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Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1654 or later), Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1615-17. Oil on canvas, 71.4 × 69 cm, Inventory number NG6671, The National Gallery © 2018

LONDON.- In July 2017, the National Gallery, London acquired a recently discovered, rare self-portrait by the most celebrated female artist of the Italian Baroque – Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later). 

Yesterday (19 December 2018) Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, an oil painting from about 1615–17, went on public display in Central Hall of the National Gallery. This follows five months of conservation treatment; the restoration process – in a first for the Gallery – was documented through a regular series of short films shared on social media via #NGArtemisia. 

While unveiling the newest addition to the national collection, the National Gallery also revealed some exciting plans for her future. 

From March 2019, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will undertake a pop-up tour of unusual and unexpected venues (not all of them galleries or museums) across the UK. Her ‘grand tour’ will start at Glasgow Women's Library on 6 March (where she will stay until 19 March), just in time for International Women’s Day (8 March 2019). 

In 2020 (April – July) the National Gallery will stage a major monographic exhibition of the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, the first ever in the UK. It is hoped the show will bring more than thirty-five works from around the world to London to present a highly selective, survey of her career. 

Letizia Treves, the National Gallery James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings, says, “After transformative conservation treatment, I am absolutely thrilled that we are finally able to put Artemisia’s painting on display and share it with the public. I am working on an exhibition for 2020 and, although still very much in the planning stages, I’m looking forward to putting our new acquisition in context, alongside some of Artemisia’s most famous paintings as well as some of her lesser known works.” 

Sue John, Glasgow Women’s Library’s Enterprise Development Manager, says, “The importance of Artemisia Gentileschi is irrefutable and this addition to our national collection is incredibly exciting. We are thrilled that her ‘grand tour’ will start with Glasgow Women’s Library, the only Accredited Museum dedicated to women’s history in the UK. As well as being able to see this stunning work, we look forward to welcoming people to participate in our public events programmes during this period.” 

Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most accomplished painters among the followers of Caravaggio, whom she must have known personally through her father Orazio. In an era when female artists were not easily accepted, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence and had a truly international clientele, including royalty. 

Artemisia faced challenges in both her professional and personal life: famously, she was raped by a fellow painter and was subjected to gruelling questioning and physical torture during the trial that ensued. Her biography has long overshadowed her artistic achievements, but today she is recognised as one of the most talented painters of her generation. 

Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi says, “This is the first painting by Artemisia to enter a public collection in the UK. A superb work by a major artist of the European Baroque, it goes on show at the Gallery following conservation treatment and just in time for Christmas. I am delighted that it will be the focus of a national tour in 2019 and a major exhibition in 2020.” 

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on 8 July 1593, the only daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639). She began her artistic training with her father in 1608–9, and her earliest dated painting is from 1610. The following year an event took place that changed the course of Artemisia’s life and shaped her reputation, not just in her own times but in the centuries which followed: she was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi (about 1580 – 1644), a collaborator of her father’s. 

An infamous seven-month trial followed, every word of this case survives in a detailed court transcript that shines light on the lives of artists in the early 17th century. Tassi was condemned to choose between a punishment of five years’ hard labour or banishment from Rome (he opted for the latter, though this was never enforced). Artemisia was swiftly married off to a minor Florentine painter, Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and left Rome for Florence. 

Artemisia lived in Florence from 1612 to 1620, and it is from this period that Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria dates. Although her reputation must have preceded her arrival, Artemisia was clearly appreciated in Florence and her stay there marks an important phase in her personal and artistic development. Her paintings were both commissioned and acquired by members of the ruling Medici family. In 1620 Artemisia returned to Rome, beset by creditors after running up debts, and remained there for 10 years. By 1630 she had settled in Naples, where she ran a successful studio. In 1639 she travelled to London, to assist her ailing father Orazio in painting the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich. By 1640 she had returned to Naples, where she remained until her death in or shortly after 1654. 

Although Artemisia was greatly admired during her lifetime - with her works being avidly collected by the leading rulers of the day (including Cosimo II de’ Medici in Florence, Philip IV in Madrid, and Charles I in London) - she was only really reappraised in the 20th century. Today Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most important female artists of the Baroque period and she continues to inspire novels, films, and documentaries. 

The tightly cropped composition of Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria shows a female figure turning towards the viewer. A halo is visible just above her head, indicating that she is a saint. Her left-hand rests on the top of a broken spiked wheel; the symbol associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian saint martyred in the early 4th century AD. Sentenced to death by the Emperor Maxentius, Catherine was bound to revolving wheels studded with iron spikes and nails. She escaped this instrument of torture through heavenly intervention but was later beheaded. 

Of the sixty or so paintings attributed to Artemisia, the majority feature a strong female heroine as the main protagonist. Many of Artemisia’s paintings have been read as autobiographical and there is no doubt that her personal identity is closely intertwined with her artistic production. This is especially true of the paintings she produced in Florence (where she lived 1612–20), in which she repeatedly used her own image; perhaps as a vehicle for self-promotion (much as Rembrandt did in the Netherlands). 

The only two other known easel paintings in this country by Artemisia Gentileschi are Susannah and the Elders in the Burghley House Collection, Stamford and her Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) in the Royal Collection. 

The £3.6 million acquisition of Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria has been made possible thanks to the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust, Art Fund (through the legacy of Sir Denis Mahon), Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, and Hannah Rothschild CBE, and other donors including those who wish to remain anonymous. The conservation of the painting has been made possible with Art Fund support.

While unveiling the newest addition to the national collection, the National Gallery also revealed some exciting plans for her future.