In 1611, Artemisia Gentileschi was a teenage Italian Baroque painter, training under her father in Rome, and beginning to come into her own as an artist. At 17, she was raped by her painting tutor Agostino Tassi. She testified against him in court, braving torture and humiliation to make sure her rapist faced justice.
Joy McCullough’s historical novel Blood Water Paint offers a stunning portrait of Gentileschi. She weaves verse with the stories of Susanna and Judith, Biblical heroines who Gentileschi painted, to explore the inner life of a young artist unwilling to let go of her true self in the face of violence. I spoke with McCullough about Gentileschi’s life and art, adapting Blood Water Paint from the stage to the page, and why she wants teenagers to know Gentileschi’s story.
What drew you to Artemisia Gentileschi as a subject?
I first heard about her in Margaret Atwood [1993’s] novel, The Robber Bride. She’s just a really quick passing reference in that book. I looked her up and was outraged that I’d never heard of her because she seemed like such an important figure: Her art and story were important. Yet, I had gone all the way through high school and college and women’s studies [courses] and I’d never heard of her. I sort of fell down a rabbit hole of researching her and felt compelled to tell her story.
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How much is actually known about Gentileschi’s life?
The most extensive documentation we have is [from] her rapist’s trial, which it’s not. I can’t say [it was] a rape trial ‘cause it was a trial for property damage; she was her father’s property and was damaged. There wasn’t really a conception of rape. But there’s a 300-page transcript [from that trial] it has been translated into English. That gives a lot of context for her life and the people in her life because it doesn’t only talk about the attack. They’re sort of establishing her whole relationship with him and how they knew each other and everything that led up to it.
In addition to that, there are letters from later on in her career. She corresponded with Galileo and with Michelangelo who was, I believe, the great-nephew of the Michelangelo we mostly know about. There’s that kind of stuff. And then, there’s her art that has survived. Susan Vreeland wrote a really well-researched historical novel about her called The Passion of Artemisia.
It’s not a ton, but it’s not nothing. The transcript especially just gives us so much.
How is it that a trial like this even happened in the 17th century?
Her father had to bring the charge. As a woman, she couldn’t have brought a charge at all. It had to be done by a man. And then, there wasn’t a concept of rape, [so] it was a crime of property damage. We don’t know whether he was the one who wanted to do it, and so he did it, or if she was the one who wanted to do it, and he was advocating for her. [The latter] is more the way I chose to go in the book. But I don’t know. That was a choice in the novel.
Since it was a property damage claim, she was no good as a bride anymore. You know, her value as a bride had been diminished. So, one could say he was just upset because his daughter didn’t have this value anymore. But that seems less likely to me because this is a seven-month trial, you know? And I can’t imagine it didn’t hurt their business during that time. It feels like he would’ve had to believe her because he wanted to pursue justice. But that might be idealized. I don’t know.
She’s 17 when this horrible thing happens and she has to fight her way through it. She could’ve shut down and never painted again.
Did anything surprise you when you were reading the trial transcript?
The overall thing was how familiar it was. This is the early 1600s, but it is the exact same thing that happens in a rape trial today. [There] was victim-blaming and slut-shaming, and they created these letters that she had supposedly written to all these other lovers to paint her as a whore. She couldn’t even write. She was illiterate. It was so much the same as it ever was. And then, she was tortured to prove her word. They wrapped these cords around the joints in her hands. Of course, she’s a painter, so her hands are the most valuable thing to her. It happened in court, in front of her rapist. He was sitting right there. And they tortured her to prove her word, and they didn’t torture him.
I was really intrigued when I read in your acknowledgements that this novel originated as a play. What was the production like?
I studied theater, and I had a career as a playwright before I ever started writing fiction. And this play had a really long development process. I started writing it in 2001, and I would have readings and workshops of it. People would say, “Oh, this is so fascinating. This is so great, but theaters would never commit to a full production of it.” It’s a really difficult story, and a really difficult play. I would put it away for a couple years, and then I’d pull it back out. And then, I’d make some revisions, and it’d have a new reading or a new workshop. It wasn’t until 2015 that it got fully produced for the first time.
