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Artemesia Gentileschi: “You Will Find the Spirit of Caesar in the Soul of a Woman”

One of the most remarkable painters of any age.

Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

A woman’s body is not her own, not in art, not in life.

In art, it has long been coopted by male artists, studied, “improved upon,” re-configured. Under the brushwork of male artists, breasts are rendered dome-like, impossibly pert, with none of their fleshful gravity. Sexual preferences are another layer of impasto imposed upon the female figure — hair color, eye color, dainty shoulders, coy smiles, lushly upholstered hips.

Only in a mere handful of paintings is the subject of our illicit gaze staring boldly back; in most, a woman’s eyes are turned away, so that we are stealing from her, coercing her to reveal herself, which is — for men, at least — no small part of the thrill.

But of one thing we may be sure: a woman’s body is reinvented, again and again. It is property of, taken, stripped of meaning, and made into that most lifeless of abstractions: ideal.

In this first part of the 21st century, has anything changed? Do women have any more autonomy over their bodies than they did in the day of 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi? If anything, a woman’s conformity to society’s expectations is greater. Without much awareness, we replicate the lessons of the marketplace all the time: lashes this long, skirt this high, hair this color. It looks like autonomy, but is it?

The Church, too, manages to annex a woman’s body. In the ceremony of baptism, a child isn’t officially born until he is born into Christ. Pregnancy, labor, all of these are marginalized. The very architecture of a church reproduces the anatomy of a woman’s body: the aisle as vaginal canal, the transepts as Fallopian tubes, the apse and baptismal basin as womb.

In religion, a woman isn’t recreated; she’s erased.

For quite a few centuries after her death in 1656, the great Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was erased. Although a legendary artist within her own lifetime, she was ignored by art historians, rediscovered in the 1970s, made fit for purpose by #MeToo and the feminist movement, and then trauma-porned by a new generation of art aficionados who choose to interpret her work almost solely as the expression of a woman suffering the aftermath of rape.

Artemisia’s rendering of Judith slaying Holofernes does nothing to dispute that interpretation. It is shockingly visceral, a punch to the stomach. We see things not from Holofernes’ perspective, but from the women’s, who are united in more than just effort. They are united by their sex, by their shared experience of being women. They know what’s at stake.

As the story goes, Assyrian general Holofernes is sent to besiege the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith resolves to save her people by first seducing, then beheading, Holofernes, which she fittingly does with his own sword. In Artemisia’s painting, Judith isn’t committing murder just for the sake of her own tribe, but for women. All women.

The painting, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was for centuries relegated to obscurity and the cellar. Anna Brownell Jameson, a 19th century Anglo-Irish art historian, found it so distasteful and offensive, she hoped for “the privilege of burning it to ashes.”

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614–1620, 199×162 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Artemisia is proof that art needed (and continues to need) a female perspective. Compare her Judith with the one painted by contemporary Cristofano Allori (1577–1621). Exquisite, yes, but strangely anemic, wouldn’t you say? His Judith seems untroubled by the experience. Her face is that of a beautiful young woman who is surprised to find you watching. Gone is the female camaraderie, the urgency, the horror. This Judith just happens to be creeping through the room while carrying a head.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Cristofano Allori

To be fair, how could any man understand the thousand ways 17th century women were suffering at their hands? Only a woman could show the real pathos of the situation. Entrusted to male painters, Judith is a stand-in for Salome demanding the head of John the Baptist. She is Eve communing with the serpent. She is evil and duplicity personified.

Artemisia’s Judith tells a different story: women are selfless and heroic, willing to do brutal, ugly work if it ensures the safety of their families.

As the oldest child and only daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia grew up in Rome with three younger brothers. At the age of twelve, she lost her mother, Prudenzia, to childbirth. Of all the Gentileschi children, Artemisia was the only one with artistic talent. By 1612, her own father wrote to one of his patrons, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, that his daughter “has in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer.”

Artemisia was given no formal education. She was functionally illiterate until her twenties. But she was allowed to apprentice in her father’s studio, where she studied the works of Caravaggio. Like him, she mastered the art of chiaroscuro, which is the contrast and juxtaposition of dark with light.

