Exhibitions: Artemisia's less-famous father

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The Independent Culture
Orazio Gentileschi

National Gallery, London

has suffered the unusual - in fact, for an old master, unique - fate of having been overshadowed by his own daughter. Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the few impressive old mistresses to have been uncovered by feminist art history, and consequently has been the subject of considerable attention. Old Orazio, on the other hand, has remained little-known, except to enthusiasts and specialists who delve into early-17th-century Italian painting. But now a small exhibition at the National Gallery, " at the Court of Charles I", gives us a chance to take another look. How good was Dad?

He was, in his day, an important man. Charles I was delighted to recruit him to his retinue of artists in 1626, and provided him with the lavish salary of pounds 100 a year - generally, as the catalogue essay by Gabriele Finaldi notes, paid in arrears, but that was always the drawback with employment by princes. It is fair to point out that the king was even more delighted to net Van Dyck, who got pounds 200, but Gentileschi was a ranking Italian master, a rare catch for a distant northern court.

Nowadays, the artists amongst whom he ranked are probably unfamiliar even to keen gallery-goers - Bartolommeo Manfredi, for example, or Orazio Borgianni. The one Italian painter of the day who has won superstar status in the late 20th century is Caravaggio, whose combination of tragic gloom, seedy low-life detail, spirituality, sexuality, and sado-masochistic violence is greatly to contemporary taste. And it was Caravaggio who raised Gentileschi if not to greatness, at least to interesting individuality.

Before he had encountered Caravaggio, Gentileschi - born in Pisa in 1563 - had been a late exponent of Mannerism, a style of highly artificial fantasy. The addition of Caravaggio's film noir drama made for a much more interesting mix. One can see the results in the earliest painting in this exhibition, David Slaying Goliath. It is a picture which gives an extremely vivid notion of what it might be like to cut off a giant's head (decapitation was a family speciality, artistically speaking; Artemisia's masterpiece was the spectacularly gory Judith killing Holofernes with fountains of blood).

In Orazio's picture, Goliath isn't just big, he's a Jack-and-the-beanstalk monster, with a handspan as long as David's arm, and a head the size of the boy's body. None the less, he lies prone, feebly trying to ward off the blow that David is about to strike with a sword as tall as himself. This is fairytale Grand Guignol, very different from Caravaggio's dark seriousness, but it works well in its own slightly surreal terms. It even seems to help that Goliath's hand is enormous - too big even for the rest of him, and seems to be coming out of the picture (though looking at some of the later paintings, one wonders whether Gentileschi just had trouble getting arms, heads, hands, and other body parts the correct proportional sizes).

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a later painting, is still in this playful Caravaggio mode. The Holy Family recline beside a ruined wall, with convincing peeling plaster - that's the Caravaggio touch. But instead of claustrophobic darkness - which would have completed the Caravaggio effect - above the wall is a cloudy but daylit sky, and over it looms, surprisingly big, the amiable head of a donkey.

By the time Gentileschi arrived in England, however, the Caravaggio inspiration was running out, and he was becoming a different sort of artist. The compositions he painted for the Stuart monarchy, the main subject of this exhibition, have no intensity, violence or sexuality at all - which shows that art does not mirror life. Because, in reality, Gentileschi's existence was eventful, even by 17th-century standards. In Italy, there was a sensational case in which he accused an artist friend of the repeated rape of Artemisia (it ended inconclusively, despite the application of thumbscrews to the unfortunate Artemisia, and several other witnesses). In England, Gentileschi's sons were arrested for drawing their swords on Baltazar Gerbier, and Gerbier retaliated by accusing Gentileschi of defrauding the King.

But the paintings Gentileschi produced in England are aristocratically bland. They are grand costume pieces, suitable for the decoration of palace walls. In reality, the three main examples - Lot and His Daughters, The Finding of Moses, and Joseph and Potiphar's wife - were all painted for, or ended up at the Queen's House, Greenwich, the private domain of Henrietta Maria. Two of those subjects, Lot and Joseph, often served as vehicles for eroticism. But not here.

Potiphar's wife, far from attempting passionately to restrain Joseph, could be requesting him to bring her a cappuccino. Lot's daughters, except for some mild disorder of dress, form an entirely respectable family group (strangely, their incest with their drunken father was sometimes presented at the time as a praise-worthy attempt to propagate the human race, of which they presumed they were the only survivors after the divine smiting of Sodom and Gomorrah). The Finding of Moses is a magnificent display of silks and satins, with a different version which Gentileschi presented to the King of Spain hung beside it, in an intriguing exercise of compare- and-contrast. The latter now looks the better picture, but in its original setting at Greenwich, the other would have made more sense. The nymphs at the right, for example, instead of gesturing inanely off stage, were probably pointing through a window at the distant Thames (thus implying whimsically that the infant prophet might have been adrift off the Isle of Dogs).

Actually, was probably better than this show suggests; like many artists he was only really on form for a limited period - the 15 or so years after he met Caravaggio contain the best work. But these late pictures are telling evidence of the Stuart court dream-world. While bloody revolution was brewing out in the real world, the King and his entourage acted out vapid allegories of peace and harmony. The late Gentileschis on show catch that pompous, sedate mood (so did the ceiling he painted for the Queen's House - which is now at Marlborough House, and not on show). The Cavaliers were doomed in part by aesthetic illusions - they believed their own spin, in contemporary terms. Caravaggio, Artemisia, or Orazio's early David and Goliath would have given them a better idea of what they were in for - decapitation.

On the other hand, the Cavaliers were good patrons. Under Henrietta Maria, the Queen's House held a rich collection of paintings that must have been an outstanding 17th-century ensemble. Perhaps it should be an art gallery again; there are fine 17th-century pictures in the Royal Collection which could go there. As it is, today this great building - with its horrible photographic reproduction of the Gentileschi ceiling - seems sadly tacky.

` at the Court of Charles I': Sunley Room, National Gallery, WC2 (0171 747 2885), to 23 May.