Behind the Fierce, Assertive Paintings of Baroque Master Artemisia Gentileschi
Women didn’t have many career options in 17th-century Italy. Cultural norms funnelled most of them into one of two life paths: joining a convent or becoming a mother. What’s more, laws dictated that the men in their lives (fathers, husbands, even sons) made decisions and purchases for them.
Few women transcended these restrictions. But the skillful, strong-willed painter
Gentileschi was as self-made and as independent as was conceivable in her time—and she fought hard for it. “You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman,” she once wrote of herself in a letter to a patron. In several instances, she freed herself from shackles that had been placed on her (whether literally or figuratively) by men. Most famously, she won a rape trial she brought against her teacher, the elder artist Agostino Tassi, in an era when women’s claims were rarely believed over those of their male counterparts. (Of course, we still contend with this issue today, even in the midst of the #MeToo moment.)
Despite all of this, though, Gentileschi’s legacy has been hard-won. After her death, 18th- and 19th-century scholars all but omitted her from art historical texts. Even when her work was rediscovered, in the early 20th century, literature on it was plagued with misattributions and overly sexualized interpretations that focused on Gentileschi’s assault rather than her artistry.
Despite these hurdles, the artist has more recently risen to the top of the canon as one of the first female artists to have a broad, incisive impact on the art of her time. She’s also influenced decades of artists after her—especially those looking for a masterful and tenacious heroine.
Asserting her artistic voice and assault
Gentileschi was born in Rome, in 1593, to Prudentia Montoni and painter
At a young age, Orazio brought his daughter into his practice as something of an assistant; in the process, she learned her craft. However, it wasn’t Orazio’s intention for Artemisia to become a professional painter. Several times, he tried to send her to the nunnery. This might be because “women’s work remained semi-clandestine and informal, both stimulated by and subordinate to family needs,” as historian Elizabeth Cropper pointed out in an essay accompanying the 2001 exhibition “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi.”
(It was even more rare for a non-aristocratic woman, as Gentileschi was, to take up a painting practice in earnest. Successful female artists who came before her, like
But Orazio’s attempts to ferry his daughter into an ecclesiastical future were unsuccessful, and Artemisia remained in the painting studio. Eventually, he accepted her desire to become an artist, and even began promoting her fast-developing skills. In 1612, when Artemisia was still a teenager, Orazio wrote that she had “become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer.”
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.
Painting powerful women
Soon after the trial, Gentileschi moved to Florence and set up her own studio—away from her father. It was around this time that she began a series of five works depicting the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes, in which a woman plots to kill a warlord who’s besieged her town. Under the cover of night, Judith is successful in beheading him.
Again, the theme wasn’t a novel choice for Renaissance or Baroque artists, but Gentileschi’s handling of it was. Some of her predecessors and contemporaries had chosen to portray Judith as a wily temptress; others captured the moment when Judith escaped with Holofernes’s head. Caravaggio, on the other hand, who had a honed a flair for the dramatic, depicted the very moment Holofernes was killed. Gentileschi took a cue from him, but further dramatized the moment by emphasizing Judith’s force and anger.
In Caravaggio’s version, the heroine seems somewhat nervous and disgusted by the murder she’s carrying out. On the other hand, in Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (c. 1620) (which currently hangs at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery), Judith cuts into Holofernes with gusto; her hand grasps his hair and her expression is enraged and resolute. Meanwhile, blood spurts out of her captor’s neck and drips from his bright white bedsheets.
The picture has become her most famous piece—one that’s arguably overshadowed the rest of her practice. Some scholars have tied the painting, and others in which Gentileschi depicted the same scene, tightly to her biography, interpreting it as reaction to her rape—a representation of revenge on Tassi. But others find this reading too simplistic. Scholar Patrizia Cavazzini pointed out in the catalogue for “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi” that Gentileschi’s treatment of this narrative more generally represents an “assertion of agency”; while Griselda Pollock, in her 1999 book Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories, argued that the painting is evidence of “an active woman who can make art.” Indeed, one of Gentileschi’s versions of Judith doubles as a self-portrait.