But at the age of seventeen, she was raped by her father’s friend, the landscape painter Agostino Tassi. Artemisia’s account of what happened is a study in the dramatically different mores of 17th century Italy. In it, she states that Tassi shoved her inside her bedroom and locked the door. “He then threw me onto the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them.” Then Tassi clamped his hand over her mouth to silence her screams. She fought him, even gouging his penis, although that didn’t stop him from raping her. Afterward, she hurled a knife at him, which Tassi laughingly deflected.

This testimony was given at trial under pain of torture. As was customary at the time, a victim’s hands were attached to thumbscrews, ensuring that the account given was an accurate one. But contrary to what we might see at a rape trial today, Artemisia and her father weren’t in court to prosecute Tassi for rape; rather, they wanted Tassi to keep the promise he’d made to Artemisia, which was to marry her. A verbal agreement to marry was nearly as binding as the ceremony itself. Once Tassi swore to marry her, Artemisia had been happy to continue sleeping with him.

But it was not to be. As it turned out, Tassi was already married, and his sentence (exile) was neither observed nor commuted.

Artemisia’s father Orazio then arranged for her to marry a minor artist, Pierantonio Stiattesi, resident of Florence. Away from Rome and its unpleasant associations, Artemisia flourished, earning commissions from noble art patrons and enjoying the freedoms afforded her as a married woman. The marriage itself was certainly no love match. By 1623, they were no longer living together, although no indication of serious strife exists.

When Artemisia was twenty-five, she embarked on a torrid affair with a Florentine nobleman named Francesco Maria Maringhi. In one of her many letters to him, she refers to a self-portrait she’d given him and teases him not to masturbate in front of it. Later on in that same letter, she discusses his “right hand, envied by me so much, for it possesses that which I cannot possess myself.”

In true Italian fashion at the time, Artemisia’s husband, Stiatessi, ever practical, encouraged the liaison, hoping it would raise their fortunes. In one particular letter written to Maringhi by Stiatessi, he apologizes for his wife’s tardy reply. Their house, he explained, was perpetually full of princes and cardinals.

There were children, five in all, presumably fathered by Stiatessi. Three of them died in infancy. A fourth child named Cristofano, born in 1615, died before the age of five. Only a daughter, Prudenzia (named after Artemisia’s mother), born in 1617, lived to adulthood. Artemisia continued to paint throughout all her pregnancies, sleeves pushed up, russet-colored hair in a messy bun. We know she looked this way because of this exquisite self-portrait, which she painted in 1638–39.

Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi

For me, one of her most remarkable contributions to art is her Madonna and Child, painted in 1613 after Artemisia had borne her first child. No man could have painted it — and no man did. Unlike the usual remotely beautiful Madonna presenting a preternaturally old-looking baby Jesus for the world to see, we see a real woman. There is so much real tenderness and intimacy in this painting, I could weep. This Mary is human. The child extending its pudgy hand to touch her cheek is full of wonder. It makes me remember that we’ve had century after century of male artists depicting a mother/child relationship they could never hope to understand. Such paintings may be lovely to look upon, but most are devoid of meaning.

Only a woman could paint this.

Madonna and Child by Artemisia Gentileschi

For purposes of comparison, here is Raphael’s far more famous Madonna del Granduca, likely painted in 1505 when he first arrived in Florence. Yes, it is spectacular, but I will leave it to you to decide which tells a more impactful story.

Madonna del Granduca by Raphael

Artemisia Gentileschi died in Naples in 1656, likely one of the casualties of a plague that had ripped through the city, felling 150,000 of its citizens. She was sixty-three. She was the first woman to become a member of the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence. What’s truly remarkable is how she managed to live life on her terms, fully autonomous, fully self-supporting, a woman who actively hustled commissions and negotiated deals. Her marvelous quote, “You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman,” was directed to a doubting patron.

It is this writer’s considered opinion that Artemisia’s rape may have informed some of her work, but it never defined it. Nor did it define her. The loss of four of her five children surely deserves equal weight, and yet is rarely addressed.

Artemisia’s tombstone was lost during a church renovation. I would like to see a memorial in Italy erected to its overlooked and grossly marginalized daughter. But at least her work, which has withstood the test of time, now finds safe harbor in a million reverent and adoring hearts.

Venus and Cupid, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1625–1630.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, 1623
Judith and her Maidservant, 1623–1625

Copyright © 2022 Stacey Eskelin

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