Artemisia's mother died when she was twelve years old. Her father Orazio Gentileschi is a mediocre painter for whom Artemisia works as an apprentice, grinding and mixing pigments as well as painting. His shop does commissions of "Bible tales, some portraits, ancient histories, myths." Artemisia finds it frustrating when she's taken away from her painting to cut up onions for their housekeeper Tuzia who often sends her shopping for linseed oil, and figs and fritters for her younger brothers. But Artemisia is determined to make the most of everything including a shopping trip to the Piazza di Santa Maria where she tries to notice colours and details.
Artemisia feels that her father is not able to portray feelings through his paintings. Although he attempts to lecture her on pigments and perspective, Artemisia knows more than her father is aware. To teach her about perspective, her father hires Agostino Tassi. Artemisia first meets Tassi when Tuzia lets him into the studio while Artemisia is working alone. She is overwhelmed by his large physical presence but she focuses on learning from Tassi. Signor Tassi encourages Artemisia to call him "Tino" which she does only reluctantly. He confirms to Artemisia that he has come to Rome for the Quirinal Palace commission, which Artemisia's father hopes to be involved in.
At this time Artemisia begins the preliminary sketches of Susanna. Although Artemisia needs to learn dual-point perspective before she can paint Susanna, her father wants her to focus on getting Tassi to include him in the palace commission. When Tassi at first declines based on the poor quality of Orazio's painting Artemisia offers a solution. Her father's name will appear on the works, but it will be she who will do the painting. Tassi appears interested in her proposal.
Later while working on her own painting of Susanna, Tassi stokes Artemisia's frustration over her father. She is moved by his apparent concern for her especially after he learns that she has been posing for her father. Tassi feigns concern, even questioning Artemisia as to whether her father abuses her. His concern moves Artemisia to kiss Tassi. The next day, on the way to Mass their carriage is stopped on the Via della Lungara by Tassi who insists on riding with them. His request is "a violation of the rules of decency, our code, our social order." Tuzia who is accompanying Artemisia, does nothing but Artemisia tells him he must not join them. When Tassi persists, stating that Artemisia has a chaperone, Tuzia orders Artemisia to make room for him.
Afterwards, Artemisia finds her thoughts preoccupied with Tassi. He returns to the studio the following day, "a hurricane of energy", telling Artemisia that he is falling behind on the Quirinal commission because he is captivated by her. She has a "horrid father", many responsibilities and a dreary studio. His solution is for Artemisia to come work in his studio. His offer is tempting to Artemisia because she believes she would not have to do many of the menial tasks her father makes her do, but instead might offer her other opportunities. However she also believes she would always be second in Tassi's studio too. When Tassi visits the next day he continues to press her to move to his studio; "Imagine what you would accomplish in my studio." and "...the things we could do together." To Artemisia, Tassi is speaking about marriage but Tassi has something quite different in mind. When he begins groping her, Artemisia struggles out of his way, telling him to stop.
Tassi returns to the studio, drunk, critical of Artemisia's Susanna. When he gropes her again, Artemisia orders him out of the studio. Instead Tassi, shreds the canvas and leaves, not returning for days. When he does, Artemisia tells him he is not welcome. Tassi warns her that her father is loyal to him and that payment is owed for her lessons. He rapes Artemisia in the studio, her screams are ignored by Tuzia.
Unable to paint or do much of anything after the brutal attack, Artemisia confronts Tassi when he returns the studio. Tassi acts indifferent, ignoring her orders to leave. Between his visits, Artemisia continues to suffer. Tassi again returns to the studio, attempting to win her over again, but this time, inspired by the stories of Judith and Susanna, Artemisia tells him that is going to tell her father. Tassi tells her he merely took what she offered, but Artemisia responds that he also destroyed her father's property - her painting.
