On a recent afternoon in Florence, room 91 of the Uffizi Gallery, home to a magnificent Caravaggio, was packed with visitors.

But the work they were straining to see wasn’t by the baroque master but one of his contemporaries, an artist whose life story is strikingly reminiscent of the #MeToo movement. This painter risked all to challenge the man who raped her, and spent the rest of her career unpacking power struggles between the sexes on her canvases.

She is Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656) and, next month, the National Gallery is mounting the first major exhibition of her work in the UK. As has happened with many female artists, Gentileschi’s paintings were ignored and wrongly attributed for centuries. Just last week, a previously misattributed painting believed to be by her was unveiled in London, a city where she once lived and worked.

When the canvas, David and Goliath, was sold at Sotheby’s in 1975, it was believed to be by Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri, a student of Gentileschi’s father, Orazio. “It’s common for women’s work to be wrongly attributed to male artists,” said Palmyre Manivet of Simon Gillespie Studio in London, where the work was restored.

Last week, art scholar Gianni Papi, writing in the Burlington magazine, suggested the painting could be from the collection of King Charles I. Art historian Horace Walpole noted in 1762 that this collection included “several of her [Artemisia Gentileschi’s] works,” and that “her best was David with the head of Goliath”.

The painting, which was found on cleaning to have the signature “Artemisia” on David’s sword, was recatalogued after being put up for sale again in 2018 in Munich. According to Papi, the giveaways included a wealth of rich colours typical of Gentileschi. Simon Gillespie, meanwhile, calls it “a genius piece”, adding that the sleeve and landscape details, and the way that light falls on David’s face, are further indications of its new-found genesis.

The National Gallery exhibition will bring not only Gentileschi’s paintings, but also her story, into sharp focus. Her mother died in childbirth when her only daughter was just 12. Her father, a successful artist and a friend of Caravaggio, was perhaps surprised when he realised that his talents had passed not to his three sons but to his daughter. At the time, women were not allowed to become members of the all-important artistic guilds or the academies, but Artemisia would go on to become the first female member of the Accademia in Florence in 1616.

Nevertheless, Orazio encouraged Artemisia, and being the daughter of an artist meant she could access what most young women could never hope for – training. It meant, too, that she got to know Caravaggio’s work, which would prove pivotal to her output.

But she also met an artist called Agostino Tassi, who worked alongside her father and, when she was 17, raped her. When Tassi refused to marry her, Orazio took him to court.

In the trial that followed, Artemisia, the victim – rather than Tassi, the perpetrator – was tortured to ascertain if she was telling the truth. “It is true. It is true. It is true. It is true,” she cried as they crushed the fingers she needed to continue to wield a paintbrush.

Detail from David and Goliath, showing the artist’s signature.



Detail from David and Goliath: cleaning of the canvas revealed the artist’s signature. Photograph: Courtesy Simon Gillespie Studio

Tassi was found guilty, though not forced to serve his sentence. As the National Gallery’s show will reveal, Gentileschi never forgot the injustice done to her, and to so many women.

The star of the exhibition, according to its curator, Letizia Treves, will be Judith Beheading Holofernes (c1612-1613), the work the crowds were so eager to see in Florence last month. It is based on a biblical story – of a woman who takes revenge on a soldier who had tried to wrong her – that inspired many artists, including Caravaggio. Gentileschi gives it her own interpretation. “She’s imagining, as a woman, what it would take to decapitate a muscular man,” said Treves. “You see the determination and resolve in her face.”

Other works in the show, which will run until 26 July, include a painting of Judith and her maidservant a few minutes after they’ve beheaded Holofernes, which Treves says shows “a spirit of sisterhood, of women in it together”, and a portrait of Mary Magdalene in which her usual penitence is replaced with a look of passionate eroticism.

According to the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones, author of a new book on Gentileschi, she is “Caravaggio’s boldest and most-inspired follower – his artistic heir”. She juggled being a wife, mother and lover with adventurous travels, money troubles and the deaths of most of her children.

Now, in the 21st century, she is fulfilling the prediction she made in a letter written in 1649: “I’ll show you what a woman can do.”

Artemisia Gentileschi by Jonathan Jones is published in the Lives of the Artists series by Laurence King Publishing. The rediscovered David and Goliath will be on show at Simon Gillespie Studio in London at certain times during the National Gallery exhibition, see www.simongillespie.com for details



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