National Gallery at 200: in praise of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria

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A formidable artist and businesswoman of the baroque period, famous for her skill in conveying female strength and creating drama with her brush, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) was – and still is – in high demand.

Centuries after her death, the Italian painter has become an icon of female courage and resilience, a shining beacon of feminist empowerment at a time when it was very rare for women to have any power or agency.

Forgotten by art history for more than 300 years, she is now celebrated for forging a career against the constraints of a hostile and deeply challenging environment for women. Gentileschi was the first woman member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, which in 17th-century Italy was not an inconsiderable achievement.

She was determined to support herself as a painter and demanded that her collectors take her seriously. Fortunately, Gentileschi’s voice remains with us today, ringing clear through surviving letters to her patrons, her lover, and the documentation of the trial that followed her rape by a family friend.

Through her writing, the artist’s voice thrums with courage and confidence. As she wrote to one patron: “I will show your illustrious lordship what a woman can do” – and indeed she did.

Portrait as a martyr saint

At the age of 17, Gentileschi was raped by her father’s artist friend, Agostino Tassi. There has been much speculation around Artemisia’s assault in relation to her subsequent artistic output, including the shockingly violent Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-1613) and Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-1617), which is owned by the National Gallery.

Within this painting, Gentileschi inserts herself into the role of Saint Catherine – a gifted, intelligent martyr saint from the 4th century who was tortured using a breaking wheel, a brutal punishment. However, at the saint’s touch, a miracle occurred: the wheel shattered.

This article is part of our series marking 200 years of the National Gallery. These articles use highlights from the gallery’s collection to tell unsung stories of British history.

Gentileschi as Saint Catherine looks out of the picture straight at us, with an expression of quiet serenity – or victory, perhaps. The saint lightly holds the shattered implement of her torture and clutches a martyr’s palm to her breast.

Within the painting, there are gorgeous subtleties showcasing harsh contrasts: the white jewel of paint to explain the glint of metal on the wheel, for example, that in turn highlights the plumpness of her light fingers, barely touching the stem of the palm frond.

Gentileschi in London, then and now

In 1638, at the age of 45 and at the height of her fame, Gentileschi travelled to London. She was invited by the king, Charles I, to work alongside her ailing father Orazio, who had been commissioned to paint the ceiling of the great hall of the Queen’s House in Greenwich.


Gentileschi stayed in London for several months, during which she produced one of her most iconic paintings, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura, 1638-1639), held in Britain’s Royal Collection Trust. In contrast to her earlier Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, here the painter is representing her true artist-self.

The viewer witnesses a bodily sense of the artist – there is so much physical and metaphorical muscled power within the painting. The control and command over her brush, the palette and the canvas is deeply compelling.

Here, lost in the craft of painting, Gentileschi is taking ownership and claiming space for herself as one of the most celebrated artists of her day. She is showing how women can paint with intelligence, passion and force – every part an equal to her male peers.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria was acquired by the National Gallery in 2018, and is its only painting by Gentileschi. At the time of acquisition, shockingly, the gallery owned only 20 works by female artists, with another four works by female artists on loan.

In all, the National Gallery holds 2,300 works spanning the 13th to early 20th century. It is now committed to acknowledging and bridging the collection’s gender gap through education, discussion and research.

Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria has been meticulously restored under the gallery’s care, before going on display alongside works by her father Orazio Gentileschi and Caravaggio.

In 2020, the gallery held the first major UK exhibition of Artemisia’s work, a groundbreaking show that included some of her self-portraits, biblical stories, and heroines from history.

In celebration of the gallery’s 200th year, 12 of the nation’s most iconic and best-loved paintings are being lent to 12 venues across the UK. Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine is currently on display at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery alongside a solo exhibition by contemporary artist Jesse Jones, Mirror Martyr Mirror Moon – a multimedia show made in response to the 17th-century artist’s masterpiece.

Gentileschi was indisputably ahead of her time, shining a spotlight on courageous, accomplished women and inserting her image into the painting canon. Within Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) and Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, she represents two sides of herself.

In The Allegory of Painting we see the artist, entrepreneur, trailblazer – formidable and part of our collective painted history. In Saint Catherine, we see a woman who has risen through intense adversity and now looks out at us, accomplished and sure of her importance in the world.

The Conversation

Lydia Merrett does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.