4 Feminist Paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi

Known as the Queen of Baroque, Artemisia Gentileschi was a feminist painter of the Baroque Age.

Mar 2, 2024By Sourima Rana, MA English Literature, BA English Literature

artemisia gentileschi feminist paintings


Artemisia Gentileschi was born on the 8th of July in 1593, in Rome, Italy, in an age synonymous with grandeur, richness, emotional exuberance, and vitality. Artemisia was the daughter of the painter Ozario Gentileschi and the first woman who was accepted to the Florentine Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. Her time was one of gender imbalance, sexual violence, myths of female inferiority, and the cultural silencing of women’s voices and achievements. Artemisia, however, was artistically inclined and learned the trade from her father, becoming one of the greatest painters of the Baroque Age.


Feminist Leanings of Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-portrait as Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638/1639. Source: Royal Collection Trust, London


Painting by male painters portrayed women in defamatory ways, they were either the saint or the sinner, the pure virgin/mother, or the sexually vile and wicked temptress. Misogynistic views were prevalent and broadcast through paintings and they helped fuel the infamous witch-hunts. It was thus in such a society, that Artemisia portrayed the picture of gender relations from a female and feminist point of view, consistently challenging patriarchal values.


Artemisia was a victim of sexual assault. She was raped by her art teacher Agostino Tassi in 1612. She even testified against him in court. Channeling her trauma through artwork, Artemisia plunged into portraying strong women figures while dealing with themes of sexual assault, victimhood, honor, chastity, and virtue. A select analysis of her most famous paintings shows how Artemisia hid feminist clues boldly in her works, demonstrating that a picture could express opposing gender perspectives simultaneously. Here are four feminist works done by Artemisia Gentileschi.


1. Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Susanna and the Elders, by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610. Source: Web Gallery of Art


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From her earliest work, Susanna and the Elders, Artemisia hides the strength of her feminine characters in plain sight. In the Biblical story, Susanna is spied upon by two lustful old men as she bathes. They threaten to sully her reputation if she refuses them sexual favors. Susanna resists them and protects her innocent chastity even as they hurt her reputation. Despite its morally instructive theme, the story of Susanna and the elders was a voyeuristic opportunity for male art patrons and viewers. At only 17, Artemisia gave Susanna back her agency.


In her painting, Susanna twists uncomfortably on a stone bench, away from the nefarious male gaze of her assailants looming above her. Her head is bent awkwardly off-axis, her arms are raised in resistance, and a frown is on her face. Her discomfort is highlighted, her nudity shows her vulnerability, instead of the perceived threatening sensuousness of feminine beauty. It shifts the locus of lust rightfully on the men, away from Susanna who wears but a slip of a white cloth, while the old men are robed in burning, passionate red. The contrasting colors carry their symbolic values. Susanna is bathed in light as a pure being, while the lustful men are painted in darker shades referring to their evil intentions.


An unusual detail is seen in the casting of one elder as an appealing, handsome, younger man which brings new depth to the character of Susanna. In resisting his demand, she is not simply defending her honor for morality’s sake, she is also resisting potential sexual temptation, showing her willpower. It is a portrayal of the innocence of women who are preyed upon and the unfairness of the gender roles.


2. Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620)

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620. Source: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


The Biblical Judith was a Jewish widow who lifted the siege of Israel by killing the tyrant Holofernes through trickery. She used her feminine wiles and sexual allure to seduce him, only to chop off his head later when he was drunk. Despite her brave act, she has subsequently been branded as the gender stereotype of the femme fatale. This stereotyping and eroticizing of Judith was meant to neutralize her threatening agency towards men and the patriarchy.


Artemisia draws upon Caravaggio’s pictorial depiction of the story but modifies it to show the strength of women. In her painting, Judith slices off Holofernes’ head with her sword, a violent and bloody decapitation, as her maidservant Abra holds down the body of the struggling victim. Where Caravaggio’s maidenly Judith cringed from her task in revulsion, Artemisia’s Judith is determined, her facial features distorted by the physical strain, her attitude denoting Amazonian ferocity.


Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, 1599; Source: Barberini Collection, Rome


Yet, Judith’s plumpness and alabaster skin simultaneously evoke her seductive charm. Blood streams everywhere in a burst of color— staining the bed, dripping down the sheets, spurting in arcs from the victim’s neck, and even spotting the executioner’s dress. Two strong women overpower a clueless, weak-looking man, who lacks musculature, while they exude masculine energy. A young and vigorous maidservant too replaces Caravaggio’s passive, crone-like bystander.


