Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers on March 6th, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Poetry
These women who dare
by your body
will never have
an ounce of your worth.”
CW: sexual assault, violence, physical torture, victim-blaming
I have a friend who insisted that I read Blood Water Paint after I told her I loved The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I added it to my (neverending) TBR list and thought nothing of it. I knew I’d eventually get to it! But I was going through my bookshelf recently and decided to finally see what all the hype was about.
Blood Water Paint is a historical fiction novel written in prose about Artemisia Gentileschi, one of Rome’s most talented painters. Her mother died when she was 12 years old and suddenly she 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. And by the time she was 17, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was a talented painter in Rome, even if nobody 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.
This was such a powerful and intense read. I’m so impressed by how McCullough told a story that’s easy to follow yet brimming with joy, terror, and love in what it means to be a woman—16th century or now.
Most of this book is written in verse. But there are a few chapters written in the usual form: the stories of Judith and Susanna as told by Artemisia’s mom. We see the hardships and choices these these women endured. They’re all terrifying and captivating.
Artemisia’s such an interesting character. This fictionalized version of her is angry, passionate, and resilient. She’s a survivor because she has to be. At such a young age, she’s already seen enough in the world to become jaded. We see how her father treats her cruelly and belittles her talent; the maid and Artemisia’s brothers ignore her when she needs them the most; and Agostino takes advantage of his role as her teacher and assaults her.
That’s just the way of things.
I beg and fight and scrape
for scraps while he just has to glance
upon a thing to make it
It’s a tough read because you already know where the story is headed. As the reader, you feel a sense of hopelessness because you can’t prevent the event from happening. That’s exactly how I felt with every page that I turned.
She did not ask for the beauty that attracted him. She did not ask for gold and jewels. To you these might seem like unimaginable luxuries. But beauty is a heavy crown.
So is womanhood.
It was excruciating to read about the trial. Artemisia sits there while empty insults are flung at her. The judge, the jury, her rapist, and the onlookers torture her in the hope that she will rescind her claims, accept the loss, and hide herself away as the world carries on.
Despite the heavy subject matter, this book was beautifully written. In short words and sentences, you learn about the painter’s process, how painters view the world, and how they capture life in a single moment on a canvas.
I am not myself unless
some part of my body is covered in paint.
The more paint, the more cover,
the more I am Artemisia
The paint is not a shield
but another skin.
And even if it’s scrubbed away,
there’s paint inside,
pounding through my veins.
It’s clear that McCullough wants readers to remember that we listen to victim and believe their stories. But it never comes across as preachy.
She shows instead of tells us through Artemisia, Susanna, and Judith’s stories of brave and resilient feminists.
When a woman risks
her place, her very life to speak
a truth the world despises?
Believe her. Always.
Despite the dark subject matter, this was a quick read. I hope you practice self-care while reading this. But it’s an important book and now I want to read a biography about Artemisia! I’m very sad and disappointed that I never got to study her art while getting my degree.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about Artemisia’s life. This book is tragically relevant. It’s a reminder of how little has changed, but it’s also a hopeful testament to what we can achieve in society around rape culture.