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Thursday, 20 August 2015

HIGHLIGHTS: Artemisia Gentileschi in the Royal Collection, London

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
This cultivated work, entitled 'Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting' (c.1638-9), is one of only a few surviving self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi. In this instance, she playfully depicts herself as the female personification of painting. Gentileschi cleverly combines self-portraiture and allegory in a single image, which has its precedent in works such as a portrait medal by Felice Antonio Casoni that honours Cremonese painter Lavinia Fontana. It is believed that Gentileschi completed the portrait in England, after she was invited to visit in 1638 by King Charles I. 

This allegorical work embodies the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, which was a widely used handbook that described painting as a 'beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishellleved, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ''imitation.''

Gentileschi is leaning over a stone slab used to grind pigments, wearing a brown apron over her green dress and holding the tools of her trade - a brush and palette. It is possible that the brown area behind Gentileschi is a blank canvas. Areas of the ground remain exposed, suggesting shadow, which is skilfully rendered in the white edge of her rolled up sleeve as it meets the dark shadow of the exposed ground. Gentileschi has tactfully depicted herself in the act of painting and her pose suggests that she may have positioned herself in between facing mirrors. 

Gentileschi's remarkable and unusual status as a female artist strengthened her appeal for collectors, including antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo and this compelling portrait enriched the concept of the elevated status of the artist. 

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