for Delaval’s musings were complex and may not have stemmed solely from a fear of judgement in death. Two meditations were considered in detail. The first, written in 1662, was entitled ‘Upon the Singing of a Lark’. In this, Delaval used the ‘Godly’ bird to rebuke her habit of sleeping in late. The second was a cluster of prayers written as a response to a severe bout of toothache. This was allegedly caused by an infestation of more than two hundred worms(!) and inspired Delaval to contemplate her own mortality. Intriguingly, this gory episode may not have had its roots in personal experience. Daisy cited the work of Sara Read, who suggests that Delaval may have appropriated it from a letter originating at the court of Charles 1. As Delaval’s family were Stuart sympathisers, the tale could also function as an indication of political allegiance. Further, Daisy argued that Delaval’s writings also link to wider cultural concerns surrounding disease, death and decay: this was a time when the plague swept across England and Delaval, like so many of her contemporaries, was personally affected by it. Indeed, toothache was also not the inconvenience it is today but a potentially deadly illness, with tooth problems regularly appearing as a cause of death in contemporary bills of mortality. Daisy also explored the temporal disruption between the composition of the texts and their later transcription by an older Delaval into the curated manuscript that exists today, possibly as a precursor for publication. Daisy concluded by saying that although Delaval’s approach to crafting a good death was complicated, it was likely she did experience a fear of her own mortality, when ‘her neglect of her “penitential hours” [came] to haunt her.’

The final paper was given by Valentina Aparicio, from the University of Edinburgh. Her paper was entitled ‘Maria Graham’s Journal of a residence in Chile (1824): a transnational community of women’ and forms part of a wider research project concerning Scottish women who travelled to South America at the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries. Her paper for the WSG focussed on Maria Graham, who was born Maria Dundas and later became known as Lady Callcott. Graham travelled to Chile with her husband. However, he died before they arrived and she landed in South America as a widow. Rather than return home, she elected to stay in the town of Valparaiso and, during the year she spent there, Graham mixed with people from a number of different backgrounds, nationalities and classes. Generally, Graham appeared to be more sympathetic towards Chilean women, rather than the expatriate British women she met, whom she likened to Mrs Elton from Austen’s Emma. Valentina examined two of Graham’s encounters in detail. The first featured an elderly neighbour with a large flower garden who used her horticultural knowledge for healing purposes – La Chabelita. The second was with the women of La Rinconada who made the pottery Graham used at home. One of the most striking observations Valentina made was that Graham did not appear to apply her own British, classist, world-view to the Chilean women she encountered. Rather, she was prepared to meet with them in their own contexts and engage with them upon their own terms. For example, when she visited the female potters she was eager to sit down with them and join them in their work. As was later discussed during the questions, this may well have reflected a (post)Romantic ideal of the labouring poor but equally may have been something she would not have felt able to do in her own country where strict notions of class propriety would apply.

It was a stimulating and enjoyable session that provided much food for thought and a number of lively discussions during the questions. Huge thanks to all our speakers and to everyone who made February’s session possible.

Review by Dr Alison Daniell