A small, seventeenth-century oil on copper painting of Danaë appears on the walls of the Saint Louis Museum of Art. In 1999, Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi brought this 16″ X 20.5″ work to the attention to the larger feminist community with her Women’s Art Journal article “The Gentileschi Danaë: A Narrative of Rape,” where she argues that Artemisia Gentileschi’s unusual presentation of the conception of Perseus is the product of the artist’s experience with rape as a teenager. Zarucchi is not alone in using this event in the artist’s life and her gendered experience to interpret Artemisia’s paintings. The artist’s biography has become the framework for discussing the works of Artemisia as compared to her male counterparts. Griselda Pollock argues that this reliance on binary comparisons is what keeps the great women artists out of the canon in her Differencing the Canon of 1999. But when we look more closely at the Saint Louis Danaë and consider the attribution of the work as well as its subsequent dating, Zarucchi’s interpretation seems even more problematic than a question of what makes for successful feminist methodology alone. This painting could fit into the genre of the easy and available woman.
Zarucchi presents Artemisia as a strong woman who overcomes and works out the physical and psychological trauma of rape through painting. Thus, all of her works, including this one, become a reflection of one horrific event in her life. The assumption that “life = art” does not allow for the influence of a patron on the subject matter and its presentation. Furthermore, as Elizabeth S. Cohen argued in 2000 “[n]ot only did Artemisia Gentileschi suffer sexual violence in the past, but […] her reputation continues to be violated in the present by an overly sexualized interpretation.” The questions that must be discussed are ones with no clear answers, as all of the evidence has long been lost to history or died with Artemisia; however, we can still examine Zarucchi’s claims with respect to the Saint Louis Danaë and the problems her analysis raises.
Krystine Foster, ’10 Avon, MN
Major: Art and Art History
Sponsor: Christina Penn-Goetsch