The most famous woman painter of the seventeenth century, Artemisia worked in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. This painting, among her most ambitious, recounts the story of the Jewish heroine Esther, who appeared before King Ahasuerus to plead for her people. She, thus, broke court etiquette and risked death. She fainted in the king’s presence, but her request found favor. The story is conceived not as a historical recreation but as a contemporary event. Initially Artemisia included the detail of a black boy restraining a dog—still partly visible beneath the marble pavement, to the left of Ahasuerus’s knee.
The Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi is the most famous female artist of the seventeenth century. Earlier painters, such as Sofonisba Anguissola of Cremona (ca. 1532–1625) and Lavinia Fontana of Bologna (1552–1614), earned reputations based on portraiture and devotional paintings, while Fede Galizia (1578–1630) was celebrated for her still lifes. Artemisia was the first woman artist to gain a reputation as an accomplished painter of large, multi-figure compositions with a mythological or Biblical theme—the sort of work considered the most demanding test of an artist’s ability. Her pictures often have violent themes with female protagonists and, rightly or wrongly, these have often been related to her biography. She was trained in Rome by her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639)—one of the earliest followers of Caravaggio—and in 1611 was raped by an artist—Agostino Tassi—her father had engaged to teach her perspective. A trial ensued, and in 1612 she was married off to a minor painter (Piermatteo Stiattesi) and moved to Florence. There she established her reputation at the court of Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici; associated with the literary and artistic circle around the poet Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger; and in 1616 became the first female member of the Accademia del Disegno—an extraordinary accomplishment for someone who, in Rome, had been a self-declared illiterate (on this transformation, see Keith Christiansen, "Becoming Artemisia: Afterthoughts on the Gentileschi Exhibition," Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), pp. 101–26). Her peripatetic later career took her back to Rome (1620–26), Venice (1626–30), and Naples (1630–52), with a brief trip to London, where she seems again to have worked with her father (1634). Her reevaluation as a major figure in the history of European painting got under way with a fictional biography by Anna Banti in 1947 (translated into English in 1988). Among the most interesting documents to have emerged is a cache of love letters addressed to the Florentine nobleman Francesco Maria di Niccolò Maringhi, published in 2011 by Francesco Solinas. Locker’s book (2015), the findings of which are directly relevant to the painting in The Met, adds a further dimension to her biography by investigating her involvement with the literary culture of Venice and Naples. In many ways, the history of The Met’s picture maps out the transformation of awareness of Artemisia’s stature. Prior to Herman Voss’s recognition of her authorship in 1924, when the painting was in the famed Harrach collection in Vienna, it had, incredibly, been ascribed to El Greco and Benedetto Genari! It remains one of her most ambitious compositions.
The Picture: The Old Testament book of Esther recounts how the beautiful young Esther interceded with the Persian king Ahasuerus to spare the Jews. When Ahasuerus's wife Vashti offended him, he replaced her with Esther, not knowing she was Jewish. After a decree went out that all the Jews in the Persian empire should be massacred, Esther intervened on behalf of her people, even though to enter the king's presence without being summoned was forbidden on pain of death. Swooning with fear, she confronted the king, who received her and granted her request.
Artemisia's imagery closely follows the text of Greek additions made to the original Hebrew narrative, popularly used in the seventeenth century, after the Council of Trent gave them canonical status in 1546:
"On the third day, when she had finished praying, she took off her supplicant's mourning attire and dressed herself in her full splendor. Radiant as she then appeared, she invoked God who watches over all people and saves them. With her, she took her two ladies-in-waiting. With a delicate air she leaned on one, while the other accompanied her carrying her train. Rosy wtih the full flush of her beauty, her face radiated joy and love: but her heart shrank with fear. Having passed through door after door, she found herself in the presence of the king. He was sitting on his royal throne, dressed in all his robes of state, glittering with gold and precious stones—a formidable sight. He looked up, afire with majesty and, blazing with anger, saw her. The queen sank to the floor. As she fainted, the color drained from her face and her head fell against the lady-in-waiting beside her. But God changed the king's heart, inducing a milder spirit. He sprang from his throne in alarm and took her in his arms until she recovered, comforting her with soothing words. 'What is the matter Esther?' he said. 'I am your brother. Take heart, you are not going to die; our order applies only to ordinary people. Come to me.' And raising his golden sceptre he laid it on Esther's neck, embraced her and said, 'Speak to me.'"
