Vreeland follows up the success of Girl in Hyacinth Blue with another novel delving into the themes of art, history and the lives of women. Narrated in the wise, candid first-person voice of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), the novel tells the story of Gentileschi's life and career in Renaissance Italy. Publicly humiliated and scorned in Rome after her participation as a defendant in a rape trial in which the accused is her painting teacher (and father's friend) Artemisia accepts a hastily arranged marriage at the age of 18 to Pietro Stiattesi, an artist in Florence. Her marriage, while not a love match, proves at first to be affectionate, and the arrival of a daughter, Palmira, strengthens the bond with her husband. But rifts soon develop as Artemisia begins to have some success; she wins the patronage of the Medicis and is the first woman to be elected to the Accademia dell'Arte--before her husband. Studio and home become the battlefields of Artemisia's life, and Vreeland chronicles 20 years of the painter's struggles while raising her daughter alone. Details and visuals abound in the book; readers who loved the painterly descriptions of Girl will be spellbound in particular by the scenes in which Artemisia is shown at work. While some threads in the story are frustratingly dropped and the narrative concludes before the end of Artemisia's life, the underlying themes of familial and artistic reconciliation are satisfyingly developed. Forthright and imaginative, Vreeland's deft recreation ably showcases art and life.


Susan Vreeland's first novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, traced the fate of a painting of mysterious provenance back in time, through the Holocaust, through various stately homes, farms and villages of the Dutch countryside, to the easel and brush of Johannes Vermeer himself. In The Passion of Artemisia, a work every bit as compelling and delightful, she follows not a painting but a painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, the most important woman artist of the premodern era.

Gentileschi was the first woman to be elected to the Florentine Accademia dell' Arte del Disegno, the first woman to paint works depicting major historical and religious subjects, the first to achieve an artistic reputation to match those of her male counterparts. Despite the respect and success she earned in her life--she had a series of powerful and important patrons, including the Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici and King Charles I of England--Gentileschi faded into obscurity after her death, even suffering the ignominious fate of having her work attributed to other artists, including her father, the Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi.

Scholarly neglect of Gentileschi has only lately been remedied; the first book devoted to her life and art was authored by art historian Mary D. Garrard in 1989 and the first exhibition of her paintings was held in Florence in 1991. Vreeland's novel is a welcome addition to voices heralding Artemisia Gentileschi as the icon of feminist art history, and a symbol of the tenacity of the talent of women artists in the face of the world's disregard.

The historical novel affords two primary pleasures. The first is that of immersion in the unfamiliar world of the past. Vreeland satisfied us mightily in this regard, providing a delectable wealth of vivid and unexpected detail. She brings to life the streets of Florence, the pungent odor of the cheese shops, the spice shops where "every shade of yellow ochre, sienna, orange, cinnamon, and dull green powders spilled out of large muslin bags onto the street." She extols the value of lavender and burnt sugar as home deodorizers, and of olive oil and diapasm powder as a remedy for diaper rash. She is generous with the guiltiest of a historical novel's pleasures, describing meals of "crostini spread with peacock liver pate, the tray decorated with a fan of peacock feathers" and "roasted pigeons wrapped in bacon, and after that, figs stuffed with musky black grapes."

The second pleasure, that of identification with characters whose relationships, travails and fates resonate deeply with our own, despite their existence in an entirely different time and place, Vreeland satisfies almost as competently. Contemporary readers will identify with a mother torn between devotion to her art and to her child. Artemisia's joy in admission to the Accademia dell' Arte is almost forgotten when she finds her infant daughter alone and hysterical, abandoned by her jealous husband.

Instead of completing an overdue commission, the artist as imagined by the author spends languid days with her daughter, taking "unutterable comfort in her small, smooth hand in mine as we walked along the river." She is wrenched from a life-altering conversation with the astronomer Galileo by the little girl's hysterical cries. Artemisia's ambivalent feelings toward her husband--"Could I actually be fully his? Every day? Every hour? Him the only focus of my life? A painter or a wife. A wife or a painter. Which did I really want to be?" --seems utterly modern and yet are easy to imagine plaguing a brilliantly talented woman of that very different time.

