Book Review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Every now and then, you get your hands on a book that awakens something within you.

As I was reading McCullough’s Blood Water Paint, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a book I would want to share with my daughter. I immediately placed it in the hands of a female student when I made it back to work on Monday (I had started the book Saturday and finished it by Sunday). I couldn’t wait to tell Bridget about it…In short, this was a book I knew needed to be talked about.

Blood Water Paint is written partially in verse, partially in prose. A story about Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist in seventeenth century Italy, McCullough turns this amazing woman’s story into one that is both powerful and relatable, despite the distance in time.

The night my mother

finally slipped

from pain

to nothingness

I slumped to sleep

with tear-drenched sheets

and woke to blood.

The verse sections provide the reader a glimpse into Artemisia’s inner turmoil as she tries to navigate young womanhood without a strong female role model. Interspersed throughout are prose pieces in the voice of her deceased mother, relating the stories of Biblical women told to Artemisia throughout her childhood–stories which teach Artemisia the trials women must go through as they navigate a patriarchal society. The juxtaposition of the two women’s voices is powerful and incredibly haunting. Readers get a sense of the bond between mother and daughter that remains strong, despite death and absence.

Artemisia is an apprentice for her father, who is an artist…these terms are used loosely, for it is Artemisia who paints, while her father simply signs his name to her work.

In an effort to make a strong artistic connection to advance his career, the father has renowned artist Agostino come in to tutor Artemisia. Agostino uses his power, influence, and charm to seduce and eventually rape Artemisia. This act is made more horrific by the fact that Artemisia had begun to fall for Tino, as she called him, before she realized the kind of man he truly was. Her relationship with him had awakened her, both to the power in her ability to paint, as well as to the power in her awakening sexuality. However, after he rapes her, Artemisia descends into depression, during which she can no longer express herself through her art, and instead is haunted by the stories her mother told her as a child.

The front door slams

and slams again

as Father hurries after

Agostino, to beg

forgiveness from

my rapist.

Throughout this experience, Artemisia must deal with feelings of abandonment. Despite the likelihood that her rape was overheard by her brothers and maidservant, no one comes to her rescue. She realizes that, in her world, no one is going to help her–in seventeenth century Italy, women had no rights. Spurred to action by a desire for justice, as well as a desire to be heard, she takes Agostino to court; her case is founded on the idea that her father’s property (i.e. Artemisia) has been damaged. The case drags on for years, and Artemisia must endure humiliation, torture, and mutilation to try to prove her honesty so that her rapist will not walk away unpunished.

I take a length of cloth

and hold it to my head–

a wedding veil.

I do not regret the days of make-believe,

but for every time I played at bride

I should have played at goddess


warrior queen.

This is such a powerful story for young women. It shows the intricacies of navigating womanhood, desire, and sexism, and even though Artemisia’s world is that of Italy in the 1600s, I still found I could relate to her story as a modern woman.

McCullough does a fantastic job of taking a real life figure, whose story was powerful in and of itself, and creating a work that is profound, poetic, and moving. I would highly recommend this book, especially to teenage girls, who can find a powerful, true-to-life role model in the young Artemisia.

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