Artemisia's father doesn't understand why she can't seem to focus on her work and doesn't know what it wrong with her. She tells him she will take no more lessons from Signor Tassi and when her father admonishes her for ruining their chance at the Quirinal commission, Artemisia tells her father the truth. Despite her father's warnings about how her accusations will be perceived and how she will be treated, Artemisia insists that her father accuse Tassi. Gaining inspiration and strength from the Biblical heroines Susanna and Judith whose stories her mother told, Artemisia prepares to face a trial that she hopes will bring her justice. But what little justice she receives will come at a great price.
Blood Water Paint brings forth the story of Artemisia Gentileschi who was raped by painter Agostino Tassi. Artemisia who was born in Rome in 1593, was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. She was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, mixing pigments, preparing canvases and painting her own works. Her mother died when she was twelve years old. Her brothers were also trained as artists but none showed promise equal to Artemisia. Her father was greatly influenced by the style of Carvaggio and this influence was passed on to Artemisia.
|Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi|
After the trial, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist from Florence. She also painted Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia and Pierantonio moved to Florence where she became a successful painter, whose patrons included the House of Medici and Charles I, King of England. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Designo. She also lived and worked in Rome, Venice, Naples and London. Her reputation as a Baroque artist eventually surpassed that of her father.
In Blood Water Paint, McCullough uses free verse to imagine the events leading up to rape of Artemisia and the trial afterwards. Interwoven throughout are the stories of Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, and the story of Judith from the book of "the same name in the Old Testament. Artemisia's mother Prudentia begins her stories before the birth of her child. She is not well and fears she is dying. As her strength wanes she seeks to educate her daughter in the dangers she may one day face as a young, attractive woman in a man's world.
"She knew I'd need Susanna
when I found myself
a woman in a world of men.
Girl as prey."
And so Artemisia's mother spends
"the last of her strength
to burn into my mind
the tales of women
no one else would
think to tell.
of a righteous woman,
her virtue questioned
through no fault of her own,
of a widow
with nothing left to lose..."
Prudentia tells her daughter the story of Susanna, the young, beautiful, virtuous wife of Joaquim who is accosted by two elders while bathing in the privacy of her home. Stunned and terrified, Susanna clutches at a robe to cover her nakedness. The two men tell her "Today I am your husband. Today I tell you to lower your robe, and if you deny me, the world will hear how the faithless wife of Jaoquim cavorted in her garden with a man who was not her husband." Terrified, Susanna refuses even when they threaten her with the certainty of being stoned for adultery. "Susanna could lower her robe to these monsters who believe they can take whatever they want simply because they have the power...But if she does what they ask, she will be dead tomorrow either way. "
The elders lie about what happened in the garden and Susanna is ready to be stoned when Daniel, a respected young leader happens upon the scene. He questions the elders, determines they are lying as their stories are inconsistent and has them stoned. Susanna is freed. From Susanna's story, Artemisia learns to speak her truth, to speak out and let her voice be heard. She learns to be strong.
The other story Prudentia tells Artemisia is that of Judith, whose husband, Malachi died after being sent to investigate how close the Assyrians have come to the Jewish city of Bethulia which they have besieged. Bethulia's rulers have decided to hunker down and wait out the siege, meaning certain death for Judith and her people and rendering Malachi's death a waste. Outraged, Judith formulates a plan and with her servant Abra, travels during the night to the Assyrian camp and into the tent of Holofernes, the captain of the army. There she seduces him and then beheads him with his own sword. Judith and Abra carry Holofernes' head back to Bethulia. The Assyrian army flees, abandoning the siege and Bethulia is saved.
From Judith's story Artemisia learns that she is strong, despite the fact that she will be told she is "too small, too weak, too feebleminded to be of use." Her mother counsels, "The world will tell you not to be outraged, love. They will tell you to sit quietly, be kind. Be a lady. And when they do? Be Judith instead."
These examples of strong women help Artemisia find her voice to accuse Signor Tassi and to endure a trial in the hopes of achieving justice. Like Susanna, Artemisia's story is not believed. Instead, she is tortured to determine if her testimony is true. Her hands are her life, but Artemisia submits to having thumb screws applied, severely wounding her hands, so determined is she to obtain justice for the rape.
