Blood Water Paint
by Joy McCullough
Publication Date: March 6, 2018
Length: 298 pages
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Obtained Via: Library
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A debut novel based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.
She chose paint.
By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.
I will show you what a woman can do.
Warnings for: sexual assault, torture
Blood Water Paint is a debut YA novel told primarily, but not wholly, in verse about the historical painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Art history is not a subject I am particularly drawn to, so I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about Artemisia before reading this book. What I read was a profound, moving story that unfortunately still resonates in the way our culture treats survivor of sexual assault centuries after Artemisia’s story ended.
Artemisia is an apprentice to her father, a somewhat mediocre painter. Artemisia herself is a much better artist, but she toils in the background as her father takes the credit for her labors. When Agostino Tassi, a highly respected artist, discovers her and seems to nurture her artistic talent, Artemisia thinks she has finally found someone who respects her craft. She learns from him as she continues painting, and the two develop what is originally portrayed as a friendship. However, a heartbreaking reveal shows that Agostino, like all the other men Artemisia knows, sees her as a piece of beauty to be consumed. When she refuses his advances, he rapes her.
Blood Water Paint shies away from graphic accounts of the attack, but it is on-the-page and very present in the book from that moment forward. What makes Blood Water Paint special, though, is that it perfectly captures the moment of a betrayal. Artemisia thought Agostino respected her as a fellow artist, a person in her own right. When she realizes that he has been pursuing her as nothing more than something to be held and desired without regard to her own feelings, the utter change of perspective is quick and painful. It is a feeling I believe most women, no matter the century, have experienced, even if that betrayal did not lead to a physical assault as Artemisia’s did.
Blood Water Paint is told primarily in verse, which is always a tricky technique to get right. In this case, McCullough’s choice to tell the story this way makes sense. Artemisia is a painter, not a wordsmith. She cannot read or write–pigment is her way to expression, not ink. She has led a hard life as her mother died several years prior to the beginning of the book and those around her do not take her seriously. Especially after the assault, it makes sense that Artemisia’s inner narrative is told in these sharp, pointed thought patterns that are never quite straightforward. The verse is another way into Artemisia’s mind, just as much as the descriptions of her artwork. In contrast to these sharp bits of verse are stories, told in prose, that Artemisia’s mother passed down to her of famous biblical women. In these versions of the stories, the women are not passive creatures, but rather actors in their own regards even as they suffer greatly at the hands of men around them — not unlike Artemisia herself.
Blood Water Paint is a snapshot of one part of Artemisia’s life. It chronicles some of the hardships Artemisia faced at the hands of men, including not only her assault but also her subsequent trial, in which she, the victim, is the one who is tortured in order to see if she can be believed. Artemisia’s decision to do everything she can to make sure her rapist faces judges is notable, considering how much she has to lose as a woman in the time period.
It is easy to read Blood Water Paint and thinks it takes to simplistic a look at the ways in which women are often abused at the hands of men. However, I would disagree with that finding. If this book was looking at the subjugation of women on a larger scale, perhaps I would agree. However, Blood Water Paint is an account of a particular chapter in the life of a woman who really existed, and who we do know about several centuries later. While it is fiction, it does follow the events of her life as closely as possible, and for Artemisia, all the men around her did betray her in one way or another. She did not have the luxury of knowing exceptions to that rule, and this is an important aspect of the book. Without a mother, sister, or another woman she could confide in, it really was Artemisia against a system designed to bring her down. . . and that’s what makes her fight so powerful and impactful, even reading about it centuries later.
Blood Water Paint introduced me to a famous woman I knew nothing about before reading, but by the end I was enamored by Artemisia and her courage. This was a book I love that was in many ways an exception to my usual reading taste. I do not usually gravitate to historical novels or books in verse, but I could not tear myself away from this one. It is one I will I know I will be recommending for a long time. 5/5 stars.