Blood Water Paint
by McCullough, Joy

In Renaissance Italy, Artemisia Gentileschi endures the subjugation of women that allows her father to take credit for her extraordinary paintings, rape and the ensuing trial, and torture, buoyed by her deceased mother's stories of strong women of the Bible.

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her family. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Her debut novel, Blood Water Paint, was longlisted for National Book Award and was a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award.

*Starred Review* McCullough's exquisite debut, a novel in verse, follows the heartbreaking but inspiring true story of gifted Roman painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Raised since she was 12 solely by her volatile, abusive, and less talented artist father, Artemisia spends her days as her father's apprentice, grinding pigments and completing most of his commissions. At first, she thinks she has found solace with her charming new painting instructor, Agostino Tassi, who awakens a dormant passion in her. In carefully arranged, sophisticated verse, McCullough deftly articulates Artemisia's growing fear of Tassi as he asserts control over and ultimately rapes her. Woven through Artemisia's poems are short prose chapters featuring Susanna and Judith, bold ancient Roman heroines from her mother's stories. The strong females' stories guide Artemisia through her harrowing trials with Tassi, show her how to paint her truth, and eventually inspire most of her iconic paintings. With dazzling surrealist overtones, McCullough manages to vividly capture a singularly brave, resilient feminist who became an icon during a time when women had almost no agency. Her story and the stunning verse in which it is told will resonate just as strongly with readers today. A captivating and impressive book about a timeless heroine. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.

Baroque artist and feminist icon Artemisia Gentileschi is given voice in a debut verse novel.Only 17, Artemisia is already a more gifted painter than her feckless father. But in 17th-century Rome, the motherless girl is only grudgingly permitted to grind pigment, prepare canvas, and complete commissions under his signature. So when the charming Agostino Tassi becomes her tutor, Artemisia is entranced by the only man to take her work seriously…until he resorts to rape. At first broken in body and spirit, she draws from memories of her mother's stories of the biblical heroines Susanna and Judith the strength to endure and fight back the only way she can. Artemisia tells her story in raw and jagged blank verse, sensory, despairing, and defiant, interspersed with the restrained prose of her mother's subversive tales. Both simmer with impotent rage at the injustices of patriarchal oppression, which in the stories boils over into graphic sexual assault and bloody vengeance. W hile the poems (wisely) avoid explicitly depicting either Artemisia's rape or subsequent judicial torture, the searing aftermath, physical and mental, is agonizingly portrayed. Yet Artemisia's ferocious passion to express herself in paint still burns most fiercely. Unfortunately, those who lack familiarity with the historical facts or context may emerge from this fire scorched but not enlightened. McCullough's Rome is a white one. A brief note in the backmatter offers sexual-violence resources. Nonetheless, an incandescent retelling both timeless and, alas, all too timely. (afterword) (Historical fiction. 14-adult) Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.


Once upon a time
I was a child,
not the woman
of the house.
Not so long ago
but long enough
the days of tugging
on my mother’s skirts
in hopes of being lifted up
at every whim
are hazy round the edges,
like a shadow bleeding
into light.
It’s hazy how,
her belly round
with brothers,
Mother still made room
for me to crawl
up on her lap
to hear a story
no one else would tell.
How she’d look down 
and ask me what I thought
of Father’s paintings,
listen to my answer.
It’s hazy how
she made my father
How when I’d startle
in the night she’d soothe me
with a tune
to chase away
the monsters.
It’s hazy how
her last few weeks,
confined to bed,
the child inside
a greater weight
than those who came before,
and even when the child arrived
                a sister, finally, cold and blue,
and fever dreams bled
into pain laced with delirium,
Prudentia Montone spent
the last of her strength
to burn into my mind
the tales of women
no one else would
think to tell.
Those stories
of a righteous woman,
her virtue questioned
through no fault of her own;
of a widow
with nothing left to lose . . .
No way to tell
where shadow ends
and light begins
but Mother was always
                                                the light.
Light dances on the child’s curls
and whether Father sees
or not
the bond between the baby
and his mother is
Twelve years
with my mother
were not enough
but I know how to paint the love,
the source of light.
The final touches that remain
would go unnoticed to an unskilled eye.
In truth, I could release her now.
A signature the final touch,
                Orazio Gentileschi,
                (never Artemisia)
the client would be satisfied,
and none would be the wiser.
But I would know
her arm is
                                not quite right.
It wraps around the baby,
yet still looks flat.
Father babbled out
some useless nonsense
when I tried to ask him
how to fix the problem.
I don’t think
he understood
my question.
If he cannot see
the problem to begin with,
how could he ever solve it?
It’s only a commission,
doesn’t even bear my name.
But I’m not only painting the Madonna.
I’m building a ladder,
each new technique,
a rung.

Every time my father shoos me
down the stairs
away from my studio,
each time he speaks to buyers
                as though I am not there,
each time they leer at me
                as I descend in seething fury,
my mother’s stories
stoke the flames inside.
We mostly deal in Bible tales,
some portraits, ancient histories, myths.
But all the maestros
sign their names
to David, Adam, Moses.
Those who follow strive
to leave their mark as well.
I can paint a David—king or upstart boy,
but when I do
there’s nothing of me
on the canvas.
Susanna, though, is different.
My mother never held a brush
but still composed
the boldest images
from the brightest colors
drawing the eye—the mind—
to what mattered most:
                the young woman
                stealing a moment
                of peace to wash
                away the day
                                then her world,
                                stained beyond repair.
Susanna and the Elders.
Father’s made attempts at Susanna,
just like the other painters—men—
who think they have the right
to tell the story of a woman
always watched.
But one can’t truly tell a story
unless they’ve lived it in their heart.
The longer I’m shuffled
in and out of the studio,
used for what I can offer,
not what I long to share,
the more certain I am
I can do Susanna justice.
I can do my mother justice.
I can have justice.
But I’m holding back
until I think
my skills
can match
my heart.
My arm cradles my palette,
rounded, three-dimensional.
I paint alla prima in my mind
exactly how it should look.
Why then can I not transpose
                the image in my mind
                the image of my flesh
onto the canvas?
I stare at the Madonna’s
flat, flat arm so long
my eyes begin to blur.
I do not notice
the creak of stairs
                moan of door
                                steps that cross
                                                the studio.
Or perhaps he does not enter
like a mortal man
but appears
fully formed
a miraculous apparition.
                                a breath
                                upon my cheek.
Not Father’s breath.
I grope for hiked-up skirts,
fling endless, heavy layers
of propriety
toward my ankles.
I am a model Roman girl
(or I can play the part at least).
The man averts his eyes,
steps back to give me space,
as though he doesn’t realize
his mere presence in this room
drives out all air.
He may as well
be pressed against me.
He did not mean to startle—
that much is clear.
And even now as I
                                steady my breath
                                check my skirts once more
his eyes are not on me
but on the canvas.
                                               My name is Agostino Tassi.
                                               And you are Artemisia.

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