As recognized by a number of scholars (Garrard 1989, Bissell 1999, Locker 2015) Artemisia's composition is closely related to that of a version of the subject from the workshop of Paolo Veronese (Musée du Louvre, Paris; see Additional Images, fig. 1). Artemisia, whose sojourn in Venice between 1626 and 1630 has assumed greater importance in recent studies, must have been familiar with Veronese’s canvas, which was in a private collection there until 1662. Indeed, certain details of her composition seem to depend directly from it, including the close proximity of the heads of Esther and one of her maids, the configuration and position of Esther's left hand, and the circular dais of Ahasuerus’s throne. As revealed in an x-ray (see Additional Images, fig. 2), Artemisia initially painted an African boy restraining a dog—another motif interpolated from Veronese’s work, in which a dwarf and dog appear, though the dog is resting rather than growling at the queen in the Veronese composition.
Although most scholars (Voss 1924, Kaufmann 1970, Contini 1991) have placed the Esther Before Ahasuerus in Artemisia's first Neapolitan period—that is, in the 1630s—Garrard (1989) originally assigned the painting to Artemisia's Roman period of the early 1620s, based on what she saw as the overtly Caravaggesque garb of King Ahasuerus and on her assumption that Artemisia saw the Veronese-school Esther during a Venetian trip in the early 1620s. Later (2001), she changed her dating to about 1630, and like Bissell (1999) and Contini (1991) saw in the handling of light and costumes a renewed acquaintance with Tuscan sources, most probably the work of the Sienese Caravaggesque painter Rutilio Manetti (ca. 1571–1639). Building on this evidence, Locker (2015) has examined the picture in light of what we now know about Artemisia’s presence in Venice and her association with a circle of people who formed an informal literary academy, the Accademia de’ Desiosi, as well as the better-documented Accademia degli Incogniti. Among the topics discussed in the latter was the place and nature of women. Unusually, women participated in this discussion, including the Venetian author/poet Lucrezia Marinella (ca. 1571–1653), who wrote a treatise entitled La Nobiltà et l'eccellenza delle donne, co' diffetti e mancamenti de gli huomini (The nobility and excellence of women, and the defects and vices of men). Locker has suggested that Artemisia’s painting should be seen as a visual contribution to this debate—painted towards the end of her Venetian sojourn.
In most treatments of the story, Ahasuerus is shown sitting on an elevated throne, regally garbed and holding a scepter. By contrast, Artemisia shows him foppishly dressed, wearing an extravagantly feathered hat and crown, slashed sleeves, and fur-trimmed, jeweled boots. Locker has noted that the parallels for this kind of dress are to be found on the stage, where it is invariably associated with a comedic character, and further, that by this parodic treatment Artemisia emphasized the superiority of Esther and, by extension, of women as rulers. His interpretation adds a new dimension to the Feminist discussion of this picture and of Artemisia’s work in general by situating it within the intellectual and cultural world of Seicento Italy.
[Keith Christiansen 2014]
Grafen von Harrach, Vienna (by 1856–1953; cat., 1856, no. 320, as by El Greco; cat. 1897, no. 258, as by Benedetto Genari; cat., 1926, no. 258, as Florentine School, about 1660; sold for ATS [Austrian Schillings] 9,500 to Morandotti); [Alessandro Morandotti, Rome, 1953–at least 1957]; [Acquavella, New York, by 1959–60; sold to Hill]; Mrs. Nathaniel P. (Elinor Dorrance) Hill, later Mrs. Stuart H. Ingersoll, New York (1960–69)
Rome. Palazzo delle Esposizioni. "Il Seicento europeo: realismo, classicismo, barocco," December 1956–January 1957, no. 114 (lent by Collezione Morandotti, Rome).
Florence. Casa Buonarroti. "Artemisia," June 18–November 4, 1991, no. 24.
New York. Richard L. Feigen & Co. "Paint & Passion: Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio Gentileschi, Agostino Tassi," May 7–June 13, 1999, no. 5.
Rome. Palazzo Venezia. "Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi," October 15, 2001–January 6, 2002, no. 71.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi," February 14–May 12, 2002, no. 71.
Saint Louis Art Museum. "Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi," June 15–September 15, 2002, no. 71.
Milan. Palazzo Reale. "Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione," September 22, 2011–January 29, 2012, no. 26.
Catalog der Erlaucht Gräflich von Harrach'schen Bildergallerie. Vienna, 1897, p. 93, no. 258, attributes this picture to Benedetto Genari.
Hermann Voss. Die Malerei des Barock in Rom. Berlin, 1924, pp. 462–63, ill. p.117, records the picture as attributed first to El Greco and later to Alessandro Allori; ascribes it to Artemisia's Neapolitan period and notes that a large number of the pictures in Graf von Harrach's collection were acquired in Naples.