It is the relationship of Artemisia and her husband, the lesser painter Pietro Stiattesi, however, that presents one of the few flaws of this very fine novel. Historical fiction is limited by its very source and substance: historical fact. In real life, people do not necessarily make the choices that would drive a narrative in its most interesting course. Artemisia's marriage ends not with an emotional explosion, nor a romantic reunion, but rather peters out as many marriages do, with unspoken insults and unremarkable infidelities. This may be fact, but fiction might have made for a better story.

To those two primary delights of historical fiction, Vreeland adds a third: in language as rich in color and exacting detail as a Baroque canvas, she brings vividly to life both the art and craft of painting itself. Vreeland shows us how to apply "varnish made from amber resin that lutemakers use in Venice." She takes us inside an apothecary where "bottles and jars sealed with wax lined the shelves, and withered roots and dried leafy branches hung from the ceiling. Trays of pigment cubes wrapped in paper and smeared with a thumbprint to identify the colors inside sat waiting in orderly rows."

Vreeland's remarkable ability to portray with lyricism and intelligence the life of an artist at both its most practical and most sublime makes this novel an accomplished work of art.


People Are Talking About . . .

Strokes of Genius

The life of Italian Artist Artemisia Gentileschi is the subject of Susan Vreeland's intimate new novel.

Richly attired in pearls and silks, a young woman leans over a balcony in a fresco adorning a seventeenth-century Roman pavilion. Legend has it that the painter, Orazio Gentileschi, modeled the figure on his teenage daughter, Artemisia. Soon her art would challenge his, with dazzling chiaroscuro canvases depicting heroines of mythic grandeur made flesh-and-blood by her luminous brush strokes: a lush Cleopatra, a sensual Magdalene, a muscular Judith hacking off the head of Holofernes, her enemy.

Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most famous female artists in history, was born in 1593 in Rome, where her precocious gifts were nourished by her father, a follower and carousing companion of Caravaggio. Two events marked her deeply: Her mother died when she was twelve; six years later, Orazio engaged his colleague Agostino Tassi as her drawing teacher. Tassi, a rogue, raped and then carried on an affair with Artemisia, promising (falsely) to marry her; the ensuing trial, during which she was physically tortured, shook Roman society.

Blood, sex, art, money, patronage: The tale has all the elements of a first-rate bodice-ripper. And though the trauma may have fed Artemisia's talent for Baroque excess and psychologically charged drama, it has meant that until recently her work was frequently viewed through the narrow prism of victimhood. Now Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a best-seller about the role that a fictional Vermeer painting played in the lives of its successive owners, has written The Passion of Artemisia (Viking), a novel inspired by the artist's biography. And opening this month [February 14, 2002] at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a show devoted to the work of both Orazio and Artemisia promises the first full-scale reevaluation of an illustrious father and a daughter who was both his pupil in life and his rival in posterity....

With gripping immediacy, Vreeland's protagonist tells her own story. In fact, despite the talk of lutemakers' varnish and velvet doublets, she's a woman of our time, grappling with issues that seem intimately familiar, such as the need to reconcile work and family (she has one daughter, though in life she bore at least three other children who died in infancy), or the damaging effects of competition within couples (after the trial, she hastily marries, as the artist did, a mediocre Florentine painter). She struggles to earn a living, though her patrons bear illustrious names like de' Medici. She's hurt by her husband's infidelity but flirts with Galileo.

A shade too virtuous, this Artemisia is filled with a breathless schoolgirl excitement at the wonders of Florence. But Vreeland has also burrowed deeply into the mind of the artist, and with little or no historical evidence, produced a vivid cast of secondary female characters: from the cloistered nuns who raised her to the nude models who serve her to the tattered penitent, haunted by sin, whom she meets on the streets. These were among the few options available to seventeenth-century women with damaged reputations or limited resources. The painter's anxieties concerning childbirth and her complex relations with both her daughter, Palmira, and a servant girl who wishes to be her disciple are handled with particular sensitivity. At the Metropolitan, the force of her creative genius, set beside the strange mirror of her own father's remarkable accomplishments, stands apart from these feminine concerns, vigorous and inscrutable.


