BLOOD WATER PAINT: Artemisia Gentileschi for YAs

Cindy: I’ve been fascinated by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi ever since I read Susan Vreeland’s novel, The Passion of Artemisia (2002), while serving on the Best Books for Young Adults YALSA committee when it still included adult books in its charge. When I learned about the new debut YA novel Blood Water Paint (2018) by Joy McCullough, I had to read it. I may have ripped it from Lynn’s hands…I hope I said thank you.

McCullough tells Artemisia’s story mostly in verse that is often as powerful and passionate as Artemisia herself.  This novel focuses on Gentileschi’s teen years after her mother’s death, as she works as her abusive artist father’s assistant. She grinds pigments and mixes paints, but is a good enough artist herself to finish his commissioned paintings, eventually better than he could. Despite her talent and her hard work, his was the signature on each painting. Artemisia’s story includes her rape by her father’s friend, her tutor Augostino Tassi, as well as Tassi’s trial, which was more painful physically and mentally for Artemisia than for Tassi. She provided evidence under torture to her hands that might have caused her to never be able to hold a paintbrush again. And yet, she persisted.

“I will show you what a woman can do.”

Prose sections interspersed amongst the poetry provide her mother’s stories about historical Roman heroines. like Susanna and Judith, who inspired many of Artemisia’s paintings. Those stories are helpful to readers in understanding both Artemisia’s attraction to these subjects and of the strength and healing they must have given her. This is a perfect historical fiction read for the #metoo era, but Artemisia’s accomplishments and talents as an artist are worth discovering as well. As Artemisia is quoted as saying, “I will show you what a woman can do.”

While in Rome and Florence on my first trip to Europe a few years ago, I made sure to see Artemisia’s paintings. As I stood in the Uffizi Gallery, in front of Judith Slaying Holofernes, I had goosebumps and some tears. I listened to some visitors glance at the gruesome, bloody image and hurry away. Understanding the story of the subject and of the painter behind it with her strength and passion was incredibly powerful. I didn’t leave without buying a book of her paintings, even though it’s written in Italian. Someday, perhaps, I’ll learn to read Italian…In the meantime, I also highly recommend the audiobook version of The Passion of Artemisia read by Gigi Bermingham.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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