Centuries before the #MeToo movement entered the cultural landscape, there was Artemisia Gentileschi.
Born in Rome at the turn of the 17th century, Artemisia was introduced to painting by her artist father after she showed more talent than her brothers. She became a masterful Baroque artist in her own right, with paintings that reflected feminist concerns and employed an eye-opening realism during a time when art—like the entire world—was dominated by men. In her debut novel, Blood Water Paint, Joy McCullough recounts in fictionalized free verse a pivotal time in Artemisia’s life.
Set in 1610, the story begins with 17-year-old Artemisia assisting her father in his painting studio. She ponders her own talent (she paints better than her father yet receives no proper credit), her role and identity as a woman, and her sexuality. She soon realizes that women are dismissed as “beauty for consumption.” Artemisia’s most troubling observations are confirmed when her father, in the guise of procuring a high-profile commission, hires fellow artist Agostino Tassi to tutor her. Instead of guiding Artemisia, he rapes her, and although she calls out to the house servant, Tuzia, no one comes to her aid. Despite the strong possibility of being shamed as a result, the teen seeks justice in court. Adding insult to injury, the judge requires Artemisia to undergo humiliating, invasive and tortuous tests to prove she isn’t lying.
With care and precision, McCullough marks how these events shaped Artemisia’s work. Perhaps because Tuzia didn’t respond when she needed her, Artemisia’s paintings emphasize the power of solidarity among women. Her narration, interspersed with prose from the perspective of her older self, draws inspiration from the women of the Bible, such as Judith and Susanna. Most importantly, readers see the teen’s strength as a survivor of sexual assault. Ever resilient, she proclaims, “I am not a thing / to be handed / from one man / to another.”
Although Artemisia lived centuries ago, her story will resonate with modern feminists.