In 1600s Rome, Artemisia Gentileschi has few choices in life: she could be a nun, she could be ruled by a husband, or she could grind pigment for her father’s paint. Though no one knew her as an artist, she was brimming with talent and passion for painting. Told in verse, this novel follows Artemisia’s young life as she battles a patriarchal world, is raped, and is repeatedly silenced. But most of all, she paints images that will one day become legend, expressing emotion and color that transcends centuries.
Prior to reading BLOOD WATER PAINT, I admit that I did not know who Artemisia Gentileschi was. After doing a quick search, I recognized some of her paintings inspired by Susanna and Judith, but I’m not sure I ever heard her name. This incredible novel shines light on someone who should be as well known, if not more so, as Leonardo di Vinci or Michelangelo. Gentileschi’s life was the picture of provincial. As a woman in her time, she had little power or respect. Joy McCullough expresses Gentileschi’s frustration, pain, and sadness over this without making her situation seem hopeless. Not only is she not allowed to be known as an incredible artist, but she is also aware that telling anyone about her sexual assault could lead to anything from severe societal ostracization to criminal punishment. A major theme in her journey is figuring out how to find catharsis, how to find support, and how to find justice in an unjust world.
Nothing seems as fitting as telling this artist’s story in verse. McCullough’s language is breathtaking and punching. The scenes of Gentileschi painting have magical imagery. I often found myself pausing to look up the painting she was working on and was just amazed at both her talent and McCullough’s precise craft that captured Gentileschi’s artistic development.
BLOOD WATER PAINT is a great addition to the historical fiction shelf, not only highlighting an underrepresented artist but also providing an emotional manifestation of the power of art, whether that is written art or visual.