“I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi” is a Masterful Graphic Novel

The true life story of a pioneering female painter.
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My earliest memories of seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s incredible paintings were in high school while fooling around and looking in dusty books. But it is later, not too much later in an art appreciation class in college (taught by a female professor) when I began to really pay more attention to her body of work. It is also during that time when a clarity was revealed to me when I saw the power presented in the canvases she’d left behind…from then, Artemisia Gentileschi became an artist in my eyes, a woman who created some of my favorite illustrative examples of depicting female rage in such a powerful and authentic way. Yet, there is not much to read about her in the academic and much less in the comics and graphic novel world, sadly. Then, I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi appears for me.

When I heard Fantagraphics was putting out a graphic novel on the life of this incredible woman who fearlessly strived to make a name for herself in the male dominated world of painting in an era where women had way less rights and positions of power, with a female artist attached—I gladly wanted to read and review it. I walked into reading this with an expectation of getting a much more in-depth feel of who this woman was. I finished reading and left with a much greater understanding of the world she was born into and how she navigated it sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling but living a full and detailed life of knowing who she was and being able to channel it to make a living and make her mark.

[Content warnings for: mention and discussion of sexual assault and torture.]

Beautifully bound in an ornate tome that is more than two hundred and twenty pages, I Know What I am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi is a weighty, also intimidating adventure to come across in book form. It is the debut graphic novel of Gina Siciliano, a creative who has been self-publishing comics for many years and someone who, it is revealed in the preface, feels a sort of kinship with the subject of the book. In it, there comes a bold headline of “Making New Worlds Out of Old Worlds” where the artist lays bare some of her traumas and busy work of balancing the experiences of what happens to an artist with her creative work and how she moves forward.

Of knowing who you are and the determination and will that is imperative to living as an artist that both women, Artemesia and the artist Siciliano appear to both have it. What’s especially important acknowledge is Siciliano’s note of using creative license in storytelling and how everyone, yes, everyone has a bias—so much of Artemesia’s life has holes in it and is lost to time, to history. Which means that there are different retellings and depictions of Artemisia Gentileschi, which is a transparent and honest thing to say and actually a power move that should be done more often, as I’ve seen even in children’s books.

In this narrative, I was so happy, so elated to know that Artemisia wouldn’t just be the lady painter or the rape survivor which is what much of what I’ve read over the years has focused on. In fact, I wasn’t on board to even read a graphic novel about her life until I saw this one with a female artist and writer attached as so much of what I’ve read by male writers, historian, and academics are guilty of doing this. Of course, the trauma created from the rape experienced by young Artemisia changed her, yet it also forever shaped her will to not be in a position of vulnerability again and to work to prevent that. In fact, in addition to influencing her work and how women were depicted in the paintings, she created she also made it a point to surround herself with other female artists of her time. She did so not to just be allies of them but to take part in small, meaningful ways to support them and their works. Just a few of these women include women in positions of power like Christina of Lorraine and Maria Maddelena.

What is done effectively by Siciliano is presenting Artemisia as a multi-layered individual—a shrewd business woman, a social butterfly in the right environments—around like minded artists who cherished the arts and creative work and also her role as a mother. I was especially interested how motherhood would be depicted on page and there’s not much information on the lives of her children, especially since more than half of them and especially not one of her sons did not live to adulthood. Another side of her is the bold yet steadfast artist who subverted stereotypes and opinions—there are some many great examples of this that Siciliano elaborates on: having a friend bring a possible patron and future friend into her studio, having the gentleman praise her painting and then stepping out surprising him that the painter is not a man but her—sealing the deal, winning admiration and playing up expectations of what women were capable of.

Artemisia was not the only woman painter of her time, of her era, of her city yet she capitalized on the novelty of it to gain access to places and to people and then wowed them with her talent. Another superb scene that I loved was the elaboration of a technique done in a particular painting of when she so boldly placed her signature in gold, on a scrap of paper in the background in the painting.There was a sort of arrogance she had to employ in her career that is fascinating to read about—it is a role that is downplayed later in life, in the ever-changing climate of political affairs, with riots and plagues about, when she softens her work, makes female subjects less threatening, more submissive in a sense, to please her patrons as work was hard to come by and she had a mission to provide for her household, continually prove herself and make sure her two daughters, her surviving children, had dowries and connections to good families for marriages; a must for a woman to surviving those times.

Readers will get a good eye of the violence Artemisia had to face and endure, not just as a young woman but even to her last days. While the case brought to court against her rapist, Agostino Tassi, also a painter, surprisingly did end with him being found guilty, he was simply banished from Rome, and this did not hurt his fledgling painting career that would span decades despite his well-documented dishonest nature by way of multiple dealings with the law. The book really details just how vulnerable she was at home in her father’s studio as his assistant, unprotected from the advances and threats of her father’s associates and business partners and how isolated of the world she was. At seventeen, she was unmarried, already an old maid in the eyes of society and could not read or write much as there wasn’t an emphasis to educate girl children.

Her social outings were few and far between as she always had to be chaperoned, and she was usually in the company of or followed by men who wanted to possess her but were also associates or involved with her father. All she knew was painting, and while it did seem to be a lonely existence at first, she threw herself into it and it served to save her. Especially since the trial against her rapist was a grueling eight months, with false witnesses paid to speak against her to discredit her as a loose woman which could have killed her case. She was even tortured with a device known as a sibille, when she testified—on her fingers—which she used for her live hood and her craft.

