If Peter Paul Rubens’ visit to Britain, and his commission for the painted ceiling at Banqueting House, marks the early years of Charles I’s reign, then the arrival of two other stars of the European art world, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi might mark its ending.
As the National Gallery notes, Orazio moved to London in 1626 where he was employed as court painter for Charles I. He was one of the first practitioners of Caravaggism in England and was held in great esteem. He remained in the country for the rest of his life.
And Breeze Barrington, in the Apollo Magazine writes:
At the English court Gentileschi proved popular with the queen [Henrietta Maria] and was given several important commissions, including the ceiling painting at the Queen’s House, Greenwich (now at Marlborough House), which his daughter, Artemisia, came from Naples to help him finish towards the end of his life.
An Allegory of Peace and the Arts [c. 1635-8; Royal Collections Trust]
The subject of the ceiling is an allegory of Peace reigning over the Arts. High in the heavens, in the large central scene a personification of Peace with olive branch and staff preside over a gathering of twelve female figures. Directly beneath her is Victory wearing a crown and holding a palm and laurel wreath, her foot resting on a cornucopia from which fruit spills.
The Royal Collection website explores this further (well worth visiting!) and notes something very interesting: there was a book of ‘designs’ by Cesare Ripa called Iconologia (published in 1593) which served as the principal source for allegorical personifications throughout this Baroque period.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:
Iconography, the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts. The term can also refer to the artist’s use of this imagery in a particular work. The earliest iconographical studies, published in the 16th century, were catalogues of emblems and symbols collected from antique literature and translated into pictorial terms for the use of artists.
And there is a digitised edition c/o the British Library
This for example is the personification of “Art”, and there is no doubt that such ‘catalogues’ would have been essential training to 17th century artists across Europe – the various figures composed to create an image suitable to the desire of patrons. With regard to the Gentileschis’ ceiling for example, Catherine McCormack writes:
The overriding message here is verbiose but with an essential concrete message to impart – that Peace (a product of good government and rule) allows the endeavours of learning, knowledge and creativity to flourish under the guidance of the cool headed Reason, in a mutually reinforcing relationship with victory and prosperity for the British realm.
That Artemisia assisted her father on the Greenwich commission is still debated, however historical novelist Alexandra Lapierre writes up the combined artistic mission of father and daughter as the ‘final instalment’ in her historical novel Artemisia (Vintage, 2001) – a story of the competitive love between the two artists. What is so excellent about the novel is that Lapierre brings in the cultural contexts of London and Britain in the mid-17th century: the mistrust of visual art amongst the general population for example: “In their eyes, painting, music and poetry charmed the senses and perverted souls.” That the King and Queen nevertheless associated themselves with all manner of artistic forms, from theatrical performances to decorative paintings when the Queen’s Catholic faith was well-known was an extraordinarily critical matter across a society “where the Pope was viewed as the Antichrist.”
Amidst such difficulties however, the Gentileschi ceiling was completed. Here it is described by Alexandra Lapierre:
“There, Peace and the Arts explodes in a symphony of greens, golds and lavenders, just as Orazio had dreamed. At the centre of the composition, Peace sits on high in the midst of beams of sunlight which suffuse the clouds. The light spreads, like a vibration, across the faces of all the divinities. The virtuosity of the visual effect succeeds in reconciling the artificial realm of allegory with the tangible world. It is a beauty that combines the pomp by which Orazio set such stores with the full-blooded truth to life that Artemisia demanded. The ceiling immortalises a single vision: that of both Gentileschis, father and daughter.“
With the Civil War breaking out just a couple of years later (1642), the King and Queen had little time to enjoy these ceilings. However, such artistry will re-appear with an even more magnificent flourish when the monarchy is restored, Charles II takes the throne in 1660, and another extraordinary artist from Italy is presented at court: Antonio Verrio.
In 2019, the National Gallery was able to buy Orazio Gentileschi’s “The Finding of Moses” which was commissioned by Charles I of England for his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, almost certainly to celebrate the birth of their son and heir, the future Charles II. It originally hung in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames.
And what is very interesting is that: This location is reflected in the lush green landscape, which looks far more like England than Egypt where the story is set.
The National Gallery’s exhibition of works by Artemisia Gentileschi has of course necessarily been postponed. However there is information about her paintings on the website including her “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting” which was in Charles I’s collection (now in the Royal Collection) and probably painted during Artemisia’s time in with her father London.
The Royal Collection website is full of detail, noting for example:
Artemisia follows the standard emblematic handbook of the period, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, where Painting is described as ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, 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”. Artemisia captures the essentials of this description, leaving out the inscription on the mask and the gagged mouth, intended to symbolise that Painting is dumb.
One can be sure that Artemisia was far from “dumb” which is why I would highly recommend Alexandra Lapierre’s novel and the National Gallery exhibition – when a new date has been announced!
(Next time: Antonio Verrio).