What would it take for a woman to be a famous painter in Baroque Italy? Talent. Passion. Determination. Good fortune. Artemisia Gentileschi had all but one.
In my previous novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Magdalena, the fictional daughter of Johannes Vermeer, longed to paint. With the eye of an artist she imagined a painting of the moment of her father’s death, “but the task was too fearsome. She lacked the skill, and the one to teach her had never offered.”
But what if someone had offered? When I learned that a well known Italian Baroque painter, Orazio Gentileschi, did teach his daughter, Artemisia, I was fascinated. That she produced works of startling invention which took the Baroque spirit of exuberance to its height, that she expressed a feminist sensibility in painting strong heroines caught in moments of danger or tension, thinking and acting against the grain, that she was the first woman to be admitted into the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florence, the first woman to make her living solely by her brush—all this was more than I’d hoped for. And when I read that she had been raped at seventeen by her father’s friend and collaborator, her second teacher, I knew there was a story here.
Rather than focusing the story on the rape or using a broad brush to paint a sweeping biography, I chose to explore the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life, and the connecting tissue of beauty, art, spirituality, and wholeness which allow her, finally, to tell her father, “We’ve been lucky. We’ve been able to live by what we love. And to live painting, as we have, wherever we have, is to live passion and imagination and connection and adoration, all the best of life—to be more alive than the rest.”
Inquiring into what state of mind is most propitious for creative work, Virginia Woolf asserts in A Room of One’s Own that “the mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent, like Shakespeare’s mind.” She says of him, “All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded.”
But what of a woman who had plenty of reasons for grievance—rape, public scorn, torture by a papal court intending to cripple her talent, betrayal by a father who saw her as a novelty through which he could make money, the jealousy and indifference of a philandering husband? How was she to set it all aside so as to give birth, whole and unstained, to the work gestating in her? Or could the circumstances of her life serve a creative purpose? Could her passions be used, or must they be repressed in order to achieve a fragile satisfaction in her work? In post-Renaissance Italy, what would be required of a woman to keep that mind incandescent?
Those were the questions that intrigued me. I had to write a novel to find the answers.
Steeping myself in her cultural milieu, I wanted to translate the Baroque style of visual arts into storytelling. Just as Baroque figures are realistic individuals instead of ideal types, I pictured an Artemisia who has a thick neck, develops a double chin, has backaches, buys real boar sausage, screams in childbirth, swats her child, manages money poorly. In her world, a servant girl yearns to draw, a washerwoman sings arias, and a nun disobeys her order to adore the art of Rome. Just as the Baroque gives us scenes dramatically contrasting light and dark, I’ve drawn a woman torn by the vicissitudes of an uncertain life, going through dark times—slander, torture, heartbreak, grief—and experiencing extraordinarily bright periods—patronage by the Medici, the joy of motherhood, utter abandonment in love, and exuberance in the act of creation—any of which could suddenly darken. Happiness is never secure.
The Passion of Artemisia is fiction, which is to say, imagined conversations seamed together by pieces of days and nights, trivial as well as momentous actions, invented characters as well as actual people. Woolf says women’s history “has to be invented—both discovered and made up.” This is the process by which an historic figure moves from yellowed archives to academic interest and from scholarship to heroic popular legend, becoming more complex and beloved as a result. I wanted to participate in giving Artemisia her cultural moment, her own heroism. I was true to fact only so long as fact furnished believable drama, in the hope that what I produced would be concordant with the soul and passions of the real Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593-1653, for whom the story behind the art was always vital.
ABOUT SUSAN VREELAND
I graduated from San Diego State University, and have lived in San Diego since I was twelve (oh, how lucky I am—I am grateful every day), and in California since I was two. I have taught high school English in the San Diego Unified School System since 1969, and ceramics since 1986, retiring recently after a 30-year career. My student writing handbook, What English Teachers Want, [ISBN 0-88092-224-9] is used in high schools and community colleges in many states, and can be ordered from Royal Fireworks Press, (914) 726-4444; or your local bookstore.
I didn’t grow up longing to be a writer; in fact, the urge, strong as it is, is relatively recent. Concurrent with teaching, I began writing features for newspapers and magazines in 1980, taking up subjects in art, travel, education and skiing. I am married to a wonderful man, a software engineer who does my website. We live in San Diego, have no children, love to ski, take walks, visit museums, and travel, though we are too often embroiled in our work and are in a perennial struggle to make time for fun.