Blood Water Paint is Joy McCullough's tenth novel. It began as a play which was eventually performed in 2015. As she was working on the play over the years, Mc Cullough began to see the possibility of it as a novel that might be of interest to teens.
In light of the recent #metoo movement, Blood Water Paint is a timely novel that asks the reader to consider the many issues surrounding rape and sexual harassment. These include victim blaming, sexual objectification and the trivializing of rape. McCullough also explores how social attitudes about sexuality and gender influence how rape is perceived and how it is treated by the courts and by society in general.
During the trial, Artemisia is treated by the court as though she is the one who has committed a crime. The trial drags on for months with Tassi showing up in court in "showy costumes", his story changing daily. Agostino testifies that she is a whore, "My studio is less for painting than for vulgar rendezvous", love letters are produced, despite the fact that Artemisia cannot write and a list of lovers given - including her father! The judge orders Artemisia examined by midwives for proof that her "pudenda" which in Latin is translated as "parts to be ashamed of" shows that she is not a virgin. The painful examination causes panic in Artemisia who feels like she is being raped again.
"My integrity must be tested
while Agostino smirks,
a man who raped
had them killed."
McCullough, in her retelling of Susanna's story, has her appear ungrateful towards Daniel, questioning him as to what he would have done had the two elders stories not conflicted. Her point is that her testimony of what happened was never considered to be enough to prove her innocence. In the same way, Artemisia's account of what happened was also not considered sufficient. It was only accepted after she maintained her testimony was true under the pain of torture.
"...when I cried out
in the courtroom
like a child.
The theme of contrasting perspectives is developed throughout the novel. The word "perspective" has two meanings, for the artist it is a way of portraying depth and distance but it can also mean an attitude or point of view about something. McCullough incorporates both meanings into her story. At first Artemisia mentions single point perspective, "one vanishing point. The place where all lines parallel to the view converge"' This is a foreshadowing of the violent convergence of Artemisia and Signor Tassi's lives.
Although Artemisia knows single point perspective, Signor Tassi is engaged to teach her dual point perspective, something she needs to paint Susanna. Artemisia's paintings of Susanna demonstrate this perspective but there is also another meaning - the dual or two points of view of the events the artwork portrays - that of Susanna and that of the evil Elders intent on raping her.
McCullough contrasts Artemisia's perspective of painting the attempted rape of Susanna with that of men such as her father. Artemisia knows that her father cannot paint Susanna in the same way she can.
"Father's made attempts at Susanna,
just like the other painters - men-
who think they have the right
to tell the story of a woman
But one can't truly tell a story
unless they've lived it in their heart."
His version of Susanna is that of a girl welcoming the attentions of the men who have watched her bathe.
"It doesn't matter.
He never listened
to my mother's stories, never bothered
to notice the fear of women.
He'll tell Susanna
just like all the others."
Like the other masters before him who painted this scene, Artemisia's father cannot comprehend "a woman's feelings in that moment."
Their paintings do not reflect the reality of a woman's experience, the feelings that only a woman can know.
"...The way the masters paint her,
the men are monstrous,
creeping, loathsome beasts,
Yet Susanna wears
a smile that says
she welcomes their attentions."
The masters are perpetuating the myth that a woman who has been raped enjoyed it and indeed may have even encouraged it. Ironically this is exactly the perspective Signor Tassi, a rapist, takes. His "perspective" later on is to question Artemisia, "What was wrong with taking what you offered?"
Blood Water Paint is an interesting blend of poetry and prose, and of storytelling and painting. Fans of historical fiction will find this novel an engaging read while those interested in the social issues surrounding rape, especially from a historical perspective will find McCullough's novel has much to offer. There are many themes, some of which have been touched on here to further explore.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
New York: Dutton Books 2018