An anonymous painting damaged in the 2020 Beirut explosion has been discovered to be a long-lost painting by 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
The painting was damaged while in the Sursock Palace, a historic mansion owned by Yvonne Sursock, a member of the wealthy and influential Sursock family. She died due to injuries sustained by the explosion. The Palace held a large art collection amassed by her parents, Alfred Sursock and Donna Maria Teresa Serra di Cassano. Together, they collected Italian Baroque and 19th- and 20th-century Lebanese paintings, so it follows that they would have a work by Gentileschi, a much beloved Baroque painter.
After the painting was damaged in the explosion, it was sent to restoration experts who came to the conclusion about the painting’s authorship.
“A lot of would-be Artemisia paintings have come along hopeful of attaining consensus from the market and scholars, and we’ve been largely disappointed,” Sheila Barker, a Gentileschi scholar, told the Times. “And yet from this completely unexpected corner of the southern Mediterranean, there has emerged this stunning example of Artemisia’s mature genius.”
The large painting depicts a scene from the myth of Omphale, Queen of Lydia, and Hercules, in which Hercules is forced to become Omphale’s servant for a year. The myth has been interpreted by artists for its erotic side as well as its comedic side. Hercules is often depicted doing women’s work while Omphale lounges in Hercules’s leopard skin cloak and holds his iconic olive-wood club. While Gentileschi’s painting doesn’t frame Omphale and Hercules so extremely, the story is one that fits nicely within Gentileschi’s body of work, which emphasized female empowerment.
Gentileschi’s most famous work, for example, is Judith Beheading Holofernes. In her interpretation of the oft-painted Biblical scene, Judith and her maid lean in and hold Holofernes down as they work to behead him.
Most depictions of this scene, like that which Caravaggio painted, show Judith daintily holding the sword at arm’s length, pursing her lips, as uninvolved as possible. Gentileschi began painting Judith Beheading Holofernes studies when she was 18 or 19, just a year or two after her rape by her mentor (which is in the historical record, as there was a trial following the assault). Scholars today make a connection between her anger toward her rapist and her bold and unflinching portrayal of Judith.
The painting is currently being restored at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.