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This is especially an eye-opening portion of the book as we know with the #MeToo movement of today, more and more women have found solidarity in speaking up against their abusers—here hundreds of years before this movement, a woman stood up against her abuser, someone who worked in the same industry with not even half of the same rights and protections some women have today. Whew. The detailing of the trial and Artemisia’s resilience is hard to read through, especially when I thought of how the dismal numbers of sexual assault victims who don’t report their abusers and also the shameful numbers of perpetrators that actually get convicted. The book also entails the sort of violence she experienced later and throughout her career: professional jealousy and the simpleminded sexism of her day that attempted on more than one occasion to deseat her from the places she worked hard to be.

As stated previously, this book is a weighty one, over 270-pages, the graphic novel content actually ends around 226-pages leaving the rest of the pages for the readers with a generous reference section that covers all three parts of the book along with additional illustrations. For the academics and scholarly minded readers, there is also a bibliography that blessedly spans over a handful of pages. It is a treasure in itself for those who want to read more, explore more text, and dive in even more.

When it comes to the artwork, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never heard of the artist Gina Siciliano until now. While I was hoping for colored illustrations, having the pages of art without color, in black and white, to devour isn’t disappointing when glancing upon the more detailed pages. Credit where it is due to Siciliano for the painstakingly re-creations of artwork not just including Artemisia’s but her father’s and other artists of the day including Caravaggio. (And so many are labeled for inquiring minds such as myself to leave a bookmark on the page and look up online or in a book). The attention to the history and context to such paintings such as Artemisia’s takes on “Susanna and the Elders,” “Judith and Holofernes,” and “Judith and Her Maidservant” and their different versions is a selling point for anyone who picks up this book and is artfully done.

Siciliano’s art style may not be my favorite as some sequences throughout the book could have used more polish, yet I can’t lie and say she doesn’t flesh out emotion well—because she does and it shows in even the smallest of panels. I especially liked the “splash pages” for introducing characters that would impact Artemisia’s life as they are beautifully detailed and serve as good breaks between long sections when reading. Siciliano’s art style does seem on brand though: it completes the look of the binding of the book, almost slipping into the time period where Artemesia lived playing up the ‘Making New Worlds Out of Old Worlds’ theme in the preface also written by the artist.

What certainly would have helped make the book an easier read is a more effective pacing of the book which falls off in the third part nearing the end. While nessesary, Artemisia herself gets lost in the shuffle and it takes a moment to find her again when I was reading. While I don’t suggest reading this one all in one go; devouring it in several sittings would be more appropriate. It will also help readers digest the magnitude of historical info that has to continually helps set the scene in each section as Artemisia is getting older and the world is changing and more and more conflicts and persons coming into power is influencing the world of painting and how Artemisia has to adapt in navigating the world not just as a woman but also an artist and many times as the breadwinner of her household as for many years she was a single mother, during a time when most women did very little in or outside the home. Lastly, I was glad to see how the precarious relationship with her father panned out over the years and if I, as a reader would be able to gain some closure from her complicated relationship with him.

Again, I can’t stress how much of a resource this is for history buffs and scholars who also like comics and this very visual form of storytelling. I also cannot stress just how perfect this paring of a female artist putting forth this book about Artemisia Gentileschi’s life, of Gina Siciliano’s dedication to research and diligence to highlight and fill in the blanks of all the roles of this old Master that many gloss over or purposely ignore. Too often when painters are mentioned and taught–Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rubens, Rembrandt — all larger-than-life Renaissance figures celebrated, yet Artemisia Gentileschi — Italy’s greatest female painter is almost never included. I Know What I Am helps paints an enduring, detailed portrait through a feminist lens of Artemisia as a woman to remember: as a pioneer, as a master of her craft, as a mother, a survivor of injustices due to her gender, and an artists whose surviving works are timeless.

8 Take-Your-Daughter-To-Work-Day-And-Have-Her-Mix-Colors-For-Your-Judith Slaying-Holofernes-Painting Out of 10

 

 

 

 

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Thanks to @fantagraphics for sending us Gina Sicilano’s ‘I Know What I Am”, a graphic novel treatment of the life of Artemisia Gentileschi. I first learned about this artist back in an Art Appreciation class back in college and was really fascinated not only with her talent (and range!) but her great examples of feminine rage and how she expressed that in her work. This tome details the life story of a pioneering female painter. • • • The synopsis for this one from the publisher: “Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rubens, Rembrandt — all larger-than-life Renaissance figures celebrated for their mastery of their art. But often overlooked in this pantheon of Old Masters is Artemisia Gentileschi — Italy’s greatest female painter. In her debut graphic novel, Gina Siciliano brings to life the tumultuous 17th-century cities of Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice where the fearless Artemisia braved the male-dominated sphere of painting to become a groundbreaking artist. I Know What I Am paints a complex, feminist portrait of Artemisia as a single mother, a sexual assault survivor, and a pioneering practitioner of her craft.” #artemisiagentileschi #painters #fantagraphics #fantagraphicsbooks #femaleartists #femalepainters #bnplit

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Gina Siciliano graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2007. She is an artist, a bookseller, and the drummer and vocalist for two rock bands. She’s been self-publishing her comics for many years, and I Know What I Am is her first book published by Fantagraphics. She lives in Seattle, WA.

See more of Fantagraphics, publisher of the world’s best Cartoonists here.

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  • Carrie McClain

    Reviewer/Editor

    Carrie McClain is writer, editor, social media maven and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Shuri is her favorite Disney Princess. Nowadays you can usually find her buried under a pile of Josei manga. She/Her

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