Each time I stand before this painting I am impressed by the clever way the artist—the most famous female painter of the seventeenth century—has infused a well-known biblical story with her understanding of a gendered society in which women employed beauty and cleverness to gain the upper hand. On the left, there is the sumptuously dressed Jewish beauty Esther, shown in a swoon, supported by her two maidservants. On the right, the almost comically dandyish king of the Persians, Ahasuerus (actually Xerxes I, who reigned from 486 to 465 b.c.). Just look at his extended leg, showing off a white silk stocking and high-stepping boots! A crown is not enough for this monarch; he also has a broad hat with plumes. And then there is the empty space between the two. Artemisia struggled with the composition: if you look closely at this painting in the galleries you’ll see that she painted the checkerboard pavement over a young black servant boy restraining a growling dog. With time, the paint has become more transparent and—in person, not online—you can make out the figures below. I’ve always wondered whether she was right to suppress the boy and his dog. I guess in the end she found it a distraction: too arresting a detail to be put dead center. And she needed that space—a moment of silence, during which we hold our breath—to underscore the great risk Esther had taken by appearing before the king without being summoned—an infraction punishable by death. The Bible describes the scene succinctly. Too succinctly. Artemisia, like most seventeenth-century painters, referred to the Greek version that was approved by the Council of Trent in 1546:
On the third day, when she had finished praying, she took off her supplicant’s mourning attire and dressed herself in her full splendor. . . . With her, she took her two ladies-in-waiting. . . . Having passed through door after door, she found herself in the presence of the king. He was sitting on his royal throne, dressed in all his robes of state, glittering with gold and precious stones—a formidable sight. . . . . The queen sank to the floor. As she fainted the color drained from her face and her head fell against the lady-in-waiting beside her. But God changed the king’s heart. . . . He sprang from his throne in alarm and took her in his arms until she recovered.
Having gained both his pardon and his favor, Esther launched her plan to bring about the downfall of the grand-vizier Haman, who was trying to exterminate the Jews. In a great dramatic turnaround, Haman's life was ended on the very gallows he had built to execute Esther’s kinsman, Mordecai!
In the Renaissance this story frequently decorated marriage chests, Esther being deemed the ideal role model for a brave wife. Artemisia makes Esther more than a paper-doll role model: she gives us a believable woman, full of dignity, boldly risking all as she faces the young, capricious king. And to make the story even more compelling, she dispenses with any attempt at historical dress and puts them in contemporary costume.
Artemisia Gentileschi is often seen as a proto-feminist artist, having been raped at the age of seventeen by an artist-partner of her father Orazio Gentileschi (a major painter who was among the earliest and most original followers of Caravaggio; he trained his daughter). But the real story of Artemisia is much more interesting: that of a talented artist who taught herself to read and write and eventually became the darling of literary academies in Venice and Naples, where she painted this marvelous picture sometime around 1630.
Keith Christiansen is chairman of the Department of European Paintings.