Born in Rome in 1593 and at 17 the center of a high-profile rape trial, Artemisia Gentileschi had little chance of becoming a successful painter.
But with tremendous talent, determination, and courage, she did; not to the extent she might have, had she shared the gender of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, but enough that 40-some of her hundreds of paintings have been identified (one in Toledo), and her stature is rising.
A 2010 film about her difficult life, linked to the middle-aged musings of its New York director, will be shown at a free 7:30 p.m. screening Friday at the Little Theater inside the Toledo Museum of Art. a woman like that is Ellen Weissbrod's passionate, eight-year project exploring in 93 minutes the extraordinary Artemisia, as she's commonly known.
"It was difficult to make her feel very alive. I really wanted you to feel her," said Weissbrod, who will discuss the film at the museum. She'll be joined by Larry Nichols, the museum's William Hutton senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. Artemisia will be there too: her large canvas, Lot and His Daughters, painted when she was in her forties, hangs in the museum's Great Gallery.
"People are very surprised by the movie," Weissbrod said in telephone interview from St. Louis. It's not a Ken Burns film, she cautioned, and it is often humorous.
"I tell audiences even if you're laughing at me, it's OK."
We don't laugh at first. Weissbrod is disheartened when she learns in 2002 she'll be forbidden from filming a major exhibit of Artemisia's work at the St. Louis Art Museum, contrary to what she'd been told. But in short order, we grin at her pluck: She gets fitted with a wire and a hidden camera (on a pair of eyeglasses), then drives to St. Louis and films the exhibition on the sly.
Outside the museum, she interviews gallery-goers and scholars: one, a teacher, invites her to Paducah to meet her students at West Kentucky Technical Community College. Weissbrod goes and films them discussing Artemisia and acting out a biblical scene she painted, a good example of how she portrayed women differently than did male painters.
Susanna and the Elders was a popular subject, in part, because it offered a prominent female nude and the likelihood, therefore, of a sale. It's the story of a young wife bathing in her garden while spied on by two lechers. They finally emerge and demand sex or they'll claim they saw her with a lover. Some paintings of the era show Susanna looking shyly at the men, some portray her as surprised, as lacking emotion, or oblivious to being watched. At 17, Gentileschi painted a distressed Susanna, head down and hands up, on the verge of fleeing.
Another example: Her depiction of Judith slaying Holofernes, also a biblical tale, shows two strong young women committing a horrendous act: one holds down the Assyrian general they'd gotten drunk (he's fighting back); the other works a knife in his neck. A version by Caravaggio depicts a sweet maiden, her brow slightly knit, tentatively slicing Holofernes' throat but standing too far back to have enough traction for the task.
Like a movie director, Artemisia carefully constructed scenes before she painted, and her female characters seem to react realistically and often heroically.
"Artemisia had to direct her models," Weissbrod said. "She had one frame to tell the whole story. Everything you know about those characters you learn in that one frame."
Toledo's Artemisia is of another twisted biblical tale featuring incest, death, and fire.
"Artists often treated the subject of Lot and his daughters as a ribald scene, with a grotesquely drunken Lot encouraged by his lusty, seductive daughters," noted the 2009 staff-written book, Toledo Museum of Art Masterworks. "Gentileschi, however, restrained the overt sexuality of the story, giving her figures more dignity and a deeper psychological interaction."
When Toledo bought the painting in 1983, staff believed it was done by Bernardo Cavallino, who sometimes collaborated with Artemisia. But according to the book, "Recent scholarship and examination have led to the reattribution of this elegant canvas as a masterwork by Gentileschi herself."
Weissbrod built a career working on films, including reality television and documentaries such as Face to Face, a 2000 portrait of conjoined twins Lori and Reba Schappel, She'd read about Artemisia 20 years earlier, and when she learned an exhibition of her and her father, Orazio Gentileschi's paintings had come from Rome to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she decided to make it happen.
She follows Artemisia's trail from Rome to Florence to Naples, and includes conversations with Alexandra Lapierre, who wrote the book, Artemisia (2001) after learning Italian and Latin so she could translate 16th century court documents and letters.
Weissbrod also includes the voices of dozens of people in the United States and Italy -- fans, students, art collectors, scholars. She has some of them read from the artist's letters and the transcript of the eight-month rape trial of a man, hired by Orazio to teach his brilliant daughter painting.
Weissbrod stuck to primary sources and original documents. "I didn't want to speculate about her life."
It's not known when Gentileschi died; she was about 60 and her letters showed she was sick, bankrupt, and desperate to make a living.
"At the beginning of her life she made very personal paintings; at the end of her life, it was paint, paint, paint just to survive."
Weissbrod said it cost about $75,000 to make the movie and took untold hours. She is promoting the film in the Midwest and will take it to Europe next month.
Contact Tahree Lane at email@example.com or 419-724-6075.