Artemisia Gentileschi’s first known work (which some scholars have attributed, in part, to her father) was painted in 1610, when she was 17 years old. Titled Susanna and the Elders, the work depicts a biblical story in which a fair, pious wife is ogled by a group of lecherous male elders as she bathes. Though it wasn’t an uncommon subject for artists at the time, Gentileschi rendered it differently than most. In her version, the woman being aggressed—and her response upon discovering that she’s being watched—takes center stage. “Artemisia’s Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional female character who is heroic,” Gentileschi’s biographer Mary D. Garrard has explained. Unlike other representations, “the expressive core of Gentileschi’s painting is the heroine’s plight, not the villains’ anticipated pleasure,” Garrard continued.
Early works like this reveal Gentileschi’s mastery of nudes and facial expressions, which launched her reputation in Rome as a wunderkind painter. (Some scholars have noted that Orazio took a problematic approach to promoting his daughter’s work, essentially exoticizing her by emphasizing that she was a female artist, rather than just an artist.)
But interest in Gentileschi would soon shift away from her art and toward a discussion of her body and morality instead, after she was raped and deflowered by her painting instructor, Agostino Tassi, who was also her father’s business partner. In Gentileschi’s account, Tassi grabbed her as she worked on a canvas, yelling: “Not so much painting, not so much painting.” Tassi’s actions seemed informed by a mix of jealousy, lust, and desire to overpower the young woman. “It is as if he was as enraged by her working as he was inflamed by carnal lust: stopping her from working was the first step in his attempt to dominate her,” Cropper suggested in her essay.
A very public and controversial trial ensued, in which Gentileschi was forced to describe her assault in detail. During the trial, she was subjected to sibille, a process in which ropes were tied to her fingers and tightened progressively. The practice was meant to divine whether or not she was telling the truth. After seven months in court, the judged finally ruled in Gentileschi’s favor. Tassi was sentenced to five years in prison, but never actually served time.
The ruling helped preserve Gentileschi’s reputation as an honorable woman and secure a marriage to a Florentine man named Pierantonio Stiattesi. This was necessary in 17th-century Italy (a society governed by the Catholic church) in order to secure her future as a successful painter.