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High School Intern Episode: Artemisia Gentileschi's Esther before Ahasuerus

This special episode about Artemisia Gentileschi's Esther before Ahasuerus, written and performed by The Metropolitan Museum of Art's summer 2009 high school interns, includes commentary by a curator, an educator, and a conservator from the Met.


Jelani Long: This podcast [episode] was created by high school interns at The Metropolitan Museum of Art during the summer of 2009. It is a reflection of our experiences and discoveries in the Museum’s collection during our time at the Met.

Alexander Schwartz: The program you are about to listen to was inspired by the painting Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia Gentileschi. This painting depicts the biblical story of the Jewish Queen Esther in which she pleads to her husband, the Persian King Ahasuerus. The scene in the painting is at the moment Esther appears before Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people of Persia, all of whom had been sentenced to death by the king. Join in an in-depth look at the painting from the perspectives of an educator, conservator, and curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Inés Powell: Do you know the story of Ahasuerus and Esther? Do you?

Maria Kozanecka: On the third day, when she had finished praying, she took off her supplicant’s mourning attire and dressed herself in full splendor.

Jenny Bartov: Radiant as she then appeared, she invoked God, who watches over all people and saves them.

Zoe Weitzman: With her, she took two ladies-in-waiting.

Jelani Long: With a delicate air she leaned on one, while the other accompanied her, carrying her train.

Lily Jen: Rosy with the full flush of her beauty, her face radiated joy and love, but her heart shrank with fear.

Phillip Yao: Having passed through door after door, she found herself in the presence of the king.

Alexander Schwartz: He was sitting on his royal throne, dressed in all his robes of state, glittering with gold and precious stones—a formidable sight.

Katherine Gregory: He looked up, afire with majesty, and, blazing with anger, saw her.

Alec Peterson: The queen sank to the floor.

Katia Azze: As she fainted, the color drained from her face and her head fell against the lady-in-waiting beside her.

Emily Odermatt: But God changed the king's heart, inducing a milder spirit.

Louis Solmonson: He sprang from his throne in alarm and took her in his arms until she recovered, comforting her with soothing words.

Nicole Tutunik: "What is the matter, Esther?" he said. "I am your brother."

Nushrika Islam: "Take heart, you are not going to die; our order applies only to ordinary people."

Audrey Tse: "Come to me." And raising his golden scepter, he laid it on Esther's neck, embraced her and said, "Speak to me."

Alec Peterson: "Speak to me."

Louis Solmonson: "Speak to me."

Jelani Long: "Speak to me."

Alexander Schwartz: "Speak to me."

Jenny Bartov: "Speak to me."

Alexander Schwartz: One of the things that initially drew us to the painting was its large scale and dramatic composition. We asked Inés Powell, an educator who works with the visually impaired audiences at the Met, to help us explore the painting through verbal imaging. 

Inés Powell: So you have two steps and then a platform made out again of a light, probably marble color, and on top of that you have a marvelous throne. And a man—a young, beautifully dressed man—is sitting on that throne.

Alexander Schwartz: Inés continues with a description of the king himself.

Inés Powell: And this person, this king, is dressed. He is such a dandy. I said, well, he is not dressed from the time of the Old Testament. He is dressed as a seventeenth-century—almost like a lord. He has this beautiful hat, white-brimmed hat, with some kind of crown on top of the hat; you just see like these pointy, gold points on top of the hat. And then the most beautiful feather, white feather, kind of curls to one side of his head. So fancy.

Alexander Schwartz: Inés goes on to describe Esther.

Inés Powell: And Esther is trying to stand up. You can see that the blood has kind of drained out of her complexion. And she's so, so pale. And she's really—she's at the moment of collapsing, and you can see that her knees have buckled. So her knees are kind of sticking out of this very fancy dress. She looks really like she has already blacked out.

She has two servants, two maiden servants, and one of them is grabbing her by the waist trying to keep her standing up and she has her head—the servant, the one that is on her left arm—has her face almost against the woman's neck. The other one is holding her by the arm, almost by the wrist.

The dress is gold but the lace is white and the dress has accents in blue. She has a kind of sash that comes from one side of the waist around and that's bright blue and it's beautiful how it catches the light. Because the light comes from one light source, it creates this very strong contrast of dark and light. There is something very interesting about this painting, which people like to observe in this painting. It's a large space, and there is an empty space between the king, who looks at Esther, and Esther, who is fainting towards the left. And it creates a kind of very deep psychological moment. It's a dramatic moment there. Originally we know that Artemisia placed a little boy in the center, and we see the pentimento.

