Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi's "Susanna and the Elders" (1610) is among her very first paintings, signed and dated when she was only 17 years old. While the Biblical story of the two old creeps trying to scare a bathing Susanna into sexual favors was a common theme during the Renaissance, Gentileschi's spin on the work is unique.
There's a real sense of intrusion in the work. Other artists of the time took the story as a way to depict a comely young woman, but Gentileschi was interested in the psychological element of the tale. Susanna looks genuinely horrified by the old men invading her privacy. Her body is twisted into an uncomfortable position, not fixed into any sort of eroticized position for the viewer to get horny over. We are meant to identify with her in this situation, not the men.
"Susanna and the Elders" is part of Artemisia, a massive solo show of Gentileschi's work mounted at the National Gallery in London. However, the United Kingdom is only just out of a country-wide lockdown that forced the museum to close its doors for a month. Though the National Gallery is back open, travel restrictions and fear of COVID-19 have kept visitors from packing out the exhibition like in the Before Times.
To circumvent anxieties and travel restrictions, the museum recently unveiled a paid "virtual tour" of Artemisia as a way for viewers to see this important show while also helping stem financial losses as a result of the pandemic. This morning I paid £8—about $10.70—to receive a Vimeo link (which expires after 48 hours) to the "exhibition film" and watched curator Letizia Treves walk me through the giant show at the National Gallery.
The first twenty minutes of the video features a brisk but thoughtful guided tour of Artemisia as Treves points out historical and biographical details of Gentileschi's life—her rape trial, her popularity, her artistic perspective. Hung on richly painted walls of purple and navy, the delicate beauty of Gentileschi's paintings stand out. I wondered what it'd be like to see in person. The last 10 minutes feature closer looks at some of the more well-known artworks, "Susanna and the Elders" included.
Of course, nothing quite compares to experiencing art in person—especially the work of Gentileschi. When her "Judith and Holofernes" painting came through Seattle last year at the Seattle Art Museum, sidling up to the gruesome work felt holy.
I expected to be dissatisfied with the National Gallery's virtual tour, but I actually found the $11 well spent. Watching Treves (virtually) lead me through a historic show felt intimate and informative. If more major museums decide to go the paid virtual tour route as a way to earn money while getting eyeballs on exhibitions, there's no guarantee it'll be popular or make up for the enormous losses faced by every art institution. But the money is worth pretending for just 30 minutes that Gentileschi is within reach.