(Starred, Page-turner of the Week, March 11, 2002)

Susan Vreeland set a high standard with Girl in Hyacinth Blue, her best-selling 1999 novel inspired by a Vermeer painting. The Passion of Artemisia, another historical novel about real-life painters, is even better. The earlier novel, for all its strengths, sometimes digressed into bromides about the transcendence of art. The new one sticks to its story and its character.

And what a character. Vreeland tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), a dazzling painter whose often wretched personal life nearly killed her creative one. Using historical fact as a springboard, the novel traces twenty tumultuous years in Gentileschi's life, from a rape at seventeen--for which she is blamed--to an arranged marriage with Pietro Stiattesi, another promising painter. The loveless union warms with the birth of a daughter, but goes into deep freeze when Artemisia upstages her husband to win a place at Florence's Accademia dell' Arte. She isn't about to trade her paintbrush for her man. Vreeland's unsentimental prose turns the factual Artemisia into a fictional heroine you won't soon forget.


Vreeland's second novel (after Girl in Hyacinth Blue) is fact-based fiction at its best, a stunning look at 16th -century [sic] painter Artemisia Gentileschi as seen through and interpreted with a 21st-century lens. Because she is the first woman admitted to the Accademia dell' Arte del Disegno in Florence, her story is filled with intrigue and drama. Betrayal, redemption, sexual violation, and jealousies--all are woven into Vreeland's tale. While many of the social mores that limit Artemisia are rooted in the 1600's, her refusal to be stymied by misogynist sensibilities makes her a timeless heroine. Vreeland palpably captures Artemisia's joy as she blends colors and watches her artistic imaginings take shape. Whether creating a portrait or painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia's passion is evident. Although her final confrontation with her father, artist Orazio Gentileschi, feels forced, the novel brilliantly captures the life of an extraordinary artist. Released to coincide with an exhibit of Artemisia's and Orazio's works at New York's Metropolitan Museum, this book is highly recommended and essential reading for all art fans.


Vreeland's popular novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999) traced a Vermeer painting through its various owners, and her follow-up is also a moving celebration of the power of art. Vreeland now gives us a fictionalized version of the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, known for her significant contributions to Renaissance art and also for the rape she suffered at the hands of her father's painting partner, Agostino Tassi. After a painful trial that holds far more humiliations and pain for Artemisia than for Agostino, the painter is convicted but released because he served eight months in jail during the trial. Artemisia asks her father to marry her off in order to escape Rome, and he marries her to Pietro Stiattesi, a painter who takes her to his home in Florence. Artemisia comes to love him, and the two have a daughter, Palmira, but Artemisia's superior talent and admission to an esteemed art academy drive a wedge between her and Pietro. Artemisia is a complex character who realizes that she has to make a choice between her life as an artist and her role as a wife and mother. Although the choice is difficult, Artemisia never wavers from her course, and Vreeland gives the reader insight into Artemisia's thoughts as she creates her masterpieces. The Passion of Artemisia offers a vivid portrait of a complex female artist who doggedly pursues her passion despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles. This accomplished novel should appeal particularly to those who enjoyed the author's previous books.


Portrait of the Artist

This engaging novel, based on the life of the Baroque Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, begins with a notorious trial. When Artemisia's father, painter Orazio Gentileschi, publicly accuses his colleague, Agostino Tassi, of raping his teenage daughter, the case is brought before the papal court of Rome. At one point in the seven- month trial, Artemisia's palms are pressed together and her fingers are bound with a cord that is attached to a screw, which could be turned "just enough for the cords to squeeze a little." With her accused rapist sitting across from her, Artemisia is forced to defend her honor while the court attendant turns the screw until her fingers begin to bleed. On another day, she is examined by midwives who determine, in front of the whole courtroom, that she has been deflowered. After the court adjourns, Agostino receives a brief prison sentence, Orazio returns to painting Cardinal Borghese's Casino of the Muses, and Artemisia is married off to a painter named Pietro Stiattesi, who whisks his "tainted" bride away to his native Florence.

