book review, historical fiction

Review: The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

The Passion of Artemisia  tells the story of real life 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. I first learned about Artemisia in an Art History class in college, and was instantly fascinated by her. It’s hard not to be, as it was rare for a woman during that time to paint for money and for powerful nobles like the Medicis. Vreeland is apt to highlight color and form throughout the book, as read from Artemisia’s perspective. These delectable descriptions and way of looking at the world brought me back to when I used to draw and paint more regularly, and even inspired me to start drawing with more frequency.

Artemisia’s life seems modern to today’s readers, and that’s because it was. She was the first woman to gain acceptance into Florence’s academy of Art. However, Vreeland sometimes uses modern-sounding language in her dialogue which I could have done without in order to keep with the tone of the time. However, what Vreeland excels at is not painting (hah) Artemisia as a victim in her own life. The book starts with a trial concerning the rape of the artist by a teacher/family friend, and from what I’ve read, this incident(s) did indeed occur.  The harsh treatment Artemisia receives from society after this scandal sadly echoes what modern rape survivors experience today; often the woman is blamed and/or viewed as a whore. Despite the victim-blaming culture of then (and today), Artemisia bravely pursues a career as a professional painter even though her reputation was already “tarnished.” Artemisia receives harsh judgement for her career goals because she obviously does not fit the traditional mold of wife and mother. Artemisia’s experiences as a young woman no doubt influenced her work, as she often painted biblical woman who faced similar adversity and sexual assault.

Artemisia does not overtly dwell on her past, and while it is likely always in her subconscious, she doesn’t lay down and bask in self-pity save for a one or two times. She has dreams and hopes for her life, and she goes after them and holds them with all she is, because she is a passionate person–not just a passionate painter. Artemisia later finds an unlikely friendship with the famous Galileo Galilei  who shares her zest for life and learning and the unknown. It is in this friendship, mainly through correspondence, that she finds something close to a romantic relationship, for she does not receive this from her own husband (a marriage of convenience.)

I enjoyed Artemisia’s friendship with the Roman nuns, as they often served as mother figures for her. Their lives of beautiful simplicity also helped Artemisia put her own life in perspective as far as what she achieved vs. not achieved yet, as well as her inner turmoil concerning her father–whom she blames for not doing enough to protect her during the rape and trial. Although Artemisia and her father are much alike in their passion for art, they are distant throughout much of the book. The reader cannot blame Artemisia for feeling this way, as her father effectively chose his art over protecting and defending her. I found myself wanting more justice for Artemisia’s rapist, as well as her father, but given the time period I ultimately knew this desire would not come to pass. In addition, I did not find the end of the book to be as satisfying as I’d liked. Artemisia’s love and passion always came through her art, but the ending didn’t *quite* reflect that for me.

As far as style is concerned, Vreeland writes in a fast-paced way that will make for a quick read. She often skips over several events and jumps ahead in time, which can be disconcerting and sometimes left me feeling distanced from the characters and their actions.

Grade: B