Q&A about Artemisia Gentileschi, the protagonist of McCullough’s novel-in-verse

We notice an exciting trend in fiction publishing over the course of the past year: women artists, whose paintings still exist today, are protagonists in several works historical fiction. This post is the first installment of what will become an occasional feature on the Art Herstory blog. Check this space regularly for interviews with authors of books, whether fiction or non-fiction, about female artists from past centuries.

Blood Water Paint is a fictional exploration of real events from the life of seventeenth-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. According to Natasha Tripathi in her New Yorker review of the book, “[I]t teems with raw emotion, and McCullough deftly captures the experience of learning to behave in a male-driven society and then breaking outside of it.”

Below, author Joy McCullough discusses aspects of working with this female Old Master as a character in her debut novel.

Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough
PenguinRandomHouse, 2018
A William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist
2018 National Book Award Longlist
How did it happen that Artemisia Gentileschi become the protagonist of your novel?

I discovered Artemisia many moons ago as a passing reference in a Margaret Atwood novel. I’d never heard of her, so I went searching. When I learned about Artemisia Gentileschi’s story, I was outraged I hadn’t heard of her before. The transcripts from her rapist’s trial still exist, and I read those with horror over how much hasn’t changed in how we treat women and sexual violence. I wrote the story as a play first, which had a long development process, but when the play was produced in 2015, I started thinking about its potential as a novel.

What resources did you rely on for information about the historical figure of Artemisia Gentileschi? And/or about the experience of being a woman painter in the period?

I started my research on Artemisia in 2001, when there wasn’t quite as much information as there is now. I happened upon the excellent book Artemisia Gentileschi by Mary D. Garrard, which includes the art historical context for her work, but also the transcripts from her rapist’s trial, which offered a lot of insight not only into that case, but also into her day-to-day life. That was my primary source. Beyond that, it’s been such a long, drawn-out research process that I can’t be more specific, but many books on painting, and the Roman art world at the time, and women artists throughout history have contributed.

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero
in Italian Baroque Art, by Mary D. Garrard
Princeton University Press, 1991
What is your favorite painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, and why?

Artemisia’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting is my favorite. Painters of Artemisia’s time followed a text called Iconologia by Cesare Ripa, which prescribed specific symbolism for painting the muses, the virtues, the arts—these were referred to as allegories. All of these figures were women, and for example, the allegory of painting was supposed to have unruly hair, a color-shifting dress, a pendant of a mask on a gold chain, etc. So many painters painted their version of the allegory of painting, putting their own spin on these requirements.

But since all of these allegorical figures were women, Artemisia could do something incredible—identify herself with the art form in a way no man ever could. In painting her self-portrait as the allegory of painting, Artemisia essentially proclaimed, “I am painting.” And not only that: she very intentionally left out one required element from her allegory of painting. Traditionally, it also should include a gag over the mouth. But Artemisia was speaking loudly through her art and would not be silenced.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1638-9,
by Artemisia Gentileschi. The Royal Collection Trust
Post-publication, has there been any interesting intersection between the book world and the art world? For example, do you find that your book is for sale in art museum shops, and/or are you invited to speak at art events?

Yes! I have sadly never been to Italy, but I was so overwhelmed when a friend went to Florence and discovered that my book is for sale in the gift shop at the Uffizi! I have also heard that it is at the National Gallery in DC. And I don’t know if it’s at the National Gallery in London, but I was interviewed for an article in The Economist, which coincided with London’s acquisition of her Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, which has brought renewed interest to her work. I hope I am in other museum shops, though I only know when someone lets me know on social media. 

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1615–17,
by Artemisia Gentileschi.
The National Gallery (London)

Joy McCullough’s debut young adult novel Blood Water Paint earned honors such as the National Book Award longlist, finalist for the ALA Morris Award, a Publishers Weekly Flying Start and four starred reviews. Her debut middle grade novel, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is forthcoming in 2020.

She writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate.

More Art Herstory blog posts:

Renaissance Women Painting Themselves (Guest Post by Dr. Katherine A. McIver)

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750): A Birthday Post

A Dozen Great Women Artists, Renaissance and Baroque

Why Do Old Mistresses Matter Today? (Guest Post by Dr. Merry Wiesner-Hanks)

Michelangelo’s Sisters: (Re)Introducing Female Old Masters