I turned to fiction to write What Love Sees. Published in 1988, it is the true story of Jean Treadway’s unwavering determination to lead a normal life despite blindness. To this end, she leaves her sheltered, wealthy New England home and marries Forrest Holly, also blind, a struggling rancher in a remote California mountain town. The book was made into a CBS television movie starring Richard Thomas and Annabeth Gish. Though currently out of print, it can be ordered in large print from amazon.com and unabridged audio tape from Recorded Books, ISBN 0-7887-0645-4, at 1-800-638-1304.
My short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Calyx,Crescent Review, So To Speak and other journals. I received Inkwell Magazine‘s Grand Prize for Fiction in 1999, and one of the stories in Girl in Hyacinth Blue has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize.
Here is a little essay, “The Balm of Creative Endeavor,” that Penguin asked me to write for their newsletter. I think it expresses who I am better than dry biographical facts.
“The Balm of Creative Endeavor”
Art, I am convinced, can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days of treatment for lymphoma became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet’s garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo’s figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, Jan Vermeer’s serene Dutch women bathed in gorgeous honey-colored light. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin. My conviction grew that art was stronger than death.
Vermeer painted only 35 canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived neglect, mistreatment, theft, natural catastrophe. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used. Imagining my way into the lives of the people who might have owned the painting through the centuries resulted in imagining my way out of my own dire circumstances. As the stories took shape, I thought less and less of what I was going through, and more and more of the characters, lives, settings and circumstances I was creating. Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal. Mine was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and remember me and be proud of me in some small way.
When I was hospitalized for a month for a bone marrow transplant, I hoped they’d give me a private room because I intended to read my manuscript aloud over and over to polish the sentences, and that would drive any roommate batty. Conscious that one’s thinking determines one’s experience, and in the spirit of Dag Hammaarskjold’s statement, “The only value of a life is its content for others,” I gathered uplifting quotes to put on the windowed door of my room, facing outward to benefit family and friends going to visit other seriously ill patients, and so doctors and nurses tending to me would have a positive thought right before they saw me. Quotes like Milton’s “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven,” and Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” vitalized me and readied me for writing.
I took my journal of affirmations, a big dictionary and a thesaurus, beautiful new nightgowns in bright silks and flowered satin, colorful earrings and scarves to wrap my bald head, CD’s of classical music, Gregorian chant, and Jessye Norman’s Spirituals in Concert including “That Great Gettin’ Up Morning” to help me rouse myself, and that moving “There is a Balm in Gilead.” And, of course, art books. These composed my “armor of enrichment” as I went to do battle with Goliath.
I put a little sign on my hospital window high above Los Angeles: “Every morning lean thine arms awhile upon the windowsill of heaven and gaze upon the Lord. Then, with the vision in thy heart, turn strong to meet thy day.” I wrote a love poem to my husband, and a Haiku series about my doctors and nurses. My Dutch characters became real to me and I loved them too. Nurses were amazed that I wasn’t experiencing the horrible side effects predicted. Three times a day they shined a flashlight in my mouth to look for bloody sores. None there, folks! I had filled my mouth with love and beauty instead.
When I came home, I found myself drinking in the simplest things—the blessing of a refreshing breeze, the velvet texture of newly cut grass, a small child’s lilting laughter. All the world seemed tender and rooted me in its loveliness. I embraced Henry James’s writing advice to be a person upon whom nothing is lost. After recovery, my little book about people who lived their defining moments in the presence of a beautiful painting, as I did, has launched me into a new and healthy life. I am humbled with gratitude.
A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN VREELAND
Artemisia tells her own story in this novel. Why did you choose a first person narrator?
I felt using the first person would allow me to get closer to Artemisia. With the first person, it’s the reader’s assumption that all descriptions, observations, feelings are hers rather than the narrator’s. Not wanting a sense of a contemporary author looking back to that century, I felt the first person could provide more immediacy. Also, a first person voice would help to distinguish The Passion of Artemisia from a biography.
What are the difficulties involved in writing a fictional story that is based on real facts?
First, one must find the story one wishes to tell buried in the known history. Then, one must be willing to risk criticism when that story requires departure from fact. Writing historically based fiction is first a matter of discovery, then focus, then selectivity.
A person’s real life involves a huge number of people, far too many to give focus to a novel. In order to avoid the narrative sprawl that would limit space for development of important characters, I had to eliminate Artemisia’s brothers, sons, and many of the people for whom she painted in order to reveal her relationships with her father, husband, and daughter more deeply.
Conversely, archival and published history often don’t record the relationships that are significant, so characters have to be invented to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction. For this purpose I invented the two nuns, her models, her neighbor, and Renata, her chambermaid.
Sometimes a fact conflicts with what an author needs a character to do. In truth, Artemisia was illiterate until midlife, her father considering it more important to teach her to paint than to read. In order to keep the nuns in the story while she was in Florence, I had to have her learn to read and write at the convent.
