Self Portrait as a Lute Player is a 1617 portrait painting by Baroque Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. As the title implies, this is a self-portrait depicting the artist expertly playing while granting us an assured look. Gentileschi, who painted this work at the young age of 24, is notably dressed as a Renaissance woman.
Appearing in a three-quarter profile, Gentileschi is wearing a headscarf and a low-cut lapis-lazuli blouse, typical attire for professional musicians performing in taverns or courts, at the time often called gypsies. Her breasts appear as if pushed up from below, in a painting that, combining music and femininity, represents sensual pleasure.
The perfectly executed fingers on the strings of the instrument show Gentileschi’s characteristic command of anatomy and, evidently, some knowledge of how a lute is played.
Gentileschi thus made use of herself as a model, possibly because of the difficulty of finding people to pose, people who might besides have required payment. But she might also have sought to publicize herself through her art.
Formed by the example of Caravaggio — whose punctilious detail and darkness-to-light oppositions we admire in this Self-Portrait as a Lute Player— Gentileschi, therefore, emulated also Caravaggio’s practice of using oneself as a model, likely through the aid of a mirror.
In this painting, Artemisia Gentileschi displays the self-confident calm characteristic of most of her female characters. This instance is to be compared with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1619), another one of her self-portraits with a remarkably similar expression.
Her cheeks here appear made up, the fine blouse probably inspired by the entertainers’ dresses in Florence. It is at that point in her biography that rich costumes appear to enter into her imagery.
This confident, engaging, but also somewhat fierce look that she gives us in this Self-Portrait appears to tell us of a woman hardened by unjust suffering and obloquy but who preserves both pride and courage. As it happens, the Lute Player occurs between the infamous trial for rape of 1612 and her extramarital relationship with a Florentine nobleman, documented as occurring since at least 1616 (by a set of letters discovered in 2011) and conducted with the knowledge of her husband.
The painting may have been commissioned by the Great Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici (in office 1609—1621). It is certainly registered in 1638 as part of the Medici inventory. It was therefore also painted during Gentileschi’s interlude in Florence, immediately after her flight from Rome following the scandalous trial of her rapist and just before her brief return back to Rome, in 1620.
This is a time, for her, of interaction with the Florentine greats — Galilei and Buonarroti the Younger among them — and induction into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing as its first woman.
In 1998, the painting was purchased by the Curtis Galleries of Minneapolis and transferred to the United States, a country whose feminist academia had been instrumental in the great reevaluation of Artemisia Gentileschi across the 20th century.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as a Lute Player is in the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut in he United States of America.