Despite the brutal opening scenes, this isn't a sensational victim story. Instead, it is a thoughtfully rendered account of Artemisia's unconventional and inspiring life after the trial. Shaped around the events that "could have" inspired the paintings ascribed to the real Artemisia Gentileschi, the narrative chronicles her quickly arranged marriage to Pietro, the birth of her daughter and her struggles to define herself as a painter at a time when only male artists were taken seriously.

Like Gentileschi's important works, The Passion of Artemisia is an important woman's story.


...Vreeland makes it clear from the start that The Passion of Artemisia is not a biography. Her novel creates whole incidents, fleshes out Artemisia's personality and delves into the creative process behind her work. This is not to say that Vreeland has taken the same artistic liberty as Artemisia, the French film of 1998. (In the film, the rape trial forms the basis of a clandestine love affair between Artemisia and Tassi.) Vreeland sticks to the historical record where possible, detailing only surviving paintings that have been attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi. The author has fictionalized accounts of her documented relationships with historical figures such as Galileo Galilei and Cosimo II de' Medici.

This Artemisia, with her struggle to earn a living as an artist, her hope to contribute something of enduring value, and her desire to be a wife, a mother and a painter, is a figure that many living today will understand. The novel is filled with tender moments between fully realized characters. It returns again and again to themes of forgiveness and sacrifice...


...Artemisia's story is clearly an unconventional one for a woman of her day: She was the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Florentine Academy, she lived apart from her husband for most of their married life and she worked for, and socialized with, the likes of the Medicis and other noble Italian families. But if her career path was unusual, her desires, at least as imagined by Vreeland, were not.

As the novel's title suggests, passion is the guiding force in her life. And as is the case with most women, she feels passionately about many things: her art, her child and, not least of all, her desire to be loved and cherished by a man. Unfortunately, the lesson she learns over and over is that each of these only can be achieved by sacrificing at least one of the others. She cannot both be a celebrated painter and an adored wife; and there are not enough hours in the day for her to be a perfect mother and a serious artist.

Vreeland suggests, however, that it is out of such struggles that great art is born--at least in Artemisia's case. "Living as a painter would be too easy if I were a man," Artemisia reflects at one point, and it's clear in her own mind that much of what's unique and profound in her own work comes from her in-depth understanding of the complexities of the female psyche.


Tale of Female Painter's Life a Work of Art

...In The Passion of Artemisia, [Vreeland] guides us through the artist's life using paintings as touchstones and historical facts as mile markers. With deft strokes of imagination and a healthy dose of women's intuition, [she] interprets Artemisia's emotions and motivations that helped her persevere to become of one of the world's earliest important female artists (albeit not nearly as famous as her male counterparts).

Young Artemisia's rape by her painting teacher and the subsequent trial at which she was betrayed and denigrated set in motion an extraordinary seesaw of a life. "The two things I want most in life--painting and love," Vreeland writes as Artemisia, "and one had killed any chance at the other. Why was life so perverse that it couldn't or wouldn't give me one shred of good without an equal amount of bad?"

Vreeland depicts the ups (acceptance as the first woman into Florence's esteemed art academy, commissions from dukes and archbishops, friendships with Galileo and Michelangelo's great-nephew) and the downs (an unjustly soiled reputation, an unhappy marriage and torn family relationships) in a way that is timeless and artfully rendered. While she admits to fudging some of the facts in the interest of storytelling, the resulting tale is compelling and satisfying and will introduce thousands of readers to the life and art of an underappreciated artist who ranked with the great masters of her time.


...Passion never falters in vividly re-creating the sights and sounds and smells of Artemisia's world, from the stench of the butcher shops in Florence to the stuffed figs and roasted pigeon of a Medici banquet to the pastel green and violet of the final ceiling she paints with her father. Putting the book down and ordering tickets to Italy is an almost irresistible response, and one of which Artemisia would certainly approve.


Susan Vreeland seems to have found her niche, bringing art to life through the alchemy of words imbued with the rich texture of times past. THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA is a sensory experience; the prose leaves pigment-stained fingers and the smell of varnish in its wake.   (MORE)