Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1652) was one of the most talented and adaptable Baroque painters of her time. Not only was she excellent at painting emotional scenes, but she was also the first woman accepted into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. On top of that, she worked with Caravaggio as his only female pupil. Yet, Artemisia was forgotten for centuries.
In 1915, Italian art historian Robert Longhi published an article, Gentileschi, padre e figlia (Gentileschi, father and daughter). It was speculated that people were misattributing her work as her father’s, but Longhi highlighted which were her own. He also helped retell her difficult story to the public.
See, part of what makes her art so poignant are its themes of sexual assault and assertive women. She drew from her own experiences as a woman in Renaissance Italy. Perhaps the most defining one was that in 1612, she was raped by her art teacher. Her father tried the rapist in court, making the scandal public.
A Tricky Trial
For review, Gentileschi was the daughter of respected painter, Orazio Gentileschi. He saw his daughter’s talent early on, and hired landscape painter Agostino Tassi to continue training her. But Tassi raped Artemisia when she was nineteen years old.
At the time, a woman couldn’t file rape charges. So Orazio filed the charges for her. On top of that, women were expected to marry their rapists to preserve their purity and honor. So instead of filing charges of rape, the court had to charge Tassi for property damage.
Artemisia was physically and mentally picked apart to discover the truth. Midwives inspected her body in court to ensure that she was a virgin. She also had her thumbs pressed to test if she was telling the truth. Due to the patriarchal system in the Renaissance, many people accused her of being a whore, or impure. In the end, Tassi was arrested for two years.
Her Subsequent Success
Thankfully, Artemisia did not stop the trial from propelling her success. She was accepted into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts in 1616. Cosimo II, the Medici, quickly became one of her patrons. She made a friend in Galileo Galilei, who she once thanked for helping her secure payment for her work.
Within her personal life, she had daughters with the husband she was married off to in Florence, Pietro Stiattesi. She eventually separated from her husband, and enjoyed a 40-year long career moving around cities and nations to meet commissions. Another one of her patrons was King Charles I of England, who commissioned her to paint his wife Queen Henrietta Maria’s ceiling in her Greenwich house.
Although she faced many trials as a woman, her sex did give her one small advantage. She was allowed to work with nude female models. Of course, not every painter cared about following these rules. For example, Caravaggio modeled his drawings after peasants and prostitutes. Nonetheless, she was capable of translating very honest, bold depictions of women onto canvas.
Her Most Powerful Paintings
Scholars often compare this painting to Caravaggio’s rendition of the same scene, Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1598-1599). The pieces are inspired by a Biblical story of Judith, a woman who saved her town during a siege by seducing the general Holofernes. After this, she severed his head, and used it as an example to drive the other soldiers to leave.
Both paintings are dramatic, but many see Artemisia’s rendition as more realistic. Caravaggio’s Judith appears to do the job in a clean swoop. Meanwhile, Artemisia’s Judith is struggling, but has a determined expression. Scholars and fans alike have speculated that Judith is Artemisia’s alter-ego; a symbol of her own fight against Tassi.
Susanna and the Elders, 1610
Artemisia made this painting when she was 17, and it’s her earliest known work. People were already impressed at how well she showed female anatomy. As is common with Baroque art, this story comes from the Bible.
Susanna, a young woman, went out to the gardens for a bath. Two older men found her and pried her for sexual favors, threatening to ruin her reputation if she disagreed. Upon denying them, they went through with their promise. But when a man named Daniel questioned their claims, they fell apart. Again, Artemisia portrayed a struggling, displeased women instead of a passive character in her story.
Lucretia, circa 1623
Lucretia is a woman in Roman mythology who was raped by the King of Rome’s youngest son. She told her father and her husband, Roman commander Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, before killing herself at knife point. It’s said that citizens were so angry about this that they overthrew the Roman monarchy and turned it into a republic.
Many view this painting as an example of women rebelling against tyranny. Some sources highlight that the painting doesn’t portray the assault, but focuses on the woman handling the aftermath instead. This depiction encourages viewers not to glamorize assault, in contrast to some Renaissance art which shows rape in “heroic” contexts.
Modern Controversies and Legacy
Some audiences still glamorize Artemisia’s story today. For example, the 1997 French-German-Italian film Artemisia was controversial because in it, she falls in love with Tassi. Film director Agnes Merlet argued that even if it’s clear there was an attack, she believes Artemisia loved him. Artemisia did say she considered marrying him, but it’s possible she only thought this to save her honor.
More recently, the play Artemisia’s Intent won the Best Solo Drama at the 2018 FRIGID Festival. It was partially inspired by the Me Too movement. In a way, you could say that Artemisia was ahead of her time because her work fits a modern cause. In fact, many people referenced her story when American Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was accused of rape.
Artemisia’s work was celebrated for its impressive realism and Baroque techniques. Today, she is not only recognized for her talent but as a woman who fought relentlessly against adversity and intimidation.