Alexander Schwartz: The pentiment of the kneeling servant boy and the growling dog is what further drew us to this piece. A pentiment, or pentimento, is the visible evidence of an image that was initially drawn or painted in a work, but was then concealed by the artist. We were immediately fascinated and mystified by the ghostly silhouette that can be seen in the middle of the painting. We sat down with conservator Dorothy Mahon to learn about the painting's conservation history and hear an explanation of the pentiment.

Dorothy Mahon: When an artist paints in oil they often will paint something, and then paint it out. And as oil paint ages it becomes more transparent. So that's one of the main reasons why we see pentiments coming through over time. But sometimes these pentiments are revealed to a greater degree from the kind of wear that happens, the rubbing of the surface during earlier cleaning, so this is why we see this dog to degree that we do.

In the mid-eighties all of the former restoration and the discolored varnish was removed and that's when the pentiment of the dog became more apparent. We can see it in the X-ray and we know it's there, but it's not uncommon in paintings that have been cleaned multiple times. Partly from the cleanings and what we would call wear on the surface, and partly because of natural changes that occur as the paint ages.

One of the reasons we study pictures and look at these changes is because the scholars who are investigating the artist's chronology and the artist's body of work wants to understand the mind behind why this all took place.

Alexander Schwartz: To complete our journey for information, we spoke to Andrea Bayer, a curator and educator in the European Paintings department. She gave us a scholarly perspective on the Gentileschi.

Andrea Bayer: This painting is particularly interesting, Esther before Ahasuerus. It was probably painted around 1630 right at the time that Artemisia was ending three years or so of living in Venice, where she was very much admired, and about to move to Naples—so either while she was still in Venice or right after she had moved to Naples. And this is important because this composition very much picks up on Venetian styles and Venetian compositions, in particular, the work by the great sixteenth-century artist Paolo Veronese that she would have studied in Venice. The interesting pentiment in this composition of a young male page at the center of the composition, whose ghostly outlines we can just see, would almost certainly have been inspired by something that she had seen in a Veronese picture. His long, horizontal compositions, deep compositions on this very subject, often included secondary characters, and Veronese was known for stuffing his pictures with all sorts of other kinds of figures who are witnessing the events but aren't actually participants in the events. People even complained about this at a certain point in Veronese's own career.

It seems that Artemisia has included such a figure in her work and then removed him by painting over him. We don't know why she did that, but my guess would be that she wanted to really focus people's attention on the protagonists of the drama, not have them lose sight of what's going on in the subject by being distracted by these other figures. And also maybe from a compositional point of view, she liked the sense of the centrifugal force that's at work here in which the center is empty and all of the energy is directed towards the edge of the pictures.

Alexander Schwartz: We showed our fellow interns the painting and some found it hard to see the pentiment at all. Scratching our heads, we went to Dorothy, who once again shed light on the subject.

Dorothy Mahon: If you look at the painting in a really strong light in the gallery where the painting hangs, if you visit it periodically on a bright, sunlit day, as I recall mostly in the morning in the summertime, the light comes very strongly in that gallery, which is good, because you can see more into the picture when the light is bright. That's one of the nice things about our naturally lit European paintings galleries. You have some time of the day when the light is softer and pictures change and you see different things in paintings. Sometimes a softer light is nicer and sometimes a stronger light shows you other things in a picture. In any event, this pentiment you can see more clearly—most clearly—when it's very bright. And I think you can see it in the photograph after cleaning—it's a black-and-white photograph shrunk down—but you can see it as a dark shadow, the profile of that figure. The reason I'm going into all that is that both the page and the dog were fully painted, you know, completely finished. We can see that they were fully finished before they were painted out. Sometimes painters don’t completely finish things before they paint them out, but in these cases they were.

Alexander Schwartz: Andrea weighed in on why Gentileschi might have changed the composition of her work.

Andrea Bayer: In other words, she saw exactly how they looked—the way they would look—when the picture was finished. It wasn't just that she had drawn them in and thought, "Maybe I have too much going on here." She really could see what it was going to do to her picture to have the boy and the dog there, and it was at that point that she decided, for whatever reason she did decide it, that the picture would be more effective without them. And this does happen quite a lot, actually, that figures are entirely painted up, or seem to have been entirely painted up, and then painted out because the artist has decided that they would be detrimental to the final appearance of the painting.

Alexander Schwartz: What had started out as a little curiosity developed into a journey for information. We initially didn't understand the pentiment, but as high school interns we were lucky enough to speak with Inés, Dorothy, and Andrea to find out more about the work. Each gave us different insights, which together allowed us to reach new and unexpected heights in our understanding of the painting.

This podcast [episode] was produced by Alexander Schwartz and Jelani Long. Readings by summer high school interns 2009. Special thanks to Rae Cohen, Sofie Andersen, Mara Gerstein, Andrea Bayer, Dorothy Mahon, Inés Powell, Terry Russo, and Aimee Dixon.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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