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Judith & Susanna & Artemisia

Cover of Blood Water Paint
A review of Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

This fictionalized biography of Artemisia Gentileschi is as beautiful, powerful, and haunting as the paintings its subject produced. Gentileschi is best known as a celebrated Italian Baroque painter, and for insisting on trying her rapist in a court of law-- two things that were near unheard of for women of her time. 

Artemisia's story is told in gorgeous, painterly verse, and I'll tell you, it's quite a story. Working as her father's assistant Artemisia learned to mix paints, stretch canvas, and eventually paint herself-- taking over commissions her father could not finish. Aching to be seen for her blossoming talent, Artemisia is swept away by a charming friend of her father's who makes lovely promises, and when those promises turn out to be false, he takes what he wants in a brutal assault. The ensuing trial is surprising, frustrating, and pulled from hundreds of pages of actual court documents that still exist.

Throughout the narrative Artemisia recalls stories her mother had told her of two strong biblical women-- Judith and Susanna. At first the stories help her cope with the restlessness and frustration of being stuck in assigned roles in a man's world, but after the rape their specific stories, and the women themselves, become a presence and source of strength in her life, and eventually her most popular subjects to paint. 

Fascinating, moving, maddening, with a touch of magical realism, this is a perfect mid-winter read. 

January 9, 2019