In Susan Vreeland's masterful The Passion of Artemisia, female artist Atermisia Gentileschi comes to life with a startling intensity. Beginning with a painful trial scene, in which she is interrogated, humilated , and tortured after being seduced and assaulted by her father's artistic partner, the novel plunges into the depth of 17th-century society and the role women have within it. Betrayed by her father and alienated from society, she flees from Rome and into a competitive relationship with fellow painter Pietro Lomi. In Florence, she thrives in the flourishing art world, gaining the first female admission to the Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno as her paintings become reknowned among Florentine Society as unique in their depiction of the female form. Her large full-scale works of feminine heroines gain her admittance into artistic and intellectual circles, including the likes of Galileo and Cosimo de'Medici. As her marriage dissolves from artistic envy, Artemisia's talent grows, earning her commissions in Genoa and Rome.
The novel skillfully explores sexual politics in Italian society in that period. Artemisia, humilated and ostracized in her youth, faces similar ridicule even as a successful mature artist. Her father's ultimate betryal of her rests upon his maintenace of her as property, a commodity to be protected and fostered. As an artist, Artemesia struggles against the age old depiction of woman as muse -- not artist. She faces viscious competition among men and an inability to be taken seriously.
The strength of Vreeland's work lies in her ability to create a full living and breathing character from historical fact. While at times Artemisia seems startlingly transgressive for her time period, she pulls at the reader's sympathies beautifully. The novel's lush descriptions and sumptuous detail make it, like her other novel The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, highly worth reading.