Artemisia Gentileschi’s Market Gains Steam as Collectors Catch up with Art Historians
Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, ca. 1630–45. © Dorotheum.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1615–17. © The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery, London.
It’s been a banner year for Artemisia Gentileschi, the master of Baroque painting who died in the middle of the 17th century. In July, she became the first female artist in 27 years to enter the collection of London’s National Gallery, when her Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615–17) was acquired for £3.6 million ($4.7 million). That painting had set a new auction record for Gentileschi’s work just eight months prior, at Parisian auction house Drouot. And on Tuesday, her Lucretia (ca. 1630–45), a dramatic painting appearing at auction for the first time ever, sold for €1.8 million ($2.1 million) at Dorotheum in Vienna, more than doubling its presale estimate of €500,000 to €700,000 ($581,000 to $813,000). The work will go to a collection in Australia, said a Dorotheum spokesperson.
Tuesday’s sale suggests that the market is keeping pace with the growing interest in her life and work, part of a broader recalibration of the art historical canon to include more women and artists of color. She’s the star of an exhibition on Baroque women painters that opened in October at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent. Her best-known painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes (ca. 1620), went viral on social media during the hearings leading up to the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, circulating on social media as an expression of outrage and of solidarity with survivors of sexual assault.
“As always, it’s hard to say whether the market feeds interest or the market follows interest,” says Judith W. Mann, the editor of Artemisia Gentileschi. Taking stock (2005) and curator of European art to 1800 at the St. Louis Art Museum, which owns Gentileschi’s dramatic Danaë (ca. 1612). “But I’m sure the #MeToo movement has played a role in the current interest in her work.”
The image of Judith Slaying Holofernes seems especially poignant because Judith’s act of confident, bloody vengeance doubled as a reference—however oblique—to Gentileschi’s own story of surviving sexual assault and taking her attacker to court, where he was found guilty (he went to jail, though his sentence was later commuted). Similarly, the Lucretia painting that sold on Tuesday depicts a strong female figure taking violent control of her narrative. The 4-foot-tall painting shows the titular Roman noblewoman in a dramatic diagonal pose moments before she plunges a dagger into her chest, an act of self-sacrifice that is said to have helped spark Rome’s transformation from a kingdom into a republic in the 6th century B.C.E.
“Are we reading into it something simply because we know it’s by a female artist, or is this a stand-alone work when you put it against any follower of Caravaggio?” asks Mark MacDonnell, an Old Masters specialist at Dorotheum. “This painting has a natural force and power that somehow goes beyond this concept of female and male artists.”
Lucretia had been in the same collection since the late 19th century, and had never been publicly exhibited before Dorotheum put it on view prior to Tuesday’s sale, according to MacDonnell. Art historians Riccardo Lattuada and Nicola Spinosa dated it to the comparatively under-studied later period when Gentileschi was based in Naples, while many of her best-known works date to the earlier stages in her career when she was based in Rome, Venice, and Florence.
“She is so diverse in style and so hard to pinpoint,” says Old Masters dealer David Boaretto-Sarti of Paris’s Galerie G. Sarti. The gallery showed Gentileschi’s Cleopatra (ca. 1639–40), another striking work from her later period featuring a strong female figure, at Frieze Masters in London earlier this month, where it was priced at €2.8 million ($3.2 million). Despite strong interest from collectors and institutions, the painting is still with the gallery.
Both Sarti and MacDonnell note that the shifts in Gentileschi’s Caravaggist style, as she moved between Italian city states throughout the first half of the 17th century, have confounded art historians, but may ultimately be a boon for her market. “It’s like looking at totally different painters,” says Boaretto-Sarti. “Art historians have had a hard time identifying her work, so I think there are probably going to be a lot more Artemisias on the market, which is very important to drive up interest and prices.”
Still, MacDonnell stresses that in spite of the current wave of interest in Gentileschi’s work, Dorotheum was careful to “not be too aggressive” in setting the estimate for Lucretia, particularly in light of a prior auction flop. In January 2014, Christie’s brought her Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (ca. 1616–18) to auction with an estimate of $3 million to $5 million, but it failed to sell. It was subsequently acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art for an undisclosed sum.
Other auction houses seem to have learned from Christie’s misstep. Old Masters specialist Christophe Joron-Derem gave Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria a presale estimate of just €300,000 to €400,000 when he brought it to Drouot, which its hammer price of €1.8 million more than quadrupled. And in March of this year, a painting of Mary Magdalene attributed to Gentileschi similarly outpaced its cautious presale estimate of 8,000 to 12,000 Swiss francs at Koller Auktionen AG, selling for SF192,500, or slightly more than 16 times its high estimate.
For Mann, dealers’ and collectors’ interest in Gentileschi has long lagged behind that of art historians, which she says was first piqued in 1947 with the publication of Italian art historian and author Anna Banti’s novel, Artemisia. It was reinvigorated four decades later as a feminist approach to art history gained traction, with Mary Garrard’s influential 1989 text Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art showing how she treated traditional subjects in a novel, proto-feminist way.
“The market really didn’t catch up with art historians until 2014, when a collector acquired her Mary Magdalene for over $1 million,” Mann says. That sale, at Sotheby’s in Paris, saw the work surpass its presale estimate of €200,000 to €300,000 to sell for €865,500 ($1.1 million), setting a new record for Gentileschi’s work that stood until last year’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria sale. Mann is quick to note, though, that Gentileschi’s sales figures pale in comparison to the sums commanded by her father, Orazio Gentileschi; the J. Paul Getty Museum acquired his Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1621–23) for $30.4 million at Sotheby’s New York salesroom in 2016.
Such startling results tend to “flush out other important works,” according to MacDonnell. “Often a successful sale or recent publicity about a particular painting or particular artist does encourage people to say, ‘Listen, I’ve got this painting hanging at home, I’ve got no idea who it’s by, but it certainly looks very similar the painting that you recently sold,’” he says. “It’s entirely plausible that there are other paintings like this one out there.” A 2001 catalogue raisonné of Gentileschi’s work lists just 57 signed works.
Boaretto-Sarti is even more adamant that Gentileschi’s market—which has typically trickled along with no more than four works coming to auction in a given year, and some years, none at all—will pick up steam. “It’s not over,” he says.
Gentileschi’s growing popularity among collectors and institutions may also be coinciding with renewed and more widespread interest in the Old Masters market, according to MacDonnell.
“When there’s a particularly striking Old Master painting that has a particularly striking image, it crosses traditional collecting boundaries,” he says. “You see it at art fairs at the moment, there’s a lot of crossover; a lot of art dealers are handling both Old Masters and contemporary art and exhibiting them side-by-side.”
And as the viral sharing of Judith Slaying Holofernes suggests, there’s something acutely contemporary about Gentileschi’s work and life story.
“She’s having a moment, she seems to chime with our times,” MacDonnell says. “That has focused a lot of interest on her work recently, and that may be part of the reason why the National Gallery wanted to acquire a work of hers. Whether that’s a tendency for the moment or a way that collecting and collections will be going in the future, women artists are underrepresented, and we need to increase their representation and visibility.”