Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was the most renowned woman painter in Europe during the first half of the 17th century. She is recognized as a significant feminist figure because of her skill, resilience and empowering depictions of women. In her paintings, women are powerful Biblical heroines rather than temptresses.
Gentileschi had the opportunity to become a painter thanks to her father Orazio, a reputable painter in Rome. At the time of her career, women were not allowed to have apprenticeships with men, so she would not have had access to painting if not for her father. Orazio began training her at an early age.
Both father and daughter was heavily influenced by Caravaggio. Artemisia used chiaroscuro (bold contrasts of light and dark) and tenebrism (extremes of dominating darkness pierced by bright, insistent spotlights) in the majority of her work. These stylistic choices emphasized drama and created an element of theater.
Artemisia’s career and life was greatly influenced by a series of events that took place as she was just launching her career. At age 17, she was raped by artist Agostino Tassi. Her family and Tassi went to court for a seven-month trial. During the trial, she was publicly humiliated and forced to undergo sibille, a torturous lie detector test. While the Gentilesschis won the case, the events left a dark cloud over Artemisia’s career.
Susanna and the Elders (1610), an early work of Artemisia’s, depicts a biblical scene where two older men spy on Susanna while she is bathing and attempt to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them with false accusations of adultery. In other artists’ depictions of this scene, Susanna is either unaware or flirtatious. Artemisia, on the other hand, emphasizes Susanna’s distress and active response to the intruders.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s assertive and strong-feminine voice is most apparent in Judith and Holofernes (1620). The story of Judith is biblical and is similar to David and Goliath. Judith, a Jewish widow, kills the Assyrian general Holofernes to help save her village. In Artemisia’s depiction of the decapitation, Judith and her maidservant are muscular and strong. They work hand-in-hand to courageously and powerfully complete the task. They are remarkable to say the least. Blood is spurting everywhere, and the job is dirty. Holofernes looks vulnerable, weak and humiliated. The decapitation by Judith feels very much like a victory.
Both Caravaggio and Artemisia’s father made similar paintings, yet their depictions of the scene contrast drastically with Artemisia’s. In Caravaggio’s work, Judith is uncertain and much less powerful. The maidservant is nearby but not in union with Judith. It doesn’t feel like a victory. Rather, it feels almost shameful. I feel sorry for everyone in this Caravaggio painting.
In Orazio’s depiction of the same narrative, the act of decapitation is taken out completely. The women look away from Holofernes’s head and present it as if they just happened to have come upon a decapitated head. They appear completely powerless and at the service to whomever they are presenting the head to. The painting also feel much less dramatic and soft thanks to the color choices and emphasis on linens.
In addition to admiring her artwork, I admire Artemisia’s character! She had the confidence and will to stand up for her work. In letters written to Don Antonio Ruffo, Gentileschi condemns his bigotry, and asserts her skill and right to good pay:
I fear that before you saw the painting you must have thought me arrogant and presumptuous…. [I]f it were not for Your Most Illustrious Lordship… I would not have been induced to give it for one hundred and sixty, because everywhere else I have been I was paid one hundred scudi [Italian coins] per figure…. You think me pitiful, because a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen.
I was mortified to hear that you want to deduct one third from the already low price that I had asked… It must be that in your heart Your Most Illustrious Lordship finds little merit in me.
I am most inspired by Artemisia’s dare to be great. She painted women powerfully at time when that wasn’t done. She was a professional woman artist when that wasn’t done. She defended her work and herself when that wasn’t done. She did believed in herself, her artwork and her womanhood.
While the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston does not have any works by Artemisia Gentileschi, it does have a painting by her father which depicts Artemisia as a sibyl (a woman in ancient times supposed to utter the oracles and prophecies of a god).
Artemisia: Her Passion Was Painting Above All Else, The New York Times
Artemisia’s Moment, Smithsonian Magazine
Artemisia Gentileschi, Art History Babes (podcast)