Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593–1652) was an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation after Caravaggio. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons, she was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors – and made a speciality of the Judith story. Her best-known image, Judith Beheading Holofernes shows the decapitation of Holofernes, a scene of horrific struggle and blood-letting.”
That she was a woman painting in the 17th century and that she was raped herself and participated in prosecuting the rapist long overshadowed her achievements as an artist. For many years she was regarded as a curiosity. Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressionist painters of her generation, a major artist in her own right.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on 8 July 1593, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. She learned drawing, how to mix color and how to paint. Since her father’s style took inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn. But her approach to subject matter was different from her father’s, as her paintings are highly naturalistic, where Orazio’s are idealized. Orazio was a great encouragement to his daughter since, during the 17th century, women were considered not to have the intelligence to work.
At the same time, Artemisia had to resist the “traditional attitude and psychological submission to this brainwashing and jealousy of her obvious talent” (Bissell, 113). By doing so, she gained great respect and recognition for her work.
The first work of the young 17-year-old Artemisia (some at the time suspected that she was helped by her father) was the Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) (1610, Schönborn collection in Pommersfelden). The picture shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school (which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists). It is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the sexual assault by the two Elders as a traumatic event.
In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, so Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter privately.
During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Another man, Cosimo Quorlis had helped Tassi with the rape. After the initial rape, Artemisia continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they were going to be married. However, Tassi reneged on his promise to marry Artemisia after he heard the rumour that she was having an affair with another man. Orazio pressed charges against Tassi after he learned that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to be married (nine months after the rape). Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had deflowered Artemisia. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. In the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had enjoined in adultery with his sister-in-law and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Artemisia was given a gynecological examination and was tortured using thumbscrews.
At the end of the trial Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. The trial has influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late 20th century.
The painting Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes) (1612–1613), displayed in the Capodimonte Museum of Naples, is striking for the violence portrayed. A month later, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterwards the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti and became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and Charles I. It has been proposed that during this period Artemisia also painted the Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child), currently in the Spada Gallery, Rome.
In Florence, Artemisia enjoyed huge success. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time, such as Cristofano Allori, and was able to garner the favours and the protection of influential people, starting with Granduke Cosimo II de’ Medici and especially of the Granduchess Cristina. She had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei with whom she remained in epistolary contact for a long time. She was esteemed by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger (nephew of the great Michelangelo): busy with construction of Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative, he asked Artemisia to produce a painting to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of paintings.
Artemisia arrived in Rome the same year her father Orazio departed for Genoa. Some believe that Artemisia followed her father there; while there is not enough evidence for this, this time together would have accentuated the similarity of their styles, which makes it often difficult today to determine which of the two painted certain works. Most of the evidence supports the notion that Artemisia remained in Rome, trying to find a home and raise her daughters. In addition to Prudenzia (born from the marriage with Pierantonio Stiattesi) she had another natural daughter, probably born in 1627. Artemisia tried, with almost no success, to teach them the art of painting.
Caravaggio’s style, though the master had been dead over a decade, was still highly influential and converted many painters to his style (the so-called Caravaggisti) such as Artemisia’s father Orazio, Carlo Saraceni (who returned to Venice 1620), Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Simon Vouet. However, painting styles in Rome during the early 17th century were diverse, a more classic manner of the Bolognese disciples of the Carracci and the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona.
It appears that Artemisia was also associated the Academy of the Desiosi. She was celebrated with a portrait carrying the inscription “Pincturare miraculum invidendum facilius quam imitandum”. In the same period she became friends with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist, collector and lover of arts. However, despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality and her numerous good relationships, Rome was not as lucrative as she hoped. Her style and tone of defiance and strength relaxed: she painted more relaxing and feminine works. For instance, her second version of Susanna and the Elders (1622)
The appreciation of her art was narrowed down to portraits and to her ability with biblical heroines: she received none of the lucrative commissions for altarpieces. The absence of sufficient documentation makes it difficult to follow Artemisia’s movements in this period. It is certain that between 1627 and as late as 1630 she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions, as verses and letters were composed in appreciation of her and her works in Venice.
In 1638 Artemisia joined her father in London at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling (allegory of Trionfo della pace e delle Arti (Triumph of the peace and the Arts) in the Casa delle Delizie of Queen Henrietta Maria of France in Greenwich). Father and daughter were once again working together, although helping her father was probably not her only reason for travelling to London: Charles I had convoked her in his court, and it was not possible to refuse. Charles I was a fanatical collector, willing to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes. The fame of Artemisia probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the Autoritratto in veste di Pittura (“Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.”).
Orazio suddenly died in 1639. Artemisia had her own commissions to fulfill after her father’s death, although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period. It is known that Artemisia had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again, corresponding with Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily who became her mentor and good commitment during this second Neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she was still fully active. Artemisia was once thought to have died in 