I have always been taught that the 1600s, due to the Renaissance, were a time of great change and innovation in all parts of life, including art. However, my education has never gone much beyond that statement, so I wanted to learn a bit more about some of the specifics of that change and the rise of artists we now revere. Looking through a book that described itself as an introduction to the artistic developments of the era in Western Europe (“17th Century Art and Architecture”), I actually found myself fascinated by an artist I had never heard mentioned in my history classes (unsurprisingly, as they were not centered around art but rather the whole of Western civilization).
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter who lived from 1593 to 1656. My attention was first drawn to her because she was female, and even I, with my very limited knowledge of art history, knew that there were very few female painters as women were not considered talented enough to work. As I read more about her, I learned that she is now considered one of the best painters in the generation after Michelangelo Caravaggio (this piqued my interest a little further because even though I know very little about his work, I have heard his name). What really caught and stayed my attention, however, was her best-known painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, completed around 1611.
This is a scene from the Bible’s Old Testament Book of Judith, and is the climax of Judith’s story as she assassinates the Assyrian general and saves the Israelites. Gentileschi is known for her realism, bold strokes, and strong female figures who do not fit into the gentle, passive stereotype that would have existed even more strongly while she was alive than today. Gentileschi was raped while a nearby female acquaintance did nothing to help her, and she testified at the trial charging her rapist. Her works often show female solidarity.
The painting above is Judith and her Maidservant, completed around 1613. This is the same Biblical Judith, with her maid carrying the severed head of Holofermes. This painting is known for its use of extreme lights and darks (chiaroscuro and tenebrism). Once again, the women are depicted boldly, with Judith comfortably resting her dagger on her shoulder.
Gentileschi continued to challenge the common perception of women throughout her career. Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, probably completed around 1639, was a bold statement for the time. Gentileschi makes herself the image of the art of painting; this was controversial because she was a woman. She continued her techniques of bold strokes and extreme contrasts between light and dark.
Harris, Ann Sutherland. 17th Century Art and Architecture. London: Laurence Kind, 2008. Print.
Parker, Christine. The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi. Created 1999, last updated 2011. Web.
Accessed 2 March 2014.