In the last fifty years, Artemisia Gentileschi has risen to new eminence. She originally gained fame among her seventeenth-century contemporaries as a talented Baroque painter in the manner of Caravaggio. Her remarkable works failed to garner much attention in the three centuries that followed. Since the 1960s, however, Artemisia has been unmissable. Exhibitions, catalogs, and scholarly studies of her several dozen surviving paintings have poured forth, along with biographies, letters, novels, a TV mini-series, and plays. Artemisia even has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s vagina-themed installation Dinner Party (1974–79)—suggesting that some of the hurrahs for Artemisia arise more from her perceived usefulness to feminism than from an interest in her beautiful and often disturbing art.
Artemisia: Light and Shadow, a one-act, one-person play at the Flea Theater in Tribeca (May 15–20), is a welcome exception. In a tranquil monologue scripted by Nahma Sandrow, Artemisia (Sarah Chalfy) reflects on the triumphs, agitations, and agonies of her life and career. The agonies were severe. Artemisia was raped at eighteen by the painter Agostino Tassi, whom her father had hired to improve her mastery of perspective. Her father brought charges, and in the ensuing trial the judge ordered Artemisia put to torture to determine whether she was telling the truth. Tassi was convicted, but at the cost of further injury to Artemisia—who now additionally bore a ruined reputation.
It is easy, perhaps too easy, to connect Artemisia’s paintings of biblical heroines with this terrible experience. Her images of Judith beheading Holofernes are among the most horrific in the Western canon. She also painted Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, and Jael driving a spike through the head of Sisera. The women are calm, deliberate killers. Holofernes and Sisera get no pity.
But Sandrow refrains from turning Artemisia’s life and art into a #MeToo parable. This Artemisia is an artist filled with joy at the sumptuous beauty she creates and the radiant colors that escape from the shadows. She knows her worth as an artist and demands that her patrons pay full price. At a crucial juncture, she sheds what little self-pity she has and steps fully into her own life. When eventually she speaks to the audience of her suffering, she does so with reluctance. It is as though her anger had been dispelled in the making of those exquisite paintings.
Adding variety to the monologue are period arias sung by Chalfy, who has numerous opera and musical theatre credits. She is accompanied on harpsichord, theorbo, and lute. Chalfy’s rich soprano gives voice to the passion her character cannot express in her spoken words. A marriage of convenience, the deaths of several of her children, and one passionate love affair make up the signal events of Artemisia’s personal life, together with her constant shifts from city to city and court to court in search of patronage. A screen stage-left intermittently displays Artemisia’s paintings, occasionally homing in on the fine details of her brushwork.
Chalfy brings a touch of wryness to her role. Her Artemisia is ironic and confident, ready to puncture the puffery of the world, sparing not even herself. The challenges she faced as a woman in what was then a man’s occupation are not of the essence of her story. Her self-possession is. Artemisia possesses bravery, endurance, intelligence, a rich visual imagination, technical skills of the highest caliber, and practical cunning sufficient to cut deals with the Medici. But she also knows herself. Toward the end of the play, we see in succession some of the costumed self-portraits Artemisia painted into her compositions. None are especially flattering, but all present a woman who is equal to the occasion.
Sandrow’s play and Chalfy’s performance are a welcome restoration of an important artist who has recently suffered more from adulation than from detraction. Chiaroscuro, the bold contrast of light and shade, is the most evocative technique in Artemisia’s painting. This play makes real both the bright patches and the dark, in art as in life.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.