istory has its share of artists whose reputations have declined with time, and one of the most notable examples is Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian who worked in the early Baroque era of the 17th century and was influenced by one of the Great Masters of painting — Caravaggio.
There were other talented, successful artists of that period whose success didn’t last through the centuries, but Gentileschi had a special trait that now stands out. She was female at a time when it was difficult for women to become well-regarded professional artists. And, while she was helped by the fact her father Orazio was himself a painter, she also had to battle prejudice (and rape) to assert her talent. Further, her subjects often were women — the biblical Judith, who beheaded Holofernes, an enemy of the Jewish people, was the subject of one of her finest portraits.
As women have established themselves in the visual arts in recent decades, at a time when feminist history has become an important academic concern, Gentileschi’s reputation has come roaring back. In fact, in 2002 a notable exhibit — pairing her work with her father’s — traveled from Europe to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Louis Art Museum.
Ellen Weissbrod — who brings her new essayist documentary on Gentileschi’s life and contemporary meaning, A Woman Like That, to Cincinnati Art Museum for a 1 p.m. Sunday screening/discussion — originally planned a straightforward film about that traveling museum show. After all, the longtime New York filmmaker had the background — her 1990 Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones received a substantial theatrical release, rare for documentaries at the time.
But neither the Met nor St. Louis allowed her inside to film. The Met said she didn’t have enough releases from owners of the paintings. She got releases for the subsequent St. Louis stop but, she said, was then told that museum prohibits filming. But she went anyway, wearing a hidden camera.
That sets the tone for the personal, non-traditional tone of her film — she’s a character in it as she explores Gentileschi’s impact on people today. It opens with the hidden-camera escapade. That naturally raises the question of whether, as she begins national self-distribution, the St. Louis museum has threatened legal action to stop the film.
“We went to big copyright attorneys who watched the film, saw we had releases for all the paintings and said it was ridiculous (grounds for a lawsuit),” Weissbrod says in a telephone interview. “In the end, all I did was steal a location. As the lawyer said, ‘What are they going to do? What harm could they show?’ ”
Actually, A Woman Like That already has a screening date at the St. Louis museum — a sign that all is forgiven.
Outside the Met and again in St. Louis, Weissbrod interviewed people who had come to see Gentileschi’s paintings.
“It was mostly women I met, and they were passionate about her,” she says. “So a couple years later I called these people up and asked if they’d like to participate in my film. People were game and cooperative.”
Those people became part of the film’s story — as did Weissbrod and her own search. But they don’t supersede the film’s primary subject, about whom Weissbrod traveled to Italy to learn more.
“It was important to me the film is about Artemisia,” she says. “I felt I had to understand the story of women in her paintings to understand her — that she does something unique. I tried to figure that out.”
A WOMAN LIKE THAT screens 1 p.m. Sunday at the Cincinnati Art Museum. $10; $5 for museum members. Advance tickets are available at 513/721-ARTS.