It is possible that her painting was a pictorial revenge that Artemisia took on her rapist, as a sort of poetic justice. The painting, however, invokes horror, fright, and shock, because it appears to be amoral as two women unflinchingly execute a screaming man in a dark space. Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes by Artemisia is thus a woman’s metaphoric vengeance against her social oppressor.


3. Lucretia (1621)

Lucretia by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1621, via Athenaeum Organisation


The mythic Lucretia’s tale is a little different from Susanna’s. She was a virtuous Roman wife, whose beauty aroused an Etruscan nobleman, Sextus Tarquinius, who threatened to kill her if she didn’t yield to him. When she refused, he threatened to disgrace her honor by having her killed and placed in bed with a naked slave to prove her supposed adultery to the world. Lucretia was therefore coerced into giving in to the rape in her husband’s absence. Although she was blameless and pardoned, Lucretia chose death as no unchaste woman should use her example as an excuse for their conscious guilty actions. Lucretia thus drew a knife and plunged it into her breast as a sacrifice.


Artemisia portrays Lucretia on the foot of her bed, in the dark space of her bedchamber. Her naked shoulders and breasts are white compared to her surroundings, and the disarray of her clothing indicates that the rape has occurred. Once again, the color schemes of greenish-black and dark crimson are juxtaposed with the pure whiteness of her skin and her nightgown. Grasping a dagger and her breast, she is postured with her eyes upturned, as if seeking God’s help. Her knotted brow, parted lips and the stiffness of her body suggest her emotional and physical turmoil.


Lucretia by Rembrandt, 1666. Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota


Unlike the usual depictions of the period, Artemisia’s Lucretia is not shown stabbing her breast. She is also not heroically resigned to carry out the sacrificial act with stoicism. Instead, she questions the necessity of the act, hesitating and full of anguish. Artemisia thus, catches Lucretia as a thinking woman, one who takes her own decisions actively, instead of being a passive recipient of the society’s rules.


4. Corisca and the Satyr (1635) 

Corisca and the Satyrs by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1635. Source: Atribune.com


Artemisia had a special fondness for painting the donne infame, or the infamous women who disarmed and emasculated unsuspecting men, like Delilah and Medea. Her intent was to provide them with their lost voices and to show their side of the story which lay hidden under the tyrannical perspective of a patriarchal society. The story of Corsica is based on a 16th-century Italian play Il Pastor Fido by Giovanni Battista Guarini. In the play, the nymph Corisca accepts gifts of clothing from a satyr, who gets aroused by her acceptance and attempts to rape her by grabbing her by the hair. But Corisca escapes, leaving her wig in the enraged satyr’s hands. Deviating from the norm of presenting the woman as the manipulative, devious inspirator of men’s passions, Artemisia presents Corsica as beautiful, bold, and strong.


Corisca and the satyr are shown against the dark background of the woods. She is captured in the movement of running away, her golden gown and purple cloak clutched in her hand, with the other placed on her hair. She glances back towards her assailant, who sits in defeat, clutching her wig. Corisca’s foiling of the satyr is a triumph over all the men who blame their lust on their victims, denouncing them as evil temptresses.


To portray Corisca’s trickery of escaping the vile, unwanted clutches of the satyr, she is presented in vibrant colors and as towering over the satyr. Hair is also associated with feminine beauty and Corisca’s hair glowing amber and gold, drives poets mad. The shedding of her artificial hair therefore figuratively liberates Corisca from masculinist values imposed on women’s lives.


The Legacy of Artemisia Gentileschi

Self Portrait as a Lute Player by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1615. Source: Google Arts and Culture


Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the rare women artists of her age who achieved greatness in a male-dominated society. True to the temperaments of her artistic age, her paintings are characterized by the innovative use of the chiaroscuro technique of sharp contrasts of light and dark, dominant warm tones, dynamic and constant movement, emotion, and the use of allegory. She criticized gender norms and she lent voices to the voiceless women, in an age where they could only escape the prisons of gender through the power of imagination or art. Her paintings preserve her messages and show us her feminist legacy.

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By Sourima RanaMA English Literature, BA English LiteratureSourima is an aspiring poetess from India with a Master's and Bachelor's in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. An avid reader, she’s interested in decoding paintings and films and finding the psychological underpinnings of human behavior and its representation in literature. Her areas of special interest include Romantic poetry and popular culture genres like the Gothic and detective fiction. Apart from work or academia, she loves spending time with animals, playing the guitar, and singing.