Esther before Ahasuerus

Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, Rome 1593–1651/53 Naples)

Oil on canvas
82 x 107 3/4 in. (208.3 x 273.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, 1969
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    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.

  • Catalogue Entry

    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.'"

    Artemisia's composition is also closely related to that of a version of the subject from the workshop of Paolo Veronese (Musée du Louvre, Paris), as Garrard (1989), followed by Bissell (1999), has noted. Artemisia must have been familiar with the Veronese, which was in a private collection in Venice until 1662. Indeed, she came close to copying portions of the Venetian work. Her Esther borrows the general design of Veronese's costume, the close proximity of the heads of Esther and one of her maids, and the configuration and position of Esther's left hand. Pentimenti throughout Artemisia's picture indicate that additional elements from the Veronese painting were once part of the composition, including a black servant restraining a dog.

    In nearly every other representation of the story, Ahasuerus is shown sitting on an elevated throne and holding a scepter. Artemisia's rejection of this most common format may indicate that she chose not to allude to the popular understanding of Esther as an Old Testament prefiguration of the Virgin Mary, in that the king's touching Esther with his scepter was identified with Mary's special designation as the immaculate mother of Christ. In fact, Artemisia's interpretation of Ahasuerus, normally represented as either an Oriental potentate or a forbidding warrior king, stands as an entirely original creation.

    Most scholars (Voss 1924, Kaufmann 1970, Contini 1991) have placed the Esther Before Ahasuerus in Artemisia's first Neapolitan period, 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, on her assumption that Artemisia saw the Veronese-school Esther during a Venetian trip in the early 1620s, and on her reading of the strong heroine, whom she argued is more typical of the 1620s than the 1640s. Later (Garrard 2001), she changed her dating to about 1630, following Bissell (1999). Contini (1991) also found stylistic analogies to Artemisia's paintings of the 1630s and posited a renewed acquaintance with Florentine sources, most probably the work of Rutilio Manetti, which may have occurred during a trip to Pisa to raise money for her daughter's wedding, an opinion also endorsed by Bissell.

    Artemisia could have begun work on the Esther in Venice in 1628, when the Veronese picture was available to her, or shortly thereafter, when the impression of it was still fresh in her mind. She could have taken the canvas with her when she moved to Naples around 1630, continuing to rework it over the ensuing years, as is suggested by the strong associations her Saint Proculus and Nicea (Capodimonte, Naples), painted for the Pozzuoli cathedral in the mid-1630s, as well as the energy and originality of the iconography.

    [2011; adapted from Mann et al. 2001]

  • Provenance

    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)

  • Exhibition History

    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.

  • References

    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 in Il 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)

    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.

    Claus Virch. "European Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (October 1970), pp. 76–77, ill.

    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 in The 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".

    Roberto Contini in Artemisia. 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.

    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.

    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.

    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. in Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. 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".

    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. Udine, 2002, p. 211.

    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.

    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".

    Mauro Natale in Cléopâtre dans le miroir de l'art occidental. Exh. cat., Musée Rath. Geneva, 2004, pp. 110, 112, ill. (color, overall and detail).

    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. 1, [Naples], 2010, p. 304, no. 252, ill.

    Luciano Arcangeli in Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, p. 210 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].

    Roberto Contini in Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. 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"].

    Jesse Locker in Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. 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.

    Rodolfo Maffeis in Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, pp. 73–74, 77 nn. 62, 65 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].

    Francesco Solinas in Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan. Pero (Milan), 2011, p. 176 [English ed., "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion"].

    Nicola Spinosa in Artemisia Gentileschi: storia di una passione. 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.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History