Artemisia Gentileschi: a forgotten triumph?
I’ve been fascinated with a staggering Baroque artist named Artemisia Gentileschi ever since I saw a photograph of her most famous painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes. The sheer brutality of the scene, captured in media res mid-decapitation was captivating like no other.
Made even more so by Judith’s countenance; setting to her grisly task, not with hysterical horror, but with a look of obligation, as if she were attending to an unpleasant, yet necessary chore. Rapt, I set out to discover as much about Artemisia as possible.
Along the way, I discovered she was a multi-faceted, utterly fascinating individual; a colossal creative talent with a deeply traumatic past, a shrewd businesswoman skilled at self-promotion, and perhaps most interestingly, an artist who painted women in a way hitherto never seen before.
Yet despite this, she is not a household name — not up there with the Canalettos, Titians, Rembrandts, and Caravaggios of this world. Her fame is limited, being mostly known to academic circles, keen art lovers, historians, and eager tourists of Florence and Rome. Therefore, I decided to make it my mission to uncover her story, her journey, and the deep significance of her transgressive art.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
— Marie Shear
What’s remarkable about Artemisia’s portraits of woman are how inherently human they are, considering the era in which they were painted. As a whole, women in Renaissance and Baroque art were painted as little more than titillating accessories (Biblical figures) or ethereal allegories (Muses, Goddesses). I.e. — not human beings.
Artemisia’s women, however, are different. Her paintings show the scene directly through the eyes of the female subject. Artemisia’s women are active humans displaying a full spectrum of emotion, responses, and physicality.
Moreover, Artemisia’s archetypal active woman lies in her radical interpretation of Susanna and the Elders, a well-known Biblical tale and a popular scene painted by Renaissance artists.
The tale is simple; Susanna, a beautiful young Hebrew woman, bathes naked in her garden alone, and is harassed, blackmailed and subsequently raped by two lecherous old men.
In other interpretations of this story, it’s painfully obvious that male artists relished any opportunity to paint a nude woman just before she is ‘ravished’. In Stanzione, Allori and Cagnacci’s interpretations (albeit the later painted well over a century after the others), Susanna is portrayed as seductive and coy, with open body language, often beckoning towards her would-be ‘seducers’.
Artemisia’s portrayal is stunning in comparison. Susanna’s body is wrenched around to protect her vulnerability, one elbow protectively crossed over her breast, hands splayed and thrust out in desperation to get away, neck awkwardly twisted. Her face is etched with pure distress and terror. For the first time, we view the scene from Susanna’s perspective, as the active, feeling subject.
A Traumatic Fate
Susanna is also cruelly portentous of Artemisia’s own fate to follow. Less than a year after Susanna and the Elders was complete, the 18-year-old Artemisia was raped by her father’s close friend and tutor, Agostino Tassi (a respected landscape painter in his own right), in what was supposed to be her safe haven — her family’s art studio.
Trapped in an impossibly unjust and hopeless situation, Artemisia was forced to endure Tassi raping her multiple times over several months, in the hope that he would marry her. After all, her precious virginity was ‘lost’ — she was considered ‘tainted goods’ that no other man would want.
It was only when the marriage didn’t happen, that Artemisia’s father Orazio — the very person who organized her tutelage under Tassi — pressed charges, claiming theft and damage of his property (his claim was only taken seriously as Artemisia had been a virgin before her rape).
This led to an extremely prolific, humiliating trial. Artemisia not only had to recall the details of her rape and undergo a deeply violating physical exam, but she was also tortured with thumbscrews. Eventually, Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, however he didn’t serve a single day.
Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia’s brutal masterpiece, is deemed the ultimate catharsis for her suffering.
You could almost be mistaken for perceiving Judith as a man, due to her unflinching expression and powerful, controlled stance. Yet through cunning chiaroscuro, Artemisia wryly directs most the light in the painting on the sensual curve of Judith’s breasts, her forearms and her face. Light also falls on Abra (Judith’s maid and assistant) showing her stoic pose despite Holofernes’ grasp at her throat.
In comparison, Holofernes’ face and the streaming, beautifully angled spurts of his blood are wreathed in shadow. Once again, we perceive the scene from the woman’s perspective — Judith is the active subject.
Judith continued to be a focal muse and artistic inspiration for Artemisia. Many may be unaware that she also painted a scene that serves as a sequel to Judith Slaying Holofernes. This was named Judith and Her Maidservant, and is rightfully considered a masterpiece of tenebrism.
This painting is set post-grisly deed; Judith and Abra are leaving Holofernes’ tent — the latter with the decapitated head in her basket — when suddenly they are distracted by a noise off-canvas, and hence turn sharply. In spite of the tension of the scene, Judith remains in control. Her expression is cautious, not fearful, with her sword (her source of power) slung confidently over her right shoulder, ready to strike again. The head of Holofernes is almost missable, lurking inconspicuously in the bottom left corner of the piece. Once more, Judith — and to a lesser extent, Abra — are focal to the painting.
Artemisia was not just known for her art, but also as a cunning, ambitious strategist — a master of her own promotion and fiercely ambitious. She moved to Florence in 1614 with her new husband to escape her tumultuous past and the shame of being a ‘fallen woman’ in Rome. Florence became her opportunity to start anew, to enjoy success on her own terms.
Artemisia knew she needed to make a name for herself. As an illiterate woman, she had limited, yet potentially effective ways in which to flaunt her wealth and power, provided she was canny and strategic. She took to visiting the wealthy Santa Croce part of Florence, home of well connected silk merchants who travelled all over the world to bring back rich, luxurious fabrics, with which to fashion gowns for wealthy Italian noblewomen.
She lacked the coin to purchase such opulent garments outright, however she possessed a powerful bargaining chip — her art. She received magnificent clothing on credit in exchange for her paintings. The merchants who got to know her were easily charmed by her, and soon became happy to broker relationships between her and potential patrons.
She also methodically exhibited her ‘wealth’; after all, what was a beautiful status symbol worth if no one was around to see it? Dressed in finery, she ordered her servant to accompany her as she strolled across Florence to her workshop.
She ensured she was passing the right groups of people in the right social circles, who would observe her luxurious dress and her servant carefully (no respectful noblewoman left her house alone). This attributed to her an artificially elevated, but nonetheless potent, air of nobility and power.
Thus, this method served to ensure she was raised to the right circles, with ample opportunity to flaunt her talent, wit and charm, as well as maximize her publicity by commissioning paintings to wealthy patrons.
This strategy ultimately got her into the Medici court, and Artemisia soon became one of the most famous artists in Florence. She counted Galileo Galilei as a close friend and was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno.
Thanks to her resourcefulness, Artemisia enjoyed huge success for a woman of her background and experience in Florence.
Uncovering the Gentileschi Heritage
“[Gentileschi] has suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her calibre.”
— Mary D. Garrard, Art Historian
Despite all the fascinating aspects of Artemisia’s character and life, she was still a non-noble woman living in the 17th century. Therefore much of her life, especially the latter part when she moved to Naples, is shrouded in deep mystery.
Moreover, her rape and the prolific trial that followed continued to overshadow her work in later life and the centuries that followed her death.
In trying to escape the shadow of her rape, most still attempted to make it what defined her — many believed her assault was solely what enabled her to transgress and depict violent women — she had no loss of ‘honor’ to fear.
Yet gradually, this archaic and unfair notion has been challenged. Fans of Artemisia, including myself, can be content in knowing the excellent work done by scholars such as Mary D. Garrard, has greatly helped renew interest in her work and reclaim her legacy.
This essay is the small part I’m able to play in helping her gain recognition for what she truly was — a progressive triumph of the art world.