The Passion of Artemisia
by Susan Vreeland


Viking, NYC, 2002. ISBN 0670894494.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 09/17/2002

Fiction: Literary

Susan Vreeland does it again. I reviewed her Girl in Hyacinth Blue for the SCN Book Review site not too long ago. This continues the theme of paintings and painters, but with a totally different approach. In this biographical novel, Vreeland uses the known history of artist Artemisia Gentileschi [1593-1653] and weaves imaginary events and conversations into a rich tapestry.

Interestingly enough, I had just finished reading an article about her in the Smithsonian Magazine, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently featured an exhibit of the work of both her father, Orazio Gentileschi and Artemisia. It was a bonus for me to be able to look at pictures of her dramatic paintings as I read this gripping book.

What a woman! Think Isadora Duncan, Virginia Wolfe. Think strong, bohemian, "no, I will not stay home and tend the children." Vreeland portrays a strong, driven woman who does indeed marry and have a child, but these are markers along the way. Artemisia speaks to her daughter, "At some times in our lives, our passion makes us perpetrators of hurt and loss. At other times we are the ones who are hurt, all in the name of art. Sometimes we get what we want. Sometimes we pay another to get what he or she wants." Throughout her life, she is plagued by innuendo and rumor. Very few other women at that time lived and worked alone for most of their lives.

Yet, Vreeland is also successful at portraying Artemisia's tender, introspective side... "I fell asleep thinking of the incomprehensible, baffling order of the universe that kept planets in their courses, birds in flight, and towers from tumbling down. In this universe where I knew now we were not the center, where I was as insignificant and unremarkable as a grain of salt seen from a tower, God still allowed me to take my next breath." This is a reference to her [known] friendship with Galileo.

Vreeland illustrates time and time again the intelligence which Artemisia must have had. Spend a few hours being swept into the 17th century. Learn something and thoroughly enjoy yourself.

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