Review

Disobedient — A Novel About Artemisia Gentileschi

Candy Bedworth 8 July 2024 min Read

Artemisia Gentileschi, female Baroque painter extraordinaire! We find ourselves continually revisiting and delving into her work and life. When we discovered that a new novel about this radical Italian painter was set to be published, we knew we had to take a look. Read our review of Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle, published by Pegasus Press in 2023.

As long as I live I will have control over my being.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Elizabeth Fremantle, Disobedient, Pegasus Books, 2023.

Immerse Yourself

Before we start, you do NOT need to know anything about art history to read this novel. It is a world within itself, and jogs along very nicely in terms of plot and narrative flow. Author Elizabeth Fremantle envelops us in the sights, sounds, and smells of 17th-century Rome. This is fiction, but it is based upon the events of the astonishing real-life story of Artemisia Gentileschi. The immense amount of historical research is worn lightly but has a vivid impact.

disobedient Elizabeth Fremantle: Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-1617, National Gallery, London, UK.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-1617, National Gallery, London, UK.

Beauty and Power

At 350 pages this is a lovely chunky book – by the end, you emerge drenched in the beauty of the art, scarred by the trauma experienced by Gentileschi, but also thrilled by her power and self-belief. After reading the book, you may well be stimulated to go on and do your own research about Artemisia Gentileschi, or about other female artists (in both cases, DailyArt Magazine is a perfect place to start!), or even to visit some of her works – we certainly want to get up close and personal with the immense canvases created by this incredible artist.

disobedient Elizabeth Fremantle: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant, 1618-1619, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant, 1618-1619, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.

Obstacles

It may be hard for us to fully understand the extreme limitations placed on female artists for so long. Artemisia Gentileschi, born in 1593, had access to the art world through her father, the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. She was influenced by Caravaggio (known as Merisi in the novel). All women at the time faced huge obstacles to get their work seen, and Artemisia Gentileschi was no different. Not only that, but she was determined to paint from the female perspective, something very new.

disobedient Elizabeth Fremantle: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holfernes, c. 1620, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holfernes, c. 1620, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Misogyny

The focus of this novel is one painting in particular, Judith Slaying Holofernes (shown above). But all of the paintings Gentileschi produced throughout her life represent an art-historical innovation – for the first time, sexual objectification, misogyny, and male predation are depicted from the point of view of the woman. Art historian Mary D Garrard noted that Artemisia Gentileschi was changing the way we saw female experience, she was claiming women’s resistance as a legitimate subject of art.

disobedient Elizabeth Fremantle: Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610-1601, Schloss Weißenstein, Germany.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610-1601, Schloss Weißenstein, Germany.

Childhood

Disobedient takes place in Artemisia Gentileschi’s early years, from childhood to her first marriage at age 19. This is a tumultuous and life-changing period and works beautifully as a stand-alone story. But it is worth remembering that this is not the only story. In fact, Gentileschi moved on from her early trials to become one of the most progressive painters of her generation. She married, had five children, and ran a successful studio. Her life was filled with love – motherhood, passion, and her profession.

My interests lie in women who have found forms of expression through adversity.

Elizabeth Fremantle

Author’s Note, Disobedient, Pegasus Books, New York, 2023.

disobedient Elizabeth Fremantle: Photograph of Elizabeth Fremantle, author of Disobedient. Writer’s website.

Photograph of Elizabeth Fremantle, author of Disobedient. Writer’s website.

Personal and Political

The Artemisia Gentileschi in this novel feels very real – she has youthful vitality, she is headstrong and rebellious, yet loving and passionate. That author Elizabeth Fremantle has herself been a victim of assault, and had felt great shame around the experience, adds another layer to this story. Confronting her own demons whilst researching this book must have been overwhelming at times. But her desire to let women’s voices be heard is a powerful message to us all.

I’ll show you what a woman can do.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Elizabeth Fremantle, Disobedient, Pegasus Books, 2023.

Stories of Courage

You can find Artemisia Gentileschi in novels, films, theater, and opera. The fascination with her life and work is understandable, given the quality of her art. But also given the continued prevalence of violence against women, and the shame heaped onto women’s accounts. Gentileschi communicated a powerful personal vision, woven with her own eloquent story of courage. Like Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe, she put her life into her art. This important Baroque artist will continue to generate interest, and Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle is an excellent addition to the oeuvre, read it!

Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle was published by Pegasus Books, New York, on 27 July 2023. 

disobedient Elizabeth Fremantle: Book cover of Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle, Pegasus Books, 2023. Courtesy of the publisher.

Book cover of Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle, Pegasus Books, 2023. Courtesy of the publisher.

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