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Wadsworth Atheneum Acquires Famous Italian Baroque Masterwork

Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Self-Portrait As A Lute Player' Valued By Christie's At $3M To $5M

By SUSAN DUNNE, sdunne@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

10:21 AM EDT, March 28, 2014

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The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art this week announced the acquisition of an Italian Baroque masterwork by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most famous "Caravaggisti," 17th century followers of Caravaggio.

"Self-Portrait as a Lute Player" was painted between 1616 and 1618, when Gentileschi was about 25 and had just been admitted as the first female member of Accademia del Disegno in Florence.

It was the first artwork purchased with the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art, a $9.6 million kitty that was donated to the museum in December to buy pre-19th century artworks. It also is the first painting created by a woman to enter the Atheneum's collection of Baroque paintings.

"Lute Player" will be exhibited next year, when the Hartford museum re-opens its Morgan Memorial exhibition spaces, which are being refurbished.

The painting was part of Christie's auction on Jan. 29 of Old Master Paintings, even appearing on the cover of the auction catalog. Christie's valued it at $3 million to $5 million. It did not sell at that auction.

Oliver Tostmann, the Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Atheneum, said after that failed auction, Christie's offered to sell the painting to the Atheneum. The offer was made by Nicholas Hall, Christie's co-chairman of Old Master & 19th Century Art.

Tostmann did not reveal the price the Atheneum paid, but said it was "not near" the $3 million base-estimate price.

Tostmann said in and of itself, the painting is valuable in that it helps to understand Gentileschi's career in Florence. "It helps us to place her situation in the artistic context of that city," he said. "... If you look at the coloring, the beautiful blue of her dress, there is certain reference to the very specific culture of Florence."

The painting is important in the context of the Atheneum collection because the museum did not have one of her paintings, but had several of her contemporaries and inspirations, he said.

"We already have a strong Baroque Italian collection. You can look at it right next to her father's painting, and it links beautifully to the Caravaggio. We also have a very important and beautiful painting by one of the leading artists of that time, Cigoli."

According to the Christie's catalog, " 'Self-Portrait as a Lute Player' was likely commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici, as it is recorded in a 1638 inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino. The picture's Florentine origins are also evident in the sumptuousness of the costume, particularly the elaborate gold embroidery and the opulent fabric of the turban and sash. The work, which was lost to notice until its discovery in a private European collection in 1998, has since been exhibited at such renowned institutions as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Galleria degli Uffzi."

It is one of only three self-portraits known to exist of Gentileschi. The other two are allegorical in nature, so "Lute Player" is considered the only true self-portrait of the artist.

Gentileschi (1593-1654) was the daughter of noted painter Orazio Gentileschi, a follower of influential realist painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Artemisia Gentileschi is known for her depictions of bold, suffering and often violent women from the Biblical and mythological stories. For years, Gentileschi's skill as a painter was eclipsed by her accusation of rape against fellow artist Agostino Tassi and the grueling trial that followed, which ended in Tassi's conviction. Her artistic legacy was re-examined after her death and today she is considered a master of the Baroque style.

Gentileschi's struggles against Tassi and her mastery in a male-dominated field caused her to be regarded, in the 20th century, as a feminist icon.