Hermann Ritschl. Katalog der Erlaucht Gräflich Harrachschen Gemälde-Galerie in Wien. Vienna, 1926, p. 98, as Florentine, about 1660.
George Isarlo. Caravage et le caravagisme européen. Aix-en-Provence, 1941, p. 143.
Carlo Pietrangeli inIl Seicento europeo: realismo, classicismo, barocco. Exh. cat., Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Rome, 1956, p. 131, ascribes the picture to Artemisia's Neapolitan period, finding the group of women on the left characteristic of Neapolitan painting; notes that recent restoration has returned the work to its original dimensions.
Alfred Moir. The Italian Followers of Caravaggio. Cambridge, Mass., 1967, vol. 1, pp. 137, 177 n. 81; vol. 2, p. 73, fig. 156, recognizes vestiges of Caravaggism in the rich drapery and contrasting hues; mentions a painting of this subject by Cavallino (Uffizi, Florence) that is "perhaps derivative" of the Metropolitian picture.
R. Ward Bissell. "Artemisia Gentileschi—A New Documented Chronology." Art Bulletin 50 (June 1968), p. 162 n. 80, p. 163, fig. 20, dates it to the beginning of Artemisia's second Neapolitan period; observes that the picture is unusual for the artist as she "is not otherwise known to have painted a subject with a male personage in control"; notes that the swooning figure of Esther is unparalleled in her work; compares it to Artemisia's "Birth of Saint John" (Prado, Madrid)
Claus Virch. "European Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (October 1970), pp. 76–77, ill.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. "Esther before Ahasuerus: A New Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi in the Museum's Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (December 1970), pp. 165–69, ill., describes the picture as a "good example of the drama and brilliance of Artemisia Gentileschi's later style," noting that it has been dated about 1640; relates the figures to similar types in Artemisia's "Birth of Saint John" (Prado, Madrid); comments on the pentimento on the left side of picture, where the artist has painted out the figure of a page; finds that this change strengthens the lines of the composition and serves to increase the physical and psychological distance between Esther and Ahasuerus.
A. Pigler. Barockthemen: Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. 2nd ed. [first ed. 1956]. Budapest, 1974, vol. 1, p. 200.
Eleanor Tufts. Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists. New York, 1974, p. 62, fig. 31, notes that Graf Aloys Thomas Harrach, who served as Austria's Viceroy to the Kingdom of Naples in the eighteenth century, was an enthusiastic collector of works by Artemisia and brought ourthe MMA picture back to Vienna with him.
Anthony M. Clark inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1965–1975. New York, 1975, p. 88, ill.
Hugo Munsterberg. A History of Women Artists. New York, 1975, pp. 25–26, ill.
Karen Petersen and J.J. Wilson. Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. New York, 1976, pp. 30, 194, ill.
Elsa Honig Fine. Women & Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. Montclair, N.J., 1978, pp. 15–17, calls it the most important of Artemisia's Neapolitan works, noting that none of the heightened drama of her earlier pictures is present; observes that though Esther commits a heroic act, she is shown in an unheroic pose.
Germaine Greer. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. New York, 1979, pp. 196–98, 204, ill., dates the picture to Artemisia's Roman period; refutes the assertion [see ref. Bissell 1968] that the male figure dominates the action, noting that the male figure is "in fact outnumbered by three women, to whom he is being passively drawn".
Mary D. Garrard. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton, 1989, pp. 70, 72–79, 91–92, 105–6, 274, 505 nn. 120–21, figs. 63 (overall), 66, and 67 (x-radiographs), dates the painting to the early 1620s, Artemisia's second Roman period, noting that the "extraordinary pictorial status given to Esther in this painting connects it with Artemisia's strongest period of female imagery"; believes the king's Caravaggesque dress would be inconsistent with mid-century Neapolitan production; argues that the tenebrist lighting, bold physical movements, and realistically rendered faces and garments place the work closer to Artemisia's "Judith" (The Detroit Institute of Arts) and "Portrait of a Gonfaloniere" (Palazzo d'Accursio, Bologna) than to her more idealized "Birth of Saint John the Baptist" in the Prado; comments on Artemisia's inclusion of Venetian references in the picture, observing that the grouping of the queen and her attendants, the queen's decoratively patterned dress, and the curved steps leading to Ahasuerus's throne recall Veronese's painting of the subject in the Louvre, Paris; notes that x-rays reveal Artemisia's placement of the characteristically Venetian motif of the page and dog between Esther and Ahasuerus, which she later overpainted; compares the work to Poussin's "Esther before Ahasuerus" in the Hermitage, suggesting that Artemisia's version, unlike Poussin's, hints at a reversal of roles, in which Esther is the reigning monarch and Ahasuerus is the "young upstart".
