A brushstroke of magic

A brushstroke of magic

The alt-history novel “A Portrait in Shadow” offers a new interpretation of Artemisia Gentileschi

Earlier this spring, Madison's Forward Theater debuted “Artemisia,” a take on the tale of the 17th-century Italian Baroque painter. Madison Commons' Kelly Holm looks at a new novel that offers a different version of the story of Artemisia.

The marriage of visual art with sinister magic is a classic theme explored in many works of fiction, such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

And with the release of Nicole Jarvis’s sophomore novel “A Portrait in Shadow,” it is a part of the mythology surrounding 17th-century Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi as well. 

The first woman granted membership in Florence’s academy of artists, Artemisia’s work and story have recently enjoyed a feminist revival. particularly in the age of #MeToo, as she rose to prominence in the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault and subsequent trial of her assailant.

Numerous works of historical fiction have offered interpretations of her legacy, and locally, the Forward Theater’s world-premiere run of Lauren Gunderson’s play “Artemisia” covered four decades of her life in a kind of biography with modern script and period setting. 

Unlike the play and other novels such as Joy McCullough’s “Blood Water Paint” and Susan Vreeland’s “The Passion of Artemisia,” however, “A Portrait of Shadow” reaches beyond the historical record to unveil a Florence where the art scene — and, by extension, the political and religious institutions of Europe — is grounded in both healing and necrotic magic. 

In  the fantastical world of this telling of Artemisia’s story, the Black Death was unleashed by a weaver’s vengeful curse, ushering in a “Grave Age” where artists were persecuted as enemies of the Roman Catholic Church. Donatello and da Vinci have been canonized as saints for their work in restoring art’s reputation as a force for good. Popes live to be well over 100 due to the healing magics woven into the art they commission, and griffins and blood drakes brave the Tuscan skies. As with all alternate histories, powerful metaphorical commentary permeates these liberties with the record — the shortening of artists’ lifespans as their magic benefits wealthy patrons is one theme that practically beats the reader over the head. 

Artemisia’s own story was altered for the sake of the plot. Set in her young adulthood after the trial of her rapist Agostino Tassi, the story centers around a quixotic quest for revenge in which she plots Tassi’s demise through the creation of an illegal necrotic painting. Timelines are shifted as events in her personal and professional life are condensed into a period of about two years, and others — like her arranged marriage of convenience after the trial — are omitted entirely. 

The deletion of Artemisia’s husband Pierantonio Stiattesi is one curious commonality between “Portrait” and Gunderson’s play. In the book, he simply does not exist; in the play, he never appears onstage even as the characters (including Artemisia’s lover Francesco Maringhi, also a central figure in “Portrait”) reference him. Perhaps he is an inevitable casualty of the adaptation of historical stories for a modern audience— an arranged marriage seems, after all, to be a blemish on Artemisia’s veneration as a #girlboss triumph. 

Artemisia’s family life, a key topic in Gunderson’s play, is also largely absent from “Portrait.” At the story’s conclusion, she’s set to wed Francesco and there’s no mention of four children that will die in infancy, presumably due to not only the time condensation but also the obligation to offer a happy ending. 

Though Artemisia’s story arc might be sanitized from a historical perspective in Portrait, the spinning of fact into legend cements her legacy in a whole new way: as a mythic figure. Those who love historical fantasy, ancient mythology retellings and V.E. Schwab’s “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” will be captivated by “A Portrait in Shadow.”

Learn more about the book and author Nicole Jarvis at www.nicolejarvisbooks.com/.

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