Of the roughly 60 paintings that are attributed to Gentileschi today, around 40 of them foreground female figures—usually pulled from biblical or mythological stories. Subjects include particularly emotive, self-assured representations of Mary Magdalene and other powerful female saints, like Saint Catherine, who called for an end to persecution and was known for her persuasive speaking skills. Gentileschi also portrayed allegories like that of Inclination, which is historically represented by female figures.
In a later work, known as Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638–39), she boldly used her own visage to embody the act of painting as a whole. As Riccardo Lattuada suggested in the “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi” catalogue, “It seems hard to imagine that Artemisia, in making an image of Painting, did not reflect on the special significance this allegory held for her as a woman artist.” What’s more, the work was later purchased by King Charles I of England, one of Europe’s greatest 17th-century collectors.
By the time Gentileschi made Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, she’d received perhaps the greatest honor bestowed upon the era’s painters: induction into the Accademia del Disegno. She was the first woman to receive the distinction and, according to the 2007 catalogue for the exhibition “Italian Women Artists: From Renaissance to Baroque,” it changed the course of her life.
With this badge of honor, Gentileschi could buy paints and supplies without a man’s permission, travel by herself, and even sign contracts. In other words, through painting, she had gained freedom. Gentileschi would go on to separate from her husband and live and work independently, primarily in Naples and London, for the rest of her life. All the while, she supported her two daughters, who also went on to become painters.
A complicated legacy
While Gentileschi was one of the most in-demand painters of her age, she had to fight for fair pay and validity, even in her later years. In letters to her patron Don Antonio Ruffo, she snapped back when he haggled over her fee: “I was mortified to hear that you want to deduct one third from the already very low price I had asked,” she wrote. “I am displeased that for the second time I am being treated like a novice. It must be that in your heart Your Lordship finds little merit in me.” In another letter to him, she pushed against implicit sexism: “And now, I’ll show Your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do!”
She seemed to know her impact, though, and took pride in it. Of her legacy, she told her friend, the great philosopher and scientist Galileo, “I have seen myself honored by all the kings and rulers of Europe,” and that her paintings would go on to “provide the evidence of my fame.” With typical aplomb, she reiterated the sentiment to Don Ruffo: “The works will speak for themselves. And with this, I end with the most humble bow.”
After Gentileschi died, however, her work fell into art historical obscurity. It wasn’t until 1916, when Caravaggio scholar Roberto Longhi published an article on both Orazio and Artemisia, that her work slowly made its way into the spotlight again. But Longhi’s wife, Anna Banti, wrote a popular novel based on Gentileschi’s life, Artemisia, published in 1947, and as a result, the artist’s story was sensationalized and focused on her rape. The work of fiction even influenced scholarship. In 1963, historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower characterized Gentileschi first as a “lascivious and precocious girl” before describing her “highly honorable career as an artist.” Thankfully, these interpretations were rewritten in the 1970s and ’80s by a group of feminist art historians led by Garrard.
For her part, Garrard wanted to end Gentileschi’s reputation as “the butt of one long historical dirty joke.” In 1976, Gentileschi’s paintings were included in “Women Artists: 1550–1950,” an influential 1976 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curated by Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris. In the show’s catalogue, Sutherland Harris called the Baroque artist “the first woman in the history of western art to make a significant and undeniably important contribution to the art of her time.”
Even today, Gentileschi’s work is the constant subject of reassessment—recent feminist essays have been written deemphasizing the role of rape and assault in readings of her work, in an attempt to portray her as a constantly evolving artist rather than as a victim.
Despite this back and forth, though, Gentileschi’s impact on the history of art—as a woman artist who fought against adversity to pursue a career in painting—is uncontested.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.