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The Gentileschi Variations

Cory Korkow, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
April 1, 2021
Danaë, c. 1623. Orazio Gentileschi (Italian, 1563–1639). 1971.101

Visitors can explore how both artists returned to and reworked certain themes and compositions throughout their careers. Here, curator Cory Korkow reflects on the works on view.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells how King Acrisius of Argos locked away his daughter, Danaë, to thwart a prophecy that her future son would kill him. Undeterred, Zeus entered her chamber window disguised as a shower of gold, impregnating Danaë with a son, Perseus, who unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy.

The Italian Baroque painters Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter, Artemisia, knew Titian’s famous painting of the subject for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese of around 1545. Titian’s seductive painting gave rise to the genre of erotic mythologies, but Orazio’s and Artemisia’s Danaës are more emotionally nuanced. Orazio’s distinctive style combined deft manipulation of light with formal elegance. The subject of Danaë was perfectly calculated to showcase his renowned skill at painting drapery and flesh tones. The figure’s theatrical gesture is almost at odds with her placid expression, but the overall effect is one of refined gravitas, thrown into relief by sumptuous fabrics and a rich color palette.

Danaë 1544–45. Titian (Italian, 1490–1576). Oil on canvas. Capodimonte Museum, Naples. Photo via Wikipedia

Artemisia was an eminent painter who trained in her father’s studio but developed her own intensely expressive style. She adopted many of Orazio’s techniques, including painting directly from the model, but her Danaë is strikingly original and was painted a decade before Orazio’s. The intimacy of Artemisia’s composition is due partly to its small scale and nature as a densely painted work in oil on copper, which lends a stifling quality to the space. Disparate approaches to painting flesh tones and textiles are revealed in their Danaës, with Artemisia’s drapery stiffer than Orazio’s and her heroine’s body depicted with greater naturalism.

Artemisia’s identity as a woman who was sexually assaulted has featured prominently in scholarly appraisal of her painting, which differs conceptually from Orazio’s representation of Danaë’s story. The subject at its essence is about violation, and it would have held personal significance for Artemisia, who was raped by a fellow artist and subjected to a high-profile court case attacking her virtue, motives, and truthfulness. Some scholars have seen Artemisia’s iteration of the subject as one of painful resignation or even protest, far removed from the passive acceptance or active welcome given to Zeus by Orazio’s Danaë. However her expression and clenched fist are interpreted, Artemisia’s naturalistic Danaë introduces a physical and emotional tension absent from her father’s serene heroine. Enjoy the rare opportunity to compare Orazio’s recently conserved Danaë with Artemisia’s take on the subject.  

Penitent Vienna
Overlay: Danaë from the Cleveland Museum of Art and Penitent Magdalene, c. 1622–28 . Orazio Gentileschi. Oil on canvas; 163 x 208 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Gemäldegalerie, 179. Photo: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Cleveland Art, Spring 2021