The Passion of Artemisia
Susan Vreeland, 2002
Penguin Group USA
Set against the lush tapestry of Renaissance Rome, this is a mesmerizing tale of love, art, and most notably, the love of art. After Artemisia Gentileschi, a promising young painter, is raped by her instructor, a papal court orders her torture and her father betrays her. Shamed but not vanquished, she asks her harsh parent to arrange her marriage to another painter and, thus vindicated in the eyes of society and the church, she begins a new life. But not a happy one.
Artemisia's visceral passion to create art—specifically, to depict on canvas the kind of strong heroine she herself has become—threatens to overwhelm her roles as wife and daughter. Her struggle to reconcile her conflicting passions lies at the heart of Artemisia's story, ingeniously crafted by Susan Vreeland, whose gift of language is matched by her uncanny ability to evoke a distant time and place.
Vreeland's previous novel, the best-selling Girl in Hyacinth Blue, dazzled the critics and was voted a Book Sense Book of the Year finalist. Once again bringing the visual arts to vivid life, The Passion of Artemisia is a glowing, subtly delineated portrait of a remarkable woman—the first to make a significant contribution to art history. (From the publisher.)
• Education—San Diego State University
• Awards—Inkwell Grand Prize, Fiction, 1999; San Diego Book
Awards' Theodore Geisel Award and Best Novel of the Year,
• Currently—lives in San Diego, California, USA
Susan Vreeland's short fiction has appeared in journals such as The New England Review, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx, Manoa, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her first novel, What Love Sees, was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. Ms. Vreeland is the recipient of several awards, including a Women's National Book Association First Place Award in Short Fiction (1991) and a First Place in Short Fiction from New Voices (1993). Inkwell Magazine for her short story, "Gifts". She teaches English literature, creative writing, and art in San Diego public schools, where she has taught since 1969. (From the publisher.)
"When I was nine, my great-grandfather, a landscape painter, taught me to mix colors," Susan Vreeland recalls in an interview on her publisher's web site. "With his strong hand surrounding my small one, he guided the brush until a calla lily appeared as if by magic on a page of textured watercolor paper. How many girls throughout history would have longed to be taught that, but had to do washing and mending instead?"
As a grown woman, Vreeland found her own magical way of translating her vision of the world into art. While teaching high school English in the 1980s, she began to write, publishing magazine articles, short stories, and her first novel, What Love Sees. In 1996, Vreeland was diagnosed with lymphoma, which forced her to take time off from teaching—time she spent undergoing medical treatment and writing stories about a fictional Vermeer painting.
Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal," she later wrote. In Vreeland's case, her goal "was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and know that in my last months I was happy—because I was creating."
Vreeland recovered from her illness and wove her stories into a novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The book was a national bestseller, praised by the New York Times as "intelligent, searching and unusual" and by Kirkus Reviews as "extraordinarily skilled historical fiction: deft, perceptive, full of learning, deeply moving." Its interrelated stories move backward in time, creating what Marion Lignana Rosenberg in Salon called "a kind of Chinese box unfolding from the contemporary hiding-place of a painting attributed to Vermeer all the way back to the moment the work was conceived."
Vreeland's next novel, The Passion of Artemisia, was based on the life of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, often regarded as the first woman to hold a significant place in the history of European art. "Forthright and imaginative, Vreeland's deft recreation ably showcases art and life," noted Publishers Weekly.
Love for the visual arts, especially painting, continues to fire Vreeland's literary imagination. Her new novel, The Forest Lover, is a fictional exploration of the life of the 20th-century Canadian artist Emily Carr. She has also written a series of art-related short stories. For Vreeland, art provides inspiration for living as well as for literature. As she put it in an autobiographical essay, "I hope that by writing art-related fiction, I might bring readers who may not recognize the enriching and uplifting power of art to the realization that it can serve them as it has so richly served me."
• Two other novels relating to Vermeer were published within a year of Girl in Hyacinth Blue: The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.
• Vreeland lives in San Diego with her husband, a software engineer. She taught high school English and ceramics for 30 years before retiring to become a full-time writer. ("More" and "Extras" from Barnes & Noble.)
• Her own words:
Artemisia Gentileschi burst upon the post-Renaissance art scene with all the drama of an Italian opera. When I learned that she was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence, producing paintings of startling invention which expressed a feminist sensibility, and the first woman to make her living solely by her brush, and furthermore, that she was raped at seventeen by her father's friend, her teacher, I knew I'd found material for a novel.
Rather than focusing on the rape or using a broad brush to paint a sweeping biography, I chose to explore the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life, and the connecting tissue of beauty, art, spirituality, and wholeness.
Such a focused work of fiction about an historical person must be a work of the imagination, true to the time and character always, but true to facts only so long as fact furnishes believable drama. To suit my purposes, I combined actual people into composite characters, eliminated others, and invented still others. Though I used the trial record, her paintings, and her associations with Galileo, Cosimo de' Medici II, and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger as recorded in art histories, I imagined the personalities and interactions of Artemisia, her father and her husband, and devised dramatic moments that would propel a plot.