Another challenge is scenic and chronological accuracy. Clothing, food, currency, and transportation must all be researched in historical reference books. Still lifes and figure paintings helped with food and clothing. When dealing with locales as old and well known as Rome and Florence, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures, and paintings were in the same place as they are today. Only a chance reference told me that the Scalinata, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, up to Santa Trinità dei Monti weren’t yet built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill. With permission of the Mother Superior of the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Santa Trinità, I moved the time forward that Santa Trinità was a convent of nuns rather than a monastery for brethren.
Sometimes nothing can be depended upon other than being there. I stayed in the convent of Santa Trinità in Rome to understand its layout and feel its calm in a bustling city, and I climbed the bell tower in Florence not just to see the view Artemisia and Pietro would have seen, but to describe the stairwell. Those on-site experiences are the treat of research. In truth, all of the research was enjoyable for me because I felt it directing me and giving the book depth and authority.
A danger of fact-based fiction is the discovery of some detail so delectable that one is tempted to deflect the narrative direction in order to include it. One must resist. Fiction is about character, not research.
In the novel you vividly depict the challenges of life as a painter and as a woman in seventeenth-century Europe. How did you research these details? In what ways did you use your research on the real Artemisia Gentileschi to inform your portrayal of her character?
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf posits that a hypothetical, gifted sister of Shakespeare, wishing to write but prevented from a broad education by limited reading and restricted interaction in the world of ideas, would have been laughed at and ultimately would have been driven to despair. Woolf concludes: “Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at [sic].” It wasn’t difficult to move this imaginary gifted woman from the sixteenth century world of letters and theater to the seventeenth century world of paint and canvas. That process is the purview of the imagination.
Germaine Greer’s seminal work, The Obstacle Race: Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, (1979), lays down the difficulties female artists faced: competing obligations of marriage and motherhood; the restrictions against women seeking art training; male willingness to accept women’s painting only as a benign drawing-room recreation but not as a professional activity for monetary gain, which might put a woman in the public eye; and perceptions of women’s intellectual inability to tackle “serious,” large-scale historical, mythical, or biblical subjects. Except for the good fortune of being born to a fine painter anxious to make money off of his talented daughter, these are the same obstacles Artemisia faced. It is a mark of her genius that she turned each one to an advantage.
The actual trial record, as recorded in Mary Garrard’s work of art history, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, not only gave me a vivid account of the trial and her own statements, but gave me her voice, as did a letter to Galileo and other letters to her patrons, usually concerning payment. Guided by Garrard’s scholarship, I surmised much about her attitudes and struggles directly from studying her paintings in comparison to paintings of the same subjects done by other painters of her time.
The rest is informed imagination.
Much of Artemisia’s story is affected by the mores of her time and yet she is entirely sympathetic to a twentieth-century audience. How did you achieve this balance?
Artemisia achieved our sympathies for herself. Just think of what she did: defied the papal court by refusing to recant her testimony that she’d been raped; rejected the man who, according to seventeenth-century Italian culture, would restore her respectability with a marriage of reparation; made demands upon her father; left her husband for her art, and took her daughter with her; attended court events at the Medici’s Pitti Palace without a husband or an escort; used her talent to give feminist interpretations of typical Baroque heroines; and ultimately supported herself by doing what she loved most in life. Any one of these actions would have made her sympathetic to a twentieth-century audience. Her perseverance and self-invention raised her to be a heroine of her own life composition. It’s amazing to me that she hasn’t been popularized as a feminist model before this.
Your first novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, focused on a Vermeer painting. The Passion of Artemisia is about another seventeenth-century painter. Are you drawn to artists from this century? Do you plan to write more novels that take place during this period?
In the case of Vermeer, his art drew me into his time period and his story. In the case of Artemisia, her story drew me to her art and time period. Both explorations have been rich with discovery of other art—painting, sculpture, architecture—and have opened my eyes to the bravery and charms of the Netherlands and the high drama of Italy.
Someday I would like to study the life and work of Judith Leyster, a Dutch painter and contemporary of Artemisia, with an eye to finding a story there. I had great fun in writing a humorous tale of two rustic Tuscans of the seventeenth century riding a donkey named Pellegrina to Rome, and using pecorino cheese to gain entrance to private collections of the world’s great art, including the Vatican. It will appear in my next book, a collection of stories on the arts and artists, most of whom are nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painters, Manet to Modigliani, told from the point of view of someone peripheral to their artistic lives: Monet’s gardener at Giverny, the wet nurse for Berthe Morisot’s baby, the orphaned daughter of Modigliani, the son of Van Gogh’s postman in Arles, a boy who threw stones at Cezanne and his painting. I’m also working on a novel, Cedar Spirit, about the early twentieth-century Canadian painter, Emily Carr, a true original, whose work celebrates the British Columbian wilderness and its native populations and cultures. Her story allows me to explore issues of cross-cultural friendship, native spirituality, and the interrelatedness of nature, man, and God.