Susanna Stolzenwald. Artemisia Gentileschi: Bindung and Befreiung in Leben und Werk einer Malerin. Stuttgart, 1991, pp. 46, 57, 69, 92, 97, 100, 106, colorpl. 57, dates the picture 1640–45, during Artemisia's second Neapolitan period.
Olga S. Opfell. Special Visions: Profiles of Fifteen Women Artists from the Renaissance to the Present Day. Jefferson, N.C., 1991, pp. 6, 11, argues that Artemisia's "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) and "Esther before Ahasuerus" were both begun in 1622 and completed in 1623.
Rodney Palmer. "The Gentler Sex—and Violence: Artemisia Gentileschi at the Casa Buonarroti." Apollo 134 (October 1991), p. 280.
John T. Spike. "Florence, Casa Buonarroti." Burlington Magazine 133 (October 1991), p. 734, places it in the later 1630s and argues that Artemisia introduces into the composition a clarity and spaciousness that predicts her development in the 1640s.
Roberto Contini inArtemisia. Ed. Roberto Contini and Gianni Papi. Exh. cat., Casa Buonarroti. Rome, 1991, pp. 165–69, no. 24, ill. (color), since Artemisia's stylistic development does not follow a linear path, maintains that it is not productive to categorically examine the style of the picture; suggests that the work dates to 1636 or after, given its relationship to Artemisia's "Saints Proculus and Nicea" and "Saint Januarius in the Amphitheater" (both in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples); argues that the picture attests to Artemisia's knowledge of Florentine artists such as Rutilio Manetti.
Claire-Lise Bionda. "Artemisia Gentileschi." L'Oeil 442 (June 1992), pp. 24–28, ill. (color), dates it about 1640 and argues that the fainting figure of Esther is Artemisia's first example of a fragile heroine.
Nancy Stapen. "Who Are the Women Old Masters?" Art News 93 (March 1994), pp. 88–89, notes that this picture had not been on view in the Museum since 1974.
Mary D. Garrard. "Artemisia's Trial by Cinema." Art in America (October 1998), p. 67, ill., dates it about 1622–23; suggests this picture could have been used in Agnès Merlet's film "much more effectively to represent Artemisia's creation of strong and adult female characters".
R. Ward Bissell. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art. University Park, Pa., 1999, pp. 69–76, 83, 112, 120, 179, 235, 241–45, 337, 339, no. 28, fig. 124 (x-ray), fig. 125, colorpl. 16, dates it about 1630–35, grouping it with Artemisia's Neapolitan pictures; does not see a necessary link between the Caravaggesque figure of Ahasuerus and an early date for this picture in Rome; acknowledges that the "setup" of this picture derives from Veronese's rendition of the subject (Louvre, Paris) and that other aspects of this picture recall the Florentine works of Rutilio Manetti and Bartolomeo Salvestrini; maintains that while this picture may "articulate a precise religious/political position," lack of patronage information restricts analysis; states that Artemisia's textual source was the Apocryphal Book of Esther; observes that scholars overstate Esther's commanding role in this picture and understate the extent to which the Queen succeeds by being an ideal woman rather than a "woman who is determined to contest these stereotypes"; finds the picture too damaged to serve as a useful basis from which to draw conclusions.
Gianni Papi. "Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art. By Roger Ward Bissell, 1999." Burlington Magazine 142 (July 2000), p. 452.
Richard E. Spear. "Artemisia Gentileschi: Ten Years of Fact and Fiction." Art Bulletin 82 (September 2000), p. 572.
Mary D. Garrard. Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity. Berkeley, 2001, pp. 27, 132, changes her dating of this picture from the 1620s to about 1630 following Bissell's assertion [Ref. Bissell 1999] that Ahasuerus's Caravaggesque costume does not necessarily indicate that the picture was produced in Rome; suggests that "the ornamental Caravaggism" might have appealed to a "retardataire taste".
