Last year, I picked up “Blood Water Paint,” Joy McCullough’s haunting début novel, which is about the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi was an accomplished artist—the first woman accepted to the Florence fine-arts academy—and McCullough’s tribute to her is written entirely in free verse. I happened to read the book while travelling. In each city I visited, I picked flowers to place between the pages where Gentileschi deserved the love women so rarely find when telling violent truths. When she was seventeen, Gentileschi was raped by her painting instructor, who was put on trial, in 1612, after her father pressed charges. (Women could not do so at the time.) That trial forms the center of McCullough’s narrative; we learn how Gentileschi was tortured to confirm that her story was true. But the book also recounts Gentileschi’s early years, when she was a promising artist who finished her father’s paintings, craved a mentor, and toiled under the patriarchal thumb.
McCullough began working on the novel long before #MeToo, but the parallels are hard to ignore. The book does not read like historical fiction. It teems with raw emotion, and McCullough deftly captures the experience of learning to behave in a male-driven society and then breaking outside of it. As a young girl, Gentileschi feels male gazes sinking into her back and responds by adjusting her skirt or leaving the room. “I wish men / would decide / if women are heavenly / angels on high, / or earthbound sculptures / for their gardens,” McCullough writes. Either way, women are “beauty for consumption.” After being raped by her instructor, Gentileschi’s first reaction is to lie on the floor and be swallowed by shame. Her second is to remember the love of her mother and to find strength in the stories of two Biblical figures: Judith, who slayed an Assyrian leader to save her people in wartime, and Susanna, who stood trial after two elders accused her of sexual advances. These two women would also become the subjects of Gentileschi’s most famous paintings. As “Blood Water Paint” makes clear, the artist’s triumph was not surviving the trial but transcending her pain by putting it into her work. That work endures to this day.