BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough
Dutton Books, March 2018
I really wanted to love this book. I studied art history extensively in college, I love Artemisia Gentileschi, and the promise of a story from her perspective was so tantalizing that I ended up ignoring my suspicions that this book was going to be too young and too heavy-handed for me. I really should have listened to my gut on this one.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, whose works are often overshadowed by the fact that she was raped by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. She and her father Orazio took him to trial and eventually won the case, though she was subjected to torture to verify her claims, and Tassi only served two years in prison before his release. Blood Water Paint is a novel in verse told from Artemisia’s perspective, which focuses mainly on her rape and the subsequent trial, which explores the way she drew on the biblical figures Susanna and Judith for inspiration.
Look, I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I could not agree more with McCullough’s indictment of the patriarchy, her lament of how women are treated in society, the parallels between Artemisia’s circumstances and the #MeToo movement. The problem is, she sacrifices subtlety and authenticity at the altar of these ideas. This book is one of the most maddeningly simplistic, binary, melodramatic, and anachronistic things I’ve ever read. While the word ‘feminism’ never appears in this book (thankfully – not because I don’t like the word feminism, but because it isn’t a concept yet in in the seventeenth century), we do see a lot of hot-button issues that we’ll all recognize, like:
(Why, though, does it take
a mother, daughter, sister
for men to take
a woman at her word?)
If I wait it out, he’ll go.
I learned this as a child:
When boys pull your hair,
it means they like you.
Just ignore them.
… which, I’m sorry, but narrated from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl in 1610 just strike me as laughably unbelievable. Not because these aren’t universal, timeless ideas, but because they’re stated so eloquently by this character who I hesitate to even refer to as Artemisia because she is so transparently a mouthpiece for the author.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a historical novel that focuses mainly on themes which don’t have an established vocabulary or some kind of developed social discourse at the time the book is set. I recently read and loved On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which deals primarily with asexuality in a time before the term was coined, and the way McEwan handled the subject was done with subtlety and brilliance. I guess I was just looking for more of this here, I was hoping for a more nuanced and intellectually stimulating rumination on the themes in this book, rather than having everything stated so plainly and positively shoved down the reader’s throat. (I mean, I guess it’s also worth noting that Blood Water Paint is YA, so maybe I’m being unfair here, but I’d argue that it’s even more unfair to posit that YA doesn’t have the capacity to be more nuanced than this.)
There’s also another element to this whole thing that admittedly grates on me. As I’ve said, I really love Artemisia Gentileschi. But the way she’s become a cipher for contemporary feminism I think does a disservice to the complexity of her character, as well as to the sundry other groundbreaking female artists we tend to overlook in holding Artemisia up as this feminist poster child. So when I say that I wasn’t impressed with the research and historical accuracy in this novel, I’m not trying to be some kind of academic purist. It just felt like the author had seen a tumblr post about how ‘Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes!!!1! Badass feminist ICON!!!!’ and spun the novel out of this half-formed idea of who Artemisia actually was. The few times the art itself is referenced also suggests to me that McCullough is out of her depth. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, please pick up one of the many brilliant biographies written about Artemisia, notably those by Mary Garrard.
So, to wrap up this novel length review (sorry, thanks for sticking with me): This is a book of (relevant, necessary) 21st century feminist concepts that try to masquerade themselves as Artemisia Gentileschi’s story at the expense of narrative, character development, and subtlety, which I felt ultimately did a disservice to its protagonist. But clearly I do not hold the majority opinion about this book, and that is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant and eloquent reviews which discuss this book’s virtues, if that’s what you’re looking for.