Recently rediscovered by art historians, and one of the few female post-Renaissance painters to achieve fame during her own era, Artemisia Gentileschi led a remarkably "modern" life. Susan Vreeland tells Artemisia's captivating story, beginning with her public humiliation in a rape trial at the age of eighteen, and continuing through her father's betrayal, her marriage of convenience, motherhood, and growing fame as an artist. Set against the glorious backdrops of Rome, Florence, Genoa, and Naples, inhabited by historical characters such as Galileo and Cosimo de' Medici II, and filled with rich details about life as a seventeenth-century painter, Vreeland creates an inspiring story about one woman's lifelong struggle to reconcile career and family, passion and genius.
Like her bestselling debut, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland's second novel, The Passion of Artemisia, traces a particular painting through time: in this case, the post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi's violent masterpiece, "Judith." Although the novel purports to cover the life of the painter, the painting serves as a touchstone, foreshadowing Artemisia's rape by Agostino Tassi, an assistant in her father's painting studio in Rome; the well-documented (and humiliating) trial that followed; the early days of her hastily arranged marriage; and her eventual triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence. Although Vreeland makes a bit free with her characters (which she admits in her introduction), attributing some decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at the time, her book is beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas, keeping her focus on Artemisia and her family. Beyond the paintings Artemisia left behind, Vreeland's vision may be as close as we can come to understanding the anger and ambition that kept this talented woman at the doors of the Accademia, demanding entrance, in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes. --Regina Marler