A Lady of Talent and Strength

During my education, I took many Art History classes. I learned about the old masters—Dutch, English, Spanish, and Italian. Yet, I never learned about my favorite artist. Artemisia Gentileschi.

I first learned about this female baroque Italian artist from a historical fiction novel entitled, The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland. After reading this book, I had to learn more about this woman and her art. That is why the next two months Historical Costume posts center on this grand dame

Artemisia Lomi Gentileschi was born on July 8, 1593 in Rome. She was the eldest child of Prudenzia di Ottaviano Montoni and Tuscan painter, Orazio Gentileschi. In 1605, her mother died and she began painting in her father’s workshop. In those times, an artist learned by apprenticing with an artist. Artemisia showed talent and love for art that her siblings lacked. There she learned drawing, how to mix color, and how to paint.

By her later teenage years, she showed great talent and her father proclaimed she had no peer. 

She took after her father’s style which was inspired by Caravaggio. Yet, this great talent had a style of her own. She was highly naturalistic. 

In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse located inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. In May of that year, Tassi visited the household where he raped Artemisia. In those days, a rape survivor had to marry her rapist to restore (I write that with a sneer, snort, and great derision) her reputation and secure her reputation. Her father pressed charges against Tassi but not for the rape but his failure to marry Artemisia. 

The trial lasted seven months. During the trial, Artemisia was tortured to discover if she was lying. Thumbscrews were used on her hands, which could have destroyed her artist life. During the torture, it is recorded that she cried out repeatedly, “It’s true. It’s true.”

Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome, a sentence that was never carried out thanks to the pope who wanted him to stay so he could continue creating art for him. 

During this time, her father was trying to save his daughter from ruin. He wrote to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany pleading for her to intervene in the trial. He also found a husband for his daughter. 

On November 29, 1612, Artemisia married a Florentine named Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi in Rome. Soon after her marriage, she and her husband departed for Florence where with the Grand Duchess’s—Christina of Lorraine— support she found a place in the Medici court and thrived as a court painter. In 1613, on September 21, Artemisia gave birth to her first child, a son named Giovanni Battista. During her seven years in Florence, Artemisia produced great works of art that I encourage you to seek out as well as three more children. On November 9, 1615, she gave birth to her second son Cristofano and on August 2, 1617, her daughter, Prudenza, was born and October 13, 1618, her last child, Lisabella, made her appearance. Sadly, Lisabella died less than a year later.

Artemisia continued to create art and sold to the great collectors of the time period throughout Europe. And her works brought much recognition. Artemisia was the first woman to be accepted in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno on July 19, 1616.

Yet, she did not remain in Florence. In 1621, Artemisia and her family returned to Rome where she continued to paint. In 1623, her husband leaves and she lost all contact with the man. 

Her works were so in demand that she traveled to Venice, Naples and even joined her father in England and Charles I’s court. She departed England as the English Civil War began. She continued to paint even to an old age. It is believed she died around 1656.

Esther Before Ahasuerus By Artemisia Gentileschi c.1630

This month’s work of art is entitled Esther Before Ahasuerus. For this month’s Historical Costume post, I will be focusing on the female named Esther or the Queen’s outfit. Next month, I will be breaking down the king’s garments.

Esther Before Ahasuerus is dated to 1630 and the garments confirm that date. The style of the sixteenth century changed at this time from the decades before this time.

Esther’s garment is soft and shimmering satins (made of silk) of the luxurious golden yellow or a bright mustard yellow. The robin’s blue egg sash is of the same material and reflects the light on our fainting figure. The upper half of the sleeves, which are called Virago Sleeves are the same yellow satin of the dress. The lower half of the sleeves are damask and embroidered with gold flower and leaf pattern. Lace peeks out at the end of the sleeves and along the bodice. She’s donned a bejeweled belt and with a jeweled- brooches pinned at the virago sleeve. 

Beneath this striking gown, Esther must be wearing a chemise made of linen and corset that is shorter than the bodice, that are a looser design than the style of the previous decade’s stiff style that ended lower on the waist. The gown’s natural bodice is high waisted and styled with a jeweled belt. The undergarments that gave the previous decades that wide-hipped, stiff look has vanished. The soft and natural look is all the rage. Yet, women are donning a padded roll or the French Farthingale so the skirt, now closed all around, has a rounded, soft shape that falls at folds to the ground. According to my research, the garment called an unfitted gown. An unfitted gown’s silhouette is loose and with long hanging sleeves, which brush against the floor. (Bottom left of the painting). The bodice has a low square neckline with white lace trim. 

Naturally, the rest of the look changed. Esther’s hair is curled and wavy hair in a style and most likely, uncovered as was fashionable during this era. She wears a gold crown with spikes. 

I encourage you to research the tale behind Esther Before Ahasuerus to learn the story behind this great work of art. 