It was produced in Seattle by Live Girls! Theater, which does all new work by women. The production was just an amazing experience. While we were getting prepared for the show to begin, we talked a little bit about ratings, like what ages we would recommend for people to come because there was some brief nudity in the play. I think we said like 14 and up or 13 and up. But when we were making that decision, it made me think how much I really hoped teenagers would come see the play because I just felt like there’s so much here that will resonate. She’s 17 when most of the events happen. So, I really wanted teenagers to be a part of the audience, which was of course, part of what then compelled me to write it as a YA novel as well.
What was the adaptation process from play to novel like?
That was really interesting because I thought that it would be relatively easy. I mean, writing a novel is never easy, but my hardest thing is usually plot. And I figured, I know the plot, I know the characters, and I know the world. So, you know, how hard can it be? But actually, plays are entirely external. They are dialogue and action. And lots of stuff happens internally for the actors, but I, as a playwright, don’t have to do that. But then I’m writing a verse novel, and verse even more than prose is very internal and it usually doesn’t have very much dialogue. Suddenly, I was looking at this character and the events of her life from a totally different perspective than I ever had before. So, I knew the plot, and I thought I knew the character. And I did, from a certain direction. But it was just a really different approach, which was an exciting challenge. There’s sort of always new things I can uncover. I probably could do some other art form of her story at some point down the line and discover new things.
Why did you choose verse for this novel and why did you want it to be YA?
I had thought, when I first started thinking about writing it as a novel, I was thinking [about it] as a straight prose historical novel. And I dismissed that pretty quickly. There’s so much trauma in this story, and I felt like having to describe the trauma in the amount of detail that you really have to in prose would be too painful for me and too painful for [many] readers. I didn’t want to go there. But then, when I started to think about it in verse, I realized first, it strips away everything that’s unnecessary. It just leaves the emotional core of a story. And so, I can express trauma in three or four words that might take a whole chapter of a prose novel. I felt like it was a way to still have the impact without it being so hard to wade through, both as a writer and as a reader.
Some of the best books being published today are YA. I just love young adult literature and what it’s doing right now. For the last couple decades, it’s really been doing amazing stuff, but especially right now. There’s just such powerful work coming out. Writing for teenagers is really exciting because they’re in such an important stage of life where everything is changing, and they’re figuring out who they’re going to be in the world and how they’re going to make their way. And that’s exactly where Artemisia is during the events of the story. She’s 17 when this horrible thing happens and she has to fight her way through it. And she could’ve shut down and never painted again. She’s faced with all these big choices that I feel like resonate really well for YA. So, it felt like a natural fit as well as the verse.
Gentileschi’s work contains numerous paintings that depict Biblical or mythological rape scenes. How much of that artistic focus came from this experience when she was 17?
As artists, we’re always bringing ourselves to the page or the canvas. Who she was and what she experienced is going to be inextricably linked with the art she makes. Now, that doesn’t mean that every painting is a response to having been raped. But I think it deeply informed her.
At the same time, those Biblical stories were stories that all the painters painted. Her dad was painting Susanna and Lucretia, [but] as a woman, she brought a completely different perspective to their stories. They weren’t unusual subjects, but her take on them was informed by her experiences, certainly being raped, but also just her experiences as a woman moving through the world.
Her self-portrait doesn’t come into the novel at all because she painted it later, but it’s wonderful because she paints herself as the allegory of painting. And the allegory of the arts were these things that were prescribed, and they were always women. So there’s an allegory of singing and an allegory of sculpture. And they all have these very specific things they must require: If you’re painting the allegory of painting, she has to have a gold necklace on, and she has to have her hair down and loose. And there’s this whole list of things she has to have, including a gag on her mouth. Because painting is just visual, it’s not spoken, is the idea [behind the gag].
But Gentileschi does her self-portrait, and she paints herself as the allegory of painting, who’s always a woman. And the men couldn’t paint themselves as the allegory of painting ‘cause the allegory of painting was a woman. But the one thing she did differently is she didn’t put that gag on her mouth.
She was like, “I’m speaking,” which I love.
What was most important for you to convey about Gentileschi in this novel?
Readers are always going to bring their own stuff to the page, and each reader is going to take whatever they need away. So I don’t want to say, “This is what I wanted to communicate.” I can say that the biggest thing that’s come out of it for me is this emphasis on the power of telling stories, of speaking our truth and passing it down and being heard, or in her case, having it seen in her art. That’s what’s been important to me, but I don’t know what people are going to bring to the page and take away. It’s kind of up to them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.