Understanding Art through Context and Form


Art criticism is often thought of as a critic expounding on why a piece of art is “good” or “bad”. However, the real job of a critic is to offer a means of understanding art. A self-portrait can offer a unique insight into the work of an artist. In order to gain a somewhat comprehensive understanding of the work, two main things should be taken into consideration: context and form. Context refers to the artist’s circumstances at the time - socially, politically and economically. The form of a piece of art refers to the actual technique used in the execution of the piece. The self-portraits of Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith Leyster differ dramatically in both form and context, but by exploring these ideas a greater understanding of both artist and artwork can be achieved.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome at a time of prosperity both economically and artistically. Throughout her childhood she was surrounded by art, both that of her father and of his friends and fellow artists, including Caravaggio, who had a major influence on her work. She spent much of her time as a proponent for Caravaggio’s style and incorporated it into her own work.

The allegory of painting was often depicted during the Baroque period as a female figure, Pittura. In 1611 a coin was printed depicting Lavinia Fontana in this manner. The coin portrays her as having wild hair and being caught up in her work. This influenced Artemisia Gentileschi heavily and she took that a step further with her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. In Allegory, Artemisia depicts herself with disheveled hair and an intense concentration on her artwork. She wears a talisman of a mask around her neck signifying imitation. She perhaps thought it clever to utilize her position as a female painter in the role as Pittura, portraying both artist and muse.

At the time the painting was created, in 1630, she had already painted several portraits of significant women throughout history and religion including her Judith and Lucretia paintings, but never any of herself. In these paintings she often left allusions to herself, such as an Artemis bracelet on the arm of Judith, but she had never before done a full self-portrait until she painted Allegory, which also includes her signature for the first time. It is believed that Allegory was originally intended for Artemisia’s primary patron, Cassiono dal Pozzo, a scholar who was known to collect paintings and scientific instruments as well as collect knowledge in general.

The form of Artemisia’s self-portrait differs greatly from that of many other self-portraits in the seventeenth century. She does not try to portray herself as beautiful, though some may see her as such. Instead her goal is to portray the act of artistic creation. In order to do this she shows herself studying an unseen model with hand poised over a blank canvas, a tabula rasa.

Artemisia uses the same base colors in the actual painting as the burnt red base color on the blank canvas she is portraying. This reddish-brown is echoed in the bodice of her dress and complimented by the green of her puffed satin sleeves. She takes the green from the dress and uses it subtly and sparingly in the highlights on her neck and raised hand. Her use of chiaroscuro is reminiscent of Caravaggio. The dark shades on the back of her dress blend into the reflected light off of her satin sleeves. Her pale flesh punctuates the near-center of the image, catching the eye.

Gentileschi’s self-portrait is very different from that of Judith Leyster in both form and context. Financially Leyster and her family did not enjoy the economic prosperity in the Netherlands that Gentileschi did in Italy. Leyster’s father was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1624 and she began to create paintings to sell on the open market. Between 1624 and 1630, Leyster was a pupil of Franz De Grebbers. It is also suspected that Leyster was an advanced student of Frans Hals, as her style shows his influence heavily.

In the Netherlands at the time, there was an economic boom due to the sale of tulip bulbs and women were allowed a greater independence. Leyster was a member of Haarlem’s Guild of St. Luke and by 1633 she was the only female member of the guild with her own studio.

Leyster showed herself in her c.1630 self-portrait as a well-dressed young woman, relaxed and happy in front of a partially finished painting. In addition to showing herself as a talented painter by holding several brushes, her intention was also to show that she was a competent painter. Her goal with showing competency was to acquire more commissions and thus make a better living for herself as an artist.

Leyster’s self-portrait is similar to those of past masters and is in what is commonly referred to as a “work-in-progress” painting, which was developed by Frans Hals. Her refined clothing is created with thick brushstrokes to create shining purple highlights. Thin layers of white create the illusion of sheer lace with glimpses of purple fabric underneath.

In order to fully understand a piece of art it is important to know what was going on with an artist at the time of creation, as well as to take into consideration the nuances of technique. The self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith Leyster are fairly extreme opposites in both form and context, but both are realistic representations and portrayals of life and art at the time they were created.




Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting – Artemisia Gentileschi





Self-Portrait -  Judith Leyster





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