So, no. Regardless of how much I love the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I won’t limit myself to this time period, though most of the writing I see in my immediate future will be art-related. Art enriches my life too much to disregard all the possibilities it offers.
Do you have any favorite books or authors? Which ones have had a particularly powerful or formative effect on you as a writer?
I cherish certain parts of books by many authors and for a variety of reasons:
–For the ability to draw me into an unfamiliar world and make me care deeply about its people, for making a bland, socially inept bungler sympathetic and appealing, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
–For lush sensuousness of scene under the cedar between innocent youth on the brink of the moral eruption of their heretofore unmarked lives, and for twists of plot, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
–For natural and transparent expression of emotion, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
–For seemingly effortless, rolling description allowing me to see a moving, peopled landscape, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
–For the power to create loveable characters I want to throw my arms around, and honorable ones I want to emulate, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
–For sophistication and complexity of narrative structure, for subtle connective tissue, and for sheer beauty of sentences, The Hours by Michael Cunningham
–For density, language, cumulative imagery, and new discoveries every time I read it, Hamlet
–And for the pure joy of storytelling, John Steinbeck.
Do you have a personal favorite among the many painters or paintings that you have seen and studied?
Of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, the one I love the most has the most nondescript name, Portrait of a Young Girl, less known than its more flashy cousin, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Against a nearly black backdrop, she looks directly at the viewer over her left shoulder, a graceful drape on her head, a pale dove gray shawl around her shoulder. Such small Dutch portraits in exotic rather than traditional costume were called “tronies.” Her wide face glazed in subtle shadings has the smoothness of painted china. One feels that not only the skin is pure, but the young woman herself is pure. Her eyes set widely and her unimpassioned gaze seem to be saying, “It’s just me. This is who I am”—a simple statement of self-knowledge and contentment. The effect is spare and exquisite—a testament to Vermeer’s mastery, how he must have had to work to contain his adoration in order to execute his skill.
As soon as I write this, other paintings come to mind—Monet’s of his first wife, Camille, in a hillside of red poppies or in their garden; Manet’s Olympia that shocked Paris and intrigues me far more than Mona Lisa’s face; Renoir’s Girl with a Watering Can, rather too precious for some tastes, but entirely captivating to me; Gustav Klimt’s decorative paintings of The Kiss andThe Embrace, which sweep me away with their tenderness—how he tilts her head back….
Yet, if I must choose, I go back to Vermeer’s Young Girl, the face I held in my mind when I wrote his daughter’s story in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
- Sometimes, it’s too easy to assume that in centuries past, women were victims of gender prejudice and limitations. What negative events in Artemisia’s experience were caused by her own thinking and actions? What better decisions could she have made? What advantages did Artemisia have as a woman?
- Orazio is seen by Artemisia as the cause of her misfortunes. To what degree is this a fair assessment? How did the attitudes and strictures of the time influence him? Limit his alternatives? Blind him?
- When Sister Graziela gives Artemisia the pearl earring, she also gives her some advice. How did she follow and not follow this advice? When it’s her turn to give advice to Palmira, she reduces it to one line. Why did she make that choice?
- In what ways did Galileo influence Artemisia? She said to him, “Even stone bears the footprints of many men.” How does this apply to women and to her in particular?
- To what extent was Graziela in control of her own fate? In what ways does the term “passion” apply to Graziela, Orazio, Galileo, and Artemisia? How is Michelangelo’s Pietà echoed by the characters?
- Artemisia told Palmira, “To be a painter, you’ve got to care for people, for their feelings.” Why did she believe this? Is it true for all art in all time periods? In her time period?
- How has Artemisia influenced the minor female characters—Umiliana, Fina, Vanna, Renata, Paola? What has she learned from them? How are they representatives of the time, or exceptions to the social mores?
- Through what stages must Artemisia grow if she is to reconcile with her father? What experiences move her in that direction, or away from that direction? Did they love each other?
- Artemisia asked her father, “Haven’t you ever felt like shouting, ‘Look. Look and let this beauty transform your heart’?” Has this happened to her? What beauties?
- Of all her paintings, which one(s) was she most passionate about? Which one(s) do you favor? Hypothetically, if Artemisia, the woman with the same history, lived in the nineteenth century, what do you think she’d be painting? What would her style(s) be like? If she could have seen the scope of art history after her as well as before, which artists would she have admired and why? Which ones do you?