A woman painting for money? In the seventeenth century? How astonishing. How droll. Much like a monkey playing the harpsichord. Not as well as a person could, mind you, but a wonder that it could play at all. Why would she want to paint? And how would she learn when art academies were closed to women and there was no precedent for women to paint as an income-producing activity? Oh yes, women had painted domestic subjects and flowers and fruit as a pleasant but harmless pastime not threatening to men, but studying seriously, selling their work, undertaking grand themes from religion and history, painting the figure, competing with men for commissions was quite another thing. Only a few had done so, anomalies each of them.

In Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Magdalena, my fictional daughter of Johannes Vermeer, climbed the sentry post of Delft, Holland, in 1666 to look at the view. I want to paint, she thought.



Yes, me. This and everything. The world from that vantage point stretched grandly. Up there, beauty was more than color and shapes, but openness, light, the air itself, and because of that, it seemed untouchable. If only the act of wishing would make her able. Father only smiled queerly when she told him she wanted to paint, as if she'd said she wanted to sail the seas, which, of course, she also wished, in order to paint what she would see. When she said so, that she wished to paint, Mother thrust into her hands the basket of mending to do.



And later, when her father died and Magdalena was washing him in bed,



she had a thought, the shame of which prevented her from uttering: It would make a fine painting, a memorial, the daughter with towel and blue-figured washing bowl at bedside, her hand covering his, the wife exhausted on the Spanish chair, clutching a crucifix, the father-husband, eyes glazed, looking to another landscape. While he painted everyone else, no one was there to paint him, to make him remembered. She yearned to do it, but the task was too fearsome. She lacked the skill, and the one to teach her had never offered.



But what if there had been a father-painter who had offered? One who saw great talent in his daughter and undertook to teach her? Fed her imagination with stories of the great heroes and heroines used as popular subjects of the day?

Two years ago, while teaching high school ceramics and English Literature, I passed through the art history teacher's classroom to get to the ceramics studio, and she said to me mysteriously, having just read Girl, "I know who your next novel will be about." I stopped in my tracks. Not being an art historian myself, only a lover of art, when she told me that a well known Italian Baroque painter, Orazio Gentileschi, did teach his daughter, Artemisia, I was fascinated.

I was further intrigued when I read that while he acknowledged her talent, he considered her a commodity and a novelty, through whom he could make money. That she was well known and recognized in her own lifetime, commissioned by the Medicis, the greatest family of art patrons of all time, that she produced works of startling invention, painting women as heroes, women thinking and acting against the grain or caught by controlling forces--all this was more than I'd hoped for. And when I learned that she was raped at seventeen by her father's friend and collaborator whom he hired to teach her perspective, I knew that there was a story here.

When I discovered the 1998 French film, Artemisia, directed by Agnes Merlet, to have wildly distorted her character, I wanted to correct the wrong done to her. The film is historically inaccurate in that it depicts Artemisia as denying in court that she'd been raped, out of love for her rapist, as well as depicting her rapist as her artistic mentor responsible for her success and willingly accepting rape charges to save her reputation. The film is controversial, some say offensive, because it romanticizes violent rape as appealing and arousing to women, and it perpetuates the myth of her promiscuity. For criticism about this film see the website by Gloria Steinem and art historian Mary Garrard.

Rather than focusing on the rape and the trial, I've used those events as incitements to a narrative that explores issues of gender roles in the seventeeenth century, female heroes in Baroque art, the uses of beauty in religion, and the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a damaged life, thereby offering what I hope is an Artemisia of growing maturity and deeper, richer passions.