Artemisia Gentileschi

Inspiring Women Across the UK

In 17th-century Europe, at a time when women artists were not easily accepted, Artemisia Gentileschi continuously challenged conventions and defied expectations, becoming one of the most successful artists and greatest storytellers of her time.

Despite being overlooked for centuries, Artemisia was ‘rediscovered’ by feminist scholars in the 1970s and hailed as an emblem of female empowerment. She has since become a household name, as exemplified by the National Gallery’s acquisition of her Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria in 2018, and nationwide tour of the painting, Artemisia Visits, in 2019.

Artemisia Visits was a groundbreaking nationwide tour, which aimed to share the painting with people across Britain by taking it to places where they were, rather than expecting them to come to the National Gallery or even their local museum to see it.

The painting visited some unusual and unexpected locations, including a school in Newcastle, a GP’s surgery in Pocklington, a prison in Surrey and a Library in Glasgow. We provided full logistical support throughout the tour including transport and installation at each venue. As each of the locations were incredibly unique, security of the artwork was paramount. The aim of the tour was to target hard-to-reach communities in regional locations, with a focus on women and girls in public institutions, building an education programme around the sentiments of her story.

Our technicians Ella and Lise were part of a largely female team working on the tour, providing valuable expertise around the role of women in a typically male-orientated industry.

Artemisia’s Self Portrait returned to Gallery in London to star in the UK’s first ever exhibition on this remarkable artist. Despite COVID-19 delays, the exhibition finally opened to the public in October 2020. While the exhibition has since closed, the painting that travelled the nation in Artemisia Visits will now take pride of place on the Gallery’s walls to be enjoyed for generations to come.

Importance of exhibitions such as Artemisia

Artemisia Visits and subsequent Artemisia Exhibition at the Gallery itself captured the public’s imagination because Artemisia’s life and work are a powerful portrayal of the stories often untold. A priority of this portrayal was to highlight Artemisia not as a victim of circumstance, but a survivor, strong and challenging her aggressors. We should not assume that her traumas defined her and instead must focus on what she made of her experience. What she made of it was art – in her paintings we repeatedly see displays of power in the female protagonist.

Artemisia is not a victim of circumstance, but a survivor, strong and challenging her aggressors.

Women in the Arts – Jane Knowles, Head of Exhibitions, National Gallery

As Head of Exhibitions, I oversee the Gallery’s programme of temporary exhibitions at Trafalgar Square, nationally and internationally. It is an incredibly exciting and varied role which involves collaborating with many different specialists, partners and stakeholders across the world. I have worked in museums and galleries for over 20 years and have been lucky enough to manage a number of exhibitions encompassing a bewildering array of objects – from medieval miniatures to fragile pastels; Amazonian feather capes to Viking swords; Byzantine temples to gigantic taxidermied polar bears. Every exhibition is special but Artemisia Visits truly was one of my favourite ever projects – taking this fantastic painting to people across Britain, making it accessible to those who might otherwise never have engaged with it was incredibly moving and encapsulated everything that I believe exhibitions can and should do.

The team responsible for the project was almost entirely female, highlighting the range of roles occupied by women at all levels at the National Gallery. It was particularly exciting to be part of the careers talk at the school, alongside Constantine’s very own Lise, inspiring girls to feel that there was a role for them in the Arts industry. Artemisia herself is a particular inspiration as a first in her family. I am the first person in my family to have gone to university and it feels more important than ever that women like me are vocal about their backgrounds, actively demonstrating that working in the Arts is for everyone and that no one should be deterred from following this career path should they wish to.

Artemisia remains very much centre stage on a variety of platforms. The National Gallery’s website hosts feature articles and video series about Artemisia Visits and the Conservation process of the painting.

Further insights from the Gallery’s Exhibition can also be found through the curator-led tour and the Catalogue, with the legend of Artemisia also explored on the Google Arts and Culture Platform.

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