Judith W. Mann et al. inOrazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Ed. Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann. Exh. cat., Museo del Palazzo di Venezia, Rome. New York, 2001, pp. 315, 342, 373–77, 398, 404, no. 71, ill. (color), fig. 131 (x-ray) [Italian ed., "Orazio e Artemisia Gentileschi," Skira, Milan, 2001], date it about 1628–35, suggesting it was reworked at the beginning of the 1630s; observe that Artemisia's imagery derives from Greek additions to the original Hebrew narrative, used in the seventeenth century after the Council of Trent gave them canonical status in 1546; note that the picture was modeled after Veronese's painting of the subject (Louvre, Paris), which the artist could have seen on her Venetian sojourn; conclude that the extraordinary number of changes to the picture attest to the difficulty Artemisia encountered in "satisfactorily resolving the composition".
Karen Wilkin. "The Gentileschi." New Criterion 20 (April 2002), p. 47, describes it as "an awkward painting as notable for the unconvincing, mannered postures of its protagonists as it is for the bravura rendering of their gorgeous costumes".
Andrée Hayum. "Orazio & Artemisia." Art in America (September 2002), pp. 105, 111, 145, ill. color, dates it about 1628–35 and considers it characteristic of Artemisia's Neapolitan pictures: "often vast in scale, deploying large figures and elaborate architectural staging, at times straining the limits of her compositional skills".
Ann Landi. "Who Was the Real Artemisia?" Art News 101 (February 2002), p. 113, notes that Artemisia's "specialty. . . was strong and heroic women" and mentions the present picture and subject as an example of this type.
Linda Borean and Isabella Cecchini. "Microstorie d'affari e di quadri: i Lumaga tra Venezia e Napoli." Figure di collezionisti a Venezia tra Cinque e Seicento. Ed. Linda Borean and Stefania Mason. Udine, 2002, p. 211.
Mauro Natale inCléopâtre dans le miroir de l'art occidental. Ed. Claude Ritschard and Allison Morehead. Exh. cat., Musée Rath. Geneva, 2004, pp. 110, 112, ill. (color, overall and detail).
Luciano Arcangeli. "Sulla 'Samaritana al pozzo' proposta in vendita da Artemisia Gentileschi ai Cardinali Barberini." I Barberini e la cultura europea del Seicento. Ed. Lorenza Mochi Onori et al. Rome, 2007, p. 251, notes that it must precede Artemisia's painting of Christ and the Samaritan Woman (private collection), which can be dated by letter to 1637.
Richard McBee. "Esther in Venice—In Search of Images of Esther." Jewish Press. March 11, 2009, ill. (color) [http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/38535], describes Artemisia's Esther as swooning "in a totally calculated manner, her eyes momentarily closed for effect, more theater than emotional crisis, and thoroughly designed to manipulate the foppish king before her. It is Esther at her most powerful".
Nicola Spinosa. "Da Caravaggio a Massimo Stanzione." Pittura del Seicento a Napoli. Vol. 1, [Naples], 2010, p. 304, no. 252, ill.
Rodolfo Maffeis inArtemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Ed. Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, pp. 73–74, 77 nn. 62, 65 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].
Roberto Contini inArtemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Ed. Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, pp. 102, 105, 107 n. 7, p. 200 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].
Francesco Solinas inArtemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Ed. Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, p. 176 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].
Jesse Locker inArtemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Ed. Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, pp. 192–95, no. 26, ill. (color, overall and detail) [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"], dates it about 1626–29.
Luciano Arcangeli inArtemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Ed. Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, p. 210 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].
Nicola Spinosa inArtemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Ed. Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, p. 224 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].
Gianni Papi. "Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me'." Burlington Magazine 154 (December 2012), p. 831, fig. 4 (color).
Nicola Spinosa. Grazia e tenerezza "in posa": Bernardo Cavallino e il suo tempo, 1616–1656. Rome, 2013, pp. 98, 340, 400, fig. 39a.
Jesse M. Locker. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting. New Haven, 2015, pp. 73–76, 78–83, 149, 203 n. 19, p. 212 n. 72, figs. 3.1 (color), 3.9, 5.27 (color details), 3.10 (X-radiograph), suggests that it dates from about 1627–29, when Artemisia was in Venice, and that it reflects her association with literary circles in which the nature of women was among the topics discussed; notes the compositional relationship to the painting by the workshop of Veronese in the Musée du Louvre but also remarks on stylistic traits in common with the work of Rutilio Manetti (1571–1639) and sees a comedic intention in the treatment of the king deriving from theatrical practice.
Keith Christiansen. "La création tardive d'une collection de peintures baroques au Metropolitan Museum of Art / Creating a Baroque Collection at the Metropolitan Late in the Game." Aux origines d'un goût: la peinture baroque aux États-Unis / Creating the Taste for Baroque Painting in America. Paris, 2015, pp. 65, 71.