This is the process by which an historic figure moves from yellowed archives to scholarship, and from academic interest to heroic popular legend, becoming more complex and beloved as a result. With The Passion of Artemisia, I wanted to participate in giving Artemisia her cultural moment. ("In her own words" from an out-of-print edition.)
Susan Vreeland's novel is about Artemisia Gentileschi, who—along with her father is the subject of a current show at the Metropolitan Museum. But in depicting Artemisia's life, Vreeland announces in a prefatory note that she has been true to the record ''only so long as fact furnishes believable drama,'' and that she seeks to portray her subject ''in a way meaningful to us.'' Alas, Vreeland fails on both counts.... Vreeland seems to think she can make all this ''meaningful'' by imbuing it with a dated 1970's-style feminism.... See the [2002 museum] show; skip the novel.
Julie Gray - New York Times
Vreeland follows up the success of Girl in Hyacinth Blue with another novel delving into the themes of art, history and the lives of women. Narrated in the wise, candid first-person voice of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), the novel tells the story of Gentileschi's life and career in Renaissance Italy. Publicly humiliated and scorned in Rome after her participation as defendant in a rape trial in which the accused is her painting teacher (and father's friend) Agostino Tassi, Artemisia accepts a hastily arranged marriage at the age of 18 to Pietro Stiatessi, an artist in Florence. Her marriage, while not a love match, proves at first to be affectionate, and the arrival of a daughter, Palmira, strengthens the bond with her husband. But rifts soon develop as Artemisia begins to have some success: she wins the patronage of the Medicis and is the first woman to be elected to the Accademia dell'Arte before her husband. Studio and home become the battlefields of Artemisia's life, and Vreeland chronicles 20 years of the painter's struggles while raising her daughter alone. Details and visuals abound in the book; readers who loved the painterly descriptions of Girl will be spellbound in particular by the scenes in which Artemisia is shown at work. While some threads in the story are frustratingly dropped and the narrative concludes before the end of Artemisia's life, the underlying themes of familial and artistic reconciliation are satisfyingly developed. Forthright and imaginative, Vreeland's deft recreation ably showcases art and life.
Following her best-selling Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Vreeland tells of Artemisia Gentileschi, a 16th-century painter and the first woman admitted to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence. The book begins with Artemisia's public humiliation in a papal court after she accuses her father's friend and her painting teacher, Agostino Tassi, of rape. Her father, Orazio, to make up for his lack of support during the trial, arranges for her to marry Pietro Stiatessi, a painter from Florence. Happy at first, the couple have a daughter, but as Artemisia's painting gains recognition and eclipses that of her husband's, the marriage falters. Forced to support herself and her daughter, Artemisia travels to Genoa, Rome, and Naples to find work and advance her career, maintaining her steadfast devotion to art while trying to be a good mother. Vreeland skillfully captures the detail of the paintings and of Artemisia's joy in creating beauty. Few writers can convey the visual arts as vividly. —Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo.
Vreeland's popular novel The Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999) traced a Vermeer painting through its various owners, and her follow-up is also a moving celebration of the power of art.... The Passion of Artemisia offers a vivid portrait of a complex female artist who doggedly pursues her passion despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles. This accomplished novel should appeal particularly to those who enjoyed the author's previous book. —Kristine Huntley
After her brilliant Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), Vreeland shows a deep knowledge of art once more but also veers toward message and melodrama.
1. Sometimes, it's too easy to assume that in centuries past, women were victims of gender prejudice and limitations. What negative events in Artemisia's experience were caused by her own thinking and actions? What better decisions could she have made? What advantages did Artemisia have as a woman?
2. Orazio is seen by Artemisia as the cause of her misfortunes. To what degree is this a fair assessment? How did the attitudes and strictures of the time influence him? Limit his alternatives? Blind him?
3. When Sister Graziela gives Artemisia the pearl earring, she also gives her some advice. How did she follow and not follow this advice? When it's her turn to give advice to Palmira, she reduces it to one line. Why did she make that choice?
4. In what ways did Galileo influence Artemisia? She said to him, "Even stone bears the footprints of many men." How does this apply to women and to her in particular?
5. To what extent was Graziela in control of her own fate? In what ways does the term "passion" apply to Graziela, Orazio, Galileo, and Artemisia? How is Michelangelo's Pieta echoed by the characters?
6. Artemisia told Palmira, "To be a painter, you've got to care for people, for their feelings." Why did she believe this? Is it true for all art in all time periods? In her time period?
7. How has Artemisia influenced the minor female characters—Umiliana, Fina, Vanna, Renata, Paola? What has she learned from them? How are they representatives of the time, or exceptions to the social mores?
8. Through what stages must Artemisia grow if she is to reconcile with her father? What experiences move her in that direction, or away from that direction? Did they love each other?
9. Artemisia asked her father, "Haven't you ever felt like shouting, 'Look. Look and let this beauty transform your heart'?" Has this happened to her? What beauties?
10. Of all her paintings, which one(s) was she most passionate about? Which one(s) do you favor? Hypothetically, if Artemisia, the woman with the same history, lived in the nineteenth century, what do you think she'd be painting? What would her style(s) be like? If she could have seen the scope of art history after her as well as before, which artists would she have admired and why? Which ones do you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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