You can’t tell me that in the course of painting “Lot and his Daughters”, Orazio Gentileschi didn’t once think of his own daughter Artemesia, who is famed for her own artistic prowess during the Baroque period. In fact, I speculate that he painted his fraught relationship with her into this painting.

Lot and His Daughters (1622), Orazio Gentileschi, oil on canvas ( (59 3/4 × 74 1/2 in.), J. Paul Getty Museum

Commissioned during Orazio’s stay in Genoa at the invitation of nobleman Giovanni Antoni Sauli, the visual interpretation of this biblical narrative is quite provocative. Here, the city of Sodom has already been consumed by flames, the family has fled for safety, and God’s wrath has transformed Lot’s wife into salt. Only Lot and his two daughters have endured. After a harrowing journey out of the burning city, the trio collapses exhausted and alone onto the ground, and the father takes repose against his girls. This in itself would be a moving image. They are a family of refugees. But the story goes beyond what has been painted. Viewers familiar with biblical stories know that as the daughters (why are they nameless?) begin to wrap their heads around Sodom’s destruction, they realize that all men have perished. Duty-bound, they hatch a controversial plan: They will get their father intoxicated – we already notice the empty wine carafe on the ground foreshadowing this – and will seduce him in order to repopulate the earth. Both daughters become pregnant and bear sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi, who would later become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites, respectively.

In this painting, Gentileschi has managed to capture the tumultuous aftermath of divine retribution and the desperate measures taken by Lot’s daughters in the quest for humanity’s survival and continuity.

But can we talk about not daddy and not mommy, but daughter issues? How the artist feels about this morally is hard to tell, but there are clues.

There was a prevalence of incestuous marriages among royal families in the 17th century, so it’s not entirely surprising that such a sensational narrative found its place on the canvas. It was somewhat more acceptable back then. But in today’s eyes, no way! So let’s challenge ourselves to embrace the discomfort as an opportunity for dialogue and reflection. What does this painting reveal about the human condition? How does Gentileschi’s artistic interpretation challenge our preconceived notions? Engaging in these conversations allows us to extract deeper meaning from the painting and foster a richer understanding of our shared humanity.

The daughters, fully alert unlike their father, draw the viewer’s gaze immediately to them. We see so much closeness and intimacy in the way this family leans into one another, arms all tangled and legs mirrored. It’s only because the clothing begins to undrape all three characters (in prime colors as if to indicate the “original” colors before they mix and match to make new colors/humans) that we get a sense of the fateful choices the daughters are about to make.

It is the daughter on the right, her skin most bare and appearing youthful, who evokes memories of Orazio’s daughter Artemesia’s own teenage years when she had to testify at a significant trial ten years prior in 1612 against her assailant, Agostino Tassi. Orazio had employed Tassi as Artemesia’s painting tutor when Tassi forced himself on Artemesia. To keep her honor, Artemesia entered into a consensual relationship thinking Tassi was obliged to marry her, which he did not. And this is when Orazio initiated the charges against Tassi to vindicate the family name. It was never to seek justice for Artemesia. During the trial, Artemesia had to testify under torture, but it was only when a missing painting was returned to Orazio, presumably stolen by Tassi, that he dropped the legal proceedings. Despite a guilty verdict, Tassi’s mild punishment remained unenforced.

I can’t imagine what Artemesia must have felt like. Almost immediately after the trial Orazio managed to marry Artemesia off. Father and daughter parted ways for over two decades and would not see each other again until Orazio called her to be with him toward the end of his life, under the pretense of helping him finish some commissions in London, where he had become a court painter.

I believe this rift between father and daughter found its way onto the canvas here.

Orazio, much like his influence Caravaggio, was known to paint from live models. In this artwork, however, the characters’ full faces are intentionally obscured by the way they are angled away from us. This suggests the possibility that Orazio might have, at least partially, relied on memory, when painting them, and it seems to me that they bear a resemblance to his estranged daughter. A brief examination of Artemesia’s self-portraits reinforces this suspicion; both of Lot’s daughters look like her. The distinctive red curly hair, the rosy skin tone, and even the subtle hook at the top of the nose can be observed in Orazio’s rendering. I even detect a similar body type beneath the billowing robes in each portrait.


I also believe it’s plausible that Lot himself is actually a self-portrait of the artist. A depiction of Orazio by Lucas Emil Vorsterman shows the artist with a distinct hairline and expressive pointy nose that can also be observed on Lot.

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi (c. 1630) by Lucas Emil Vorsterman, for “The Iconography”

I don’t suspect that Orazio harbored improper thoughts of his daughter, but that perhaps he was trying to work out moral ambiguity and guilt within himself. The painting blames both himself and Artemesia as much as it forgives them. Perhaps this is why it’s such a striking and uncomfortable painting for me. Orazio, an extremely flawed father, seeks redemption and understanding for himself and his daughter. He has used his art to cope with himself by reflecting on norms, taboos, and uncomfortable realities, and this, in turn, forces me to do the same four hundred years later.

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