Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
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.
He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.
I will show you
what a woman can do.
Blood Water Paint is not a light read, despite its short length.
Though it clocks in at less than 300 pages, told mostly in verse with glimpses of prose, Blood Water Paint isn’t a breeze. Truthfully, it’s a book best read when you’re in the right headspace for it. Centered around Artemisia Gentileschi, a famous Italian Baroque painter, the book covers not only her outstanding talent, but her rape at the hands of Agostino Tassi.
It is one of the few books I’ve ever read that uses the word “rapist.” So rarely have I encountered a story that firmly draws that line, places that blame, and it struck me with incredible force here. There is absolutely no question about who is at fault, and though Artemisia finds herself at a loss more than once following the assault, the lines are still clear, and Artemisia’s fight for agency remains at the forefront.
Bearing all that in mind, I recommend waiting on this if you’re not in a good place to encounter such a violent and traumatic event. While it’s not outrageously graphic, it remains serious and potentially triggering subject matter.
“But then, you never see the beast until he is upon you.”
Truthfully, I shouldn’t have read it when I did. I may have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been in the lowest point of a depressive episode. Poetry may not be my thing, but if I had been less emotionally unsteady, I might have appreciated it more. As it was, I loved that the poems were formatted in such a way to simulate dialogue, with sharp distinction between Artemisia’s thoughts, the spoken word of other characters, and the encouragements from the women of the Bible that Artemisia holds dear. Coupled with brief prose interludes, and I think it was structured well. That much I enjoyed immensely despite distraction.
But all the same, it didn’t work for me as well as I hoped. The biggest thing besides my own mental health was the language at hand. So often, Artemisia’s train of thought had a modern cant to it. If this were historical fiction with original characters, maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me. But Artemisia Gentileschi was a real person, and the contrast between history and the more modernized language nagged at me.
Blood Water Paint also lost me in its shortness. It’s no secret I love long books, but shorter books aren’t usually an obstacle. This time, though, given how limited the snippet of Artemisia’s life and how narrow the plot’s focus is, I wanted a longer book. That said, I feel that this is a more subjective criticism. I’m not even sure whether a longer dive into Artemisia’s life would have improved the book or drawn it out far too long. I simply felt like the weight of the material at hand was too heavy for the length of the book. The ending suffered, turning into something rather underwhelming to me, as a result.
Nonetheless, Blood Water Paint is still a 3 star read.
Maybe one day, I’ll read it again when I’m in a better frame of mind. Perhaps I’ll give it a better rating then. But for now, I still thing it was an enjoyable book. The Biblical interludes were well dispersed, diving into the POVs of Biblical women like Judith and Susanna, and the pacing was outstanding. Not to mention I’m a sucker for historical fiction centered on art history. I didn’t earn an art history minor in college for nothing!
All I can say with complete confidence, though, is that I encourage you to read it only if you feel ready. Charging in without being ready affected my perception of the book, and that was without experiencing a major trigger. For folks that know stories about sexual assault affect their health, this is one best set aside for a better day. And for those ready to read, I think it’s a sobering, well-written read, and likely a good read between genres. It forces you to slow down and absorb the consequences rather than charging ahead, and when so many books are page-turners, that breathing room is valuable.
CW: loss of a loved one, child death, rape, pedophilia, incest, torture