by Joy McCullough
Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father's paint.
She chose paint.
By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome's most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.
Artemisia Gentileschi is my favourite artist, and the moment I discovered Blood Water Paint existed I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. This is one of those instances where I hoped a book would be wonderful and my hopes were fulfilled. This is the best book I've read so far this year.
Told in verse, something I didn't realise until the book arrived but loved once I started reading, Blood Water Paint follows Artemisia through what must have been the most difficult part of what must have already been a difficult life for a woman in the 17th century. The daughter of a painter, Artemisia showed far more talent for art than her brothers and was taught to paint by her father after her mother's death. Later, her father would hire fellow painter Agostino Tassi to tutor Artemisia privately. Tassi took advantage of his position and raped her and, remarkably for her time, Artemisia pressed charges against him.
For a long time Artemisia has been remembered as nothing more than the victim of sexual violence despite her amazing paintings, and now Joy McCullough has done her bit to restore Artemisia's voice. Her poetry is interspersed with sections of prose told as though Artemisia's mother, Prudentia, is telling her stories the way she did when Artemisia was a girl. While her father has allowed her to paint, in the novel it's Artemisia's mother who inspired the brutal, real ways she chooses to portray the biblical women she paints, and as the story progresses these women themselves step out of the paintings to offer Artemisia comfort and strength during her literal and metaphorical trials.
I sat down and read this in one sitting, it flows beautifully and I couldn't put it down. McCullough not only presents Artemisia as both groundbreaking artist and ordinary girl, but also considers Artemisia's unique take on the biblical stories that were so commonly painted during the Italian Renaissance. Unlike the many male artists who portray women the way they like to imagine them, Artemisia paints women as they are and even takes inspiration from the way her own body moves and the horrific events she experiences.
I don't think I can put into words how much this story is still relevant, how much we seem to prefer to believe that the men we know are incapable of causing people harm rather than listening and believing the women they have harmed. It's heartbreaking that, 400 years on, so many of the struggles Artemisia faced are still faced by women now, but this book is beautiful and raw and empowering and you should read it immediately.