Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman ever accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence—at great personal cost. Like Esther, she succeeded in a man’s world.
Her representation of Esther before Ahasuerus includes a detail found in the Greek text but not the Hebrew: Esther fainting into her maidservants’ arms (Additions to Esther 15:7). Generally, the greatly expanded Greek version of Esther (drawn upon heavily by the Latin Vulgate) gives more psychological insight into its heroine. But at this pivotal moment when Esther seeks to win the king’s sympathy and save her fellow Jews, the narrator heightens the drama by not divulging Esther’s mental state as she faints not once, but twice.
While the text at first seems to paint Esther as a helpless damsel, Artemisia seems to suggest that Esther’s faint was the feint of an actress staging helplessness for royal sympathy. Her body remains vertical from the waist down; this supposed collapse is more of a torso twist than a real fall. Only her left leg bends; her right remains firm. The maidens stand conveniently close to her, as if choreographed, yet they do not block the king’s view of her wilting figure.
Gentileschi’s portrayal of the king also diminishes the king’s physical presence. Here he is ‘hardly more than an overly luxurious, effete adolescent’ (Soltes 2018: 75); she appears more mature (Treves 2020). His royal rod is absent. He seems to stare at her pale cleavage rather than jumping to help her. Though he is seated on a raised throne, their heads are almost level, suggesting an equality in their relationship. By depicting the king as youthful, perhaps inexperienced, Artemisia alludes to the book of Esther’s broader portrayal of Ahasuerus as weak-minded and fickle.
In suggesting that Esther merely feigned feminine weakness to win over the king, Artemisia foreshadows recent feminist readings of Esther by centuries. Her depiction of Esther as the true master of this scene, and the master of the king, suggests that behind the textual narrative’s apparently helpless heroine is a consummate actress and rhetor.
Soltes, Ori Z. 2018. ‘Beauty and Its Beholders: Envisioning Sarah and Esther’, in Biblical Women and the Arts, ed. by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Biblical Reception 5 (London: T&T Clark), pp. 57–82
Treves Letizia. 2020. Artemisia (London: National Gallery)
5 On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace; 2and when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor in his sight and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. 3And the king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” 4And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come this day to a dinner that I have prepared for the king.” 5Then said the king, “Bring Haman quickly, that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the dinner that Esther had prepared. 6And as they were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 7But Esther said, “My petition and my request is: 8If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition and fulfil my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the dinner which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said.”