Book Review: Blood Water Paint – Joy McCullough

Content Note: This book contains some themes that some people may not be comfortable reading. If that sounds like it might be you, maybe give this review a miss. Thanks for stopping by.



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 discovered Blood Water Paint after going through a prose phase last year. To my shame, I had never even heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, but now I am entirely wrapped up in her story. Artemisia was an extremely talented 17th century Baroque painter. She painted some of her most famous works as just a teenager rivalling that of Caravaggio (well, I think her work is more impressive than that of Caravaggio…!).

Blood Water Paint has three stories running through it: that of Artemisia and the aftermath of her rape by a man who was meant to be her tutor, Susanna and the Elders, and Judith beheading Holofernes. The stories of Susanna and Judith are biblical tales, the subjects of which have been reproduced by many painters across the centuries.

McCullough weaves Artemisia, Susanna, and Judith together so wonderfully in a show of their strength and power, and a refusal to be restrained by the whims and follies of men. She also depicts how Artemisia’s experiences influenced her art and how she drove her emotions into her work, as depicted in two exams of her art above.

My mother knew

this wasn’t right.

She knew the men

who paint Susanna

could not comprehend

a woman’s feelings in that moment.

She knew I’d need Susanna

when I found myself

a woman in a world of men.

Girl as prey.

Blood Water Paint, Chapter 24, page 65

What this book highlights most strongly is both fascinating and horrific – not much has really changed since Artemisia was a girl who stood in a court and had to prove she was ‘damaged property’ (the closest thing to a conviction a man would face in a trial such as this in 17th century Rome). But as a reader, the message is clear. Use your words, speak your truth. Advocate for yourself. Advocate for others. They are words to offer support and strength to those who may need them, but also our duty to care for each other and not turn away from those who need us.

Blood Water Paint really got under my skin. McCullough’s writing is phenomenal and I am grateful to her for writing something that so need to be written but also needs to be widely read.

This book would be a perfect choice for a book club. Highly recommended.

I purchased this book myself.

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You can support your local bookshop by buying Blood Water Paint through them directly, or via Hive or*.

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What do you think of Blood Water Paint? Will you be reading it? Let me know in the comments below.

Wishing you a wonderfully bookish week,


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