(Artemisia Gentileschi)


This stunning image of Lucretia represents the moment immediately before her self-immolation. Many of Artemisia’s biblical Old Testament scenes appear to revel in the depiction of gore and bloodshed, but here she illustrates the moment just before the tragedy. Lucretia represents the epitome of wifely fidelity and chastity and has been as such throughout history. The subject was a favourite from the last quarter of the sixteenth throughout the seventeenth century since it allowed for the portrayal of a greater or lesser degree of nudity or drama and so was a most desirable image for the great collectors of the period combining a morality story spiced with a certain touch of salaciousness.

Livy’s account in Ab Urbe Condita Libri recounts that Tarquin’s seduction was the result of a wager between the sons of Tarquinius and their kinsmen, Brutus and Collantinus. All claimed to have the most faithful and modest wives. When challenged it was decided to go and verify what the women were up to and only Lucretia was found to be at home carding or weaving wool whereas the other wives were all about their festivities. Sextus Tarquin was so struck by her beauty and modesty that he decides to persuade her to sleep with him. Viewing Lucretia as excelling above all the Roman women, both in beauty and in virtue, he decided he would seduce Lucretia. Livy records that Lucretia stated after the rape “My body only has been violated…my heart is innocent: death will be my witness.” Ancient Romans cast Lucretia as the ultimate sacrifice in the face of tyranny. There have been various interpretations of Lucretia’s suicide such that she believed it would liberate her husband and her family from the stigma of their shame or was it an attempt to restore her purity? Perhaps she killed herself not because of shame, but because she believed she will be more powerful in death; her body has been corrupted, but not her will. She chooses to have the final say in her narrative.

In this Lucretia, almost certainly executed in 1627 in Venice close in time to the Metropolitan Museum’s Esther before Ahasuerus and at a time when both Domenico Fetti and Johann Liss were present in the city, Artemisia took particular care with the placement of the dagger. She changed the angle and the precise position three times. The point of the dagger almost rests on the skin but does not perforate it. The composition is an anticipatory act prefiguring the final tragic dramatic finale and so there is no bloodshed. Had Lucretia been painted plunging the weapon into her breast, screaming, the subject matter might have illustrated the gory description of events recounted by Francesco Pona in his 1632 La galleria delle donne celebri but she accentuates the blemish less pallor or the flesh tones with the luxuriant snow white drapery as yet unmarked by bloodshed. He describes the instant thus:

In un perplesso silenzio flette alquanto Lucrezia, quasi gran cosa ruminasse con gli occhi chini. Quindi ripigliati i gridi, e forte quasi Baccante furiosa dal letto, il trarsi da sotto il manto un ferro pungente, lo alzar il braccio, il ferirse crudelmente, fu in un sol punto. Zampillo il sangue in larga vena, e sbruzzò il Marito, e gli affilienti, quale nellafaccia, e quale altrove. E la Donna bellissima, derelitta dal vigore, cadendo supina con debole aggiramento, e con roco gemito, nella bocca di Collatino che la baciava, escluse lo Spirito’.

Artemisia refrains from blood-stained imagery and we might therefore deduce that this Lucretia is solely focused on the heroine’s traditional virtues – chastity and fidelity. But maybe there is a further intended meaning to this representation. The focus, at almost the exact centre of the composition, is the point of the dagger which Lucretia grasps firmly in her right hand preparing for the fatal thrust. By the thrust of the dagger Lucretia not only protects the sanctity of her reputation but with a single stroke she ends the rule of the Tarquins. At the same time this ensures the installation of a republic thereby providing a pictorial image that may have been celebrated in Loredan’s(?) couplet:

‘Ma poi torrà con generoso sdegno
A sé la vita, et à l’amante il Regno’

Despite the brevity of Artemisia’s sojourn in Venice and the scarcity of pictorial evidence, around twenty poems and letters dedicated to her by contemporary Venetian poets have survived. An anonymous 1627 manuscript comprises seven poems dedicated to ‘Artemisia Gentileschi, Roman Painter in Venice’. The poems address four different paintings: two on a self-portrait, one each on a Susanna and a Sleeping Love, and three on a Lucretia. The author has not been identified with certainty, but they are likely by Loredan, who had already written admiring letters to the artist. The first poem simply describes the story of Lucretia in verse, emphasising the turn of fortune that will befall the violent Tarquin and Rome itself:

The violent lover grasps the knife and threatens
unwaveringly the object of his desire with
Death and shame,
She sighs and moans
And fears not death but disgrace
Because he wants to kill, along with her, a lowly
naked slave,
As if the slave were her lover
(so that others will think her guilty).
Alas, in the end it is best that she gives in:
But then, out of righteous anger,
She will take, from herself, her own life, and
from her lover, the kingdom.

The second and third poems turn to Artemisia’s painting, addressing Lucretia herself, devising some rather alarming literary conceits:

Oh, new Marvel!
Truly more than any other, yours is an
unjust fate,
Famous and beautiful woman.
Collatinus praised you:
Tarquin threatened you
Artemisia paints the event and brings it
back to life
Rome had already seen you bathe your
knife in blood,
Now more than the knife, it is her brush
that kills you.
The final poem continues the same theme:
Tell me who has wounded you most
Unfortunate and Chaste Lady,
The husband, the lover, or the painter?
Love, Rage, and Virtue
Equally quarrel over
Your safety, Lady,
And are conspirators to your sorrows:
Praises, threats, and colours.

While the poems are too vague to tell whether ours is the painting that they refer to, they do at least indicate that there was a famous painting of Lucretia by Artemisia in Venice in 1627.

92,9 x 72.7 cm
oil on canvas

Venice, Private collection c. 1627?

Unknown Private Collection, Cannes until c.1980

Gibert Molle, Lyon

Sold Artcurial, Paris, 13th November 2019, lot 36.


Jesse Locker in Artemisia Gentileschi, A Venetian Lucretia, Matthiesen Ltd. London 2020, pp. 36-63.

Cleopatre dans le miroir de l’art occidental, Geneva, Musee Rath, March 25 – August 1, 2004, no.20, pp. 110-112.


Where is It?
Sold by Matthiesen Gallery to J. Paul Getty Museum, California
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Italian - Roman
Price band
Sold or not available