Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an Italian Baroque painter from an era in which female painters were not readily accepted by the artistic community. Artemisia was born in Rome on July 8, 1593, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Early in life she was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers (Heller 29).
It has been proposed that in 1609 Artemisia painted the Madonna and Child, although the work was unsigned. Some critics assert that this is Artemisia's earliest known painting, which she based on a Madonna painted by her father ("Madonna and Child"). However, if it is her work, then at age sixteen she already demonstrated excellent technical skills. She captures an intimacy between mother and child that is rarely achieved by male artists. This image is interesting in that it portrays the female as a nurturing figure, in stark contrast to Artemisia’s later works.
In 1611, Artemisia’s father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino della Rose in Rome, and Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Nine months after the rape, after he learned that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to be married, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Along with the rape charge, Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household ("Agostino Tassi: About This Artist").
During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had a criminal record and had been previously incarcerated on similar charges. But, in the course of the trial, Artemisia was still subjected to a gynecological examination and was tortured with thumbscrews to test the validity of her testimony. At the end of the trial, Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. Artemisia effectively was the person punished for the rape, as her reputation was damaged by the extremely public scandal of the trial (Mancoff 109).
Likely as a result of her own female suffering, Artemisia painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible—victims, warriors, and women who committed suicide. In common with many male painters of her generation, Artemisia Gentileschi depicted Judith, the biblical heroine, yet her own personal history added the element of retribution to her works (Mancoff 108).
After resuming her work post-trial, Artemisia painted her best-known image, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-1613). The painting is striking for its scene of “horrific struggle and blood-letting” it portrays (Lubbock 30). The work shows a scene from the Old Testament Book of Judith that details the delivery of Israel from the Assyrian army. When the Assyrian general, Holofernes, attacked her village in his march to Jerusalem, Judith dressed herself in her best attire and coaxed the general into trusting her. After spending four nights with him, she seized his sword and, with the help of her maidservant, beheaded the general after he had fallen asleep drunk (Mancoff 109).
The painting is uncompromisingly physical, from the gushes of blood to the apparent strength of the two women as they try to wield the large, typically male dagger and overcome the male aggressor (Gardener 583). Although the painting depicts a classic scene from the Bible, Gentileschi drew herself as Judith and Tassi, her rapist, as Holofernes. This leads me to agree with the many feminist critics who assert that this painting functions as "a cathartic expression of the artist's private, and perhaps repressed, rage" (Bissell 112).
A month after Artemisia completed Judith Beheading Holofernes, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist from Florence. Shortly afterward the couple moved to Florence, Artemisia became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family.
Also while in Florence, Artemisia painted Judith and her Maidservant, a work that is especially significant in terms of the development of her career. Like Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia completed the work post-trial, and the strength with which she interprets the biblical tale reflects a strong feminist character. Here, Artemisia has chosen to portray a moment after the beheading of Holofernes. She shows the women as wary and, though they have succeeded in their deed, she does not depict them as triumphant. Rather, the women have the dignity of authentic heroism- a rare portrayal of women during this time period (Mancoff 109).
At first glance, Judith and her Maidservant, looks like a domestic scene, as the women carry a basket that would ordinarily contain a domestic staple. However, upon closer inspection of the basket and the disembodied head within, one realizes that this scene is anything but domestic. Also interesting in this picture are the lines leading away from it. The glances of the women lead us outside the frame, a rare artistic move as it directs the viewer outside your work, when it is traditionally recommended that an artist maintain interest within the frame. It is this divergence from the expected that makes Artemisia an artist that personally appeals to me.
In Florence, Artemisia enjoyed huge success. She was the first woman accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing (Dabbs 144). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time. Artemisia also developed a good relationship with Galileo, with whom she corresponded for an extended period of time.
Despite her success, financial excesses borne by her for husband led to problems with creditors, and she fell out with her husband. Though the marriage was not successful, the couple is thought to have had a daughter who also became a painter under the tutelage of her mother, though little is known of her works (Heller 30). She returned without him to Rome in 1621. Despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality, and her numerous good relationships, however, Rome was not so lucrative as she hoped. Her style, tone of defiance, and strength relaxed.
In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples, a city rich with patrons, in search of new and more lucrative job opportunities. In Naples for the first time Artemisia started working on paintings in a cathedral in Pozzuoli. During her first Neapolitan period she painted Birth of Saint John the Baptist. In these paintings Artemisia handle different subjects, instead of the usual Judith and Susanna for which she already was known. The painting also is interesting in that it is an unusually domestic image for Artemisia, thought this tranquil scene is dominated by female figures who traditionally controlled childbearing (“The Birth of Saint John the Baptist”).
In 1638 Artemisia joined her father in London at the court of Charles I, where Orazio became court painter. Father and daughter were working together once again, although helping her father probably was not her only reason for travelling to London: Charles I had convoked her in his court. The fame of Artemisia probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the La Pittura ("Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting”).
Orazio died suddenly in 1639. Artemisia later left England by 1642, before the civil war began. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again ("Artemisia Gentileschi Biography").
As Artemisia grew older, her work became more graceful and typically feminine and while this was to some extent part of the general shift in taste and sensibility, it must also have resulted from the artist becoming more and more self-consciously a woman painter (Garrard 136-37). Ultimately, Artemisia’s journey as a defiant female artist ended when she died in the plague that swept Naples in 1656 ("Artemisia Gentileschi Biography").
In sum, Gentileschi managed to thrive in a male-dominated field as a woman. Today, she remains an inspiration, not only for her powerful work, but for her ability to overcome the limits and prejudices of her time. She also appeals to me in that her works feature women as equal to men.
Gentilischi’s works also personally interest me due to the fact that their style is atypical for a woman. A nineteenth-century critic commented on her work and asserted, "no one would have imagined that it was the work of a woman. The brush work was bold and certain, and there was no sign of timidness" (Bissell, 112). She was well aware of how women and female artists were viewed by men, therefore, crafted her works to be more bold and defiant (Bissell, 113). By doing so successfully, however, she gained great respect and recognition.
- Post by Stephanie Downey
- Post by Stephanie Downey
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