The Perfect Dress For A Night On The Town: Historical Fashion

Elsa Schiaparelli, Surrealist Fashion Desiger

Usually when I am selecting a historical costume to present for my Historical Costume blog series, I chose something for centuries ago and presented in a painting, usually a portrait.

This month is different. If you are a reader of my blog then you know that I studied fashion design at F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology). Because of that connection and the fact that the museum is shut down because of this pandemic I decided to show the great fashions the museum possesses.

So for May 2020, the spotlight shines on this stunning red number and the female designer that doesn’t shine as bright on her legacy as it does on Coco Chanel (her biggest rival). That designer is Elsa Schiaparelli.

On September 10, 1890 Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome to Maria Luisa, a Neapolitan aristocrat, and Celestine Schiaparelli, a scholar in the Islamic world and Middle Ages, who was Dean of University of Rome. Raising in this cultural and academic surroundings, Elsa developed a love of ancient cultures, its lore as well as its religious rites. She wrote a book of poems entitled Arethusa based on the ancient Greek myth of the hunt. But she had her wicked moments, which got her sent to a Catholic boarding school. No happy to be there, she held a hunger strike and was permit to leave.

Instead of returning home to Rome, Elsa headed to England for a job a friend arranged for her. Well, that didn’t work out but her life did change. While in England, she attended a lecture on theosophy–a philosophical or religious thought based on a mystical insight into the divine nature. The lecturer was Wilhem de Wendt, who went under various alias, and claimed to have psychic powers and numerous academic credentials. He claimed to be a detective, criminal psychologist, a doctor, lecturer, and even performed in Vaudeville. This man became Elsa’s husband on June 21, 1914. She was twenty-three and Wilhem was thrity.

Elsa began helping with his work, promoting his act. In 1915, the couple was forced to leave London when Wilhelm was convicted for practicing the then illegal fortune-telling. The couple made their way around France before departing for America in 1916.

In New York City, they rented out offices for their Bureau of Psychology, which was the same act they did in England. This caught the eye of the F.B. I. so Elsa and her husband headed to Boston to continue their “work.”

On June 15, 1920, the couple became a trio with the birth of their daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha was born. Gogo as she was called by her mother. Wilhelm abandoned the ladies. Then in 1921, Togo was diagnosed with polio. That same year, the mother and daughter returned to New York. A year later, mother and daughter sailed to France.

In France, Elsa’s friend, Gabrielle “Gaby” Buffet-Picabia, wife of Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia, would bring her into a circle that would inspire Elsa for the rest of her days and became a major part of her style. She developed friendships with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Stuckin.

Elsa now began making clothes. Couturier Paul Poiret (a major designer of early 19th century) encouraged her to open her business. Though she received favorable reviews her business closed in 1926.

Not one to give up, Elsa launched her new collection of knitwear in 1927. She used a special double layered stitch that Armenian refugees created and sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. The Pour le Sport collection expanded in 1928. It included bathing suits, ski-wear and linen dress. The business grew that in 1931 she added evening wear and the shop moved to 21 Placve Vendome.

Then the world changed. In 1939, France declared war against Germany and then a year later on June 14, Paris fell to the Germans. Elsa and her daughter sailed to New York for work and she remained there until the end of the war.

Naturally, the fashion house closed but when the war ended, Elsa returned to Paris and reopened her house where it remained open until 1954. Elsa died at 83 on November 13, 1973 in Paris.

Elsa Schiaparelli changed fashion in a ways you might not be aware of. She first introduced zippers that matched the fabric, brooches like a buttons on clothing and even modern day catwalks are thanks to her. She also introduced a new color called Schiaparelli Pink, a shocking bright pink that you probably have seen hundreds of times.

This evening gown is from circa 1955 and is haute couture, which translates to made to measure. The gown is constructed of red silk faille and pink silk. The vibrant color has not fade or lost its vibrancy. The classic strapless gown appears to be boned or corseted to keep its shape and give support to the lucky lady who might have donned this gown. The hourglass silhouette accentuates a woman’s figure that was popular in the 1950s. A drape sash cuts across the hips for a train lined in the pink silk drapes asymmetrically.

The gown was sewn by hand by Schiarapelli’s fashion house workers and must have taken weeks to construct after being fitted and refitted to the measurements of the woman and model who donned this gown.

As for accessories that a lady would have wore with this, I would have gone with a simple yet refined look. Perhaps, pink strapped shoes that match the pink of gown so with every step, perfectly manicured red toes peeked out from beneath the hem. I would wear my hair swept up to show off the shoulders and perhaps, diamonds or simple necklace to highlight a perfect expanse of flesh. Maybe a shawl to cover up from the evening chill.

Wearing this gown, you can’t help but feel utterly sexy and classy. Perfect to got to the theatre or a ball and dance the night away even to fall in love.