When it came time to decide on the dedication for my debut novel, Blood Water Paint, there was never really any question. The book was for my daughter.
I was given slight pause, though, since I have two children. I didn’t want my son to feel left out. (I’ve never quite gotten over when my dad named his sailboat the Jennifer Lee – my sister’s name – rather than the Jennifer Joy.)
But this book about the stories women pass down to one another as a roadmap to life as a woman was no sailboat. It had to be for my daughter.
In Blood Water Paint, Artemisia’s mother dies when she is twelve—my daughter’s age—from complications after childbirth. Historically, we don’t know for sure how Prudentia Montone died, but signs point to puerperal fever. In the 1600’s, this uterine infection was generally accepted as a regular consequence of childbirth and motherhood.
Part of being a woman.
Like walking down a street with the sharp edges of our keys sticking through our fingers. Shrugging off “locker room talk.” Having our bodies legislated by a group of old white men. Part of being a woman.
When Prudentia died, Artemisia was left alone as the only woman in her family. Her father might have sent her to a convent, since as a struggling artist he would not have had the means to make her a marriage match. But her brothers didn’t show the same skills she did as a painting apprentice, and so he kept her on instead.
This rare invitation into the Roman art world gave Artemisia opportunities very few young women of her day ever did. But it also brought her into yet another realm where she was the only woman.
And so, isolated by her circumstances, Artemisia Gentileschi conjured the women she needed. She conjured the women who would teach her how to fight, how to find her voice and use it, how to hold her keys and how to watch her drink and how to smash the fucking patriarchy.
And in an extra bit of poetic justice, she conjured these women from the same stories men had been telling —and painting —forever but always failing to understand. Because as a young female painter, Artemisia had a different perspective on the story of Susanna, leered at as she bathes in her private garden. She had a different perspective on Judith, who put her body and her life on the line to save her people. She saw so much more than beauty for consumption.
Artemisia’s circumstances denied her the women she deserved, and so she willed them into existence, formed of pigment, sweat, and rage.
This International Women’s Day, watch @penguinteen’s Instagram Stories for Artemisia’s powerful paintings of these women who were her lifeline, as Artemisia has been mine. I hope my daughter never needs such a lifeline. But if she does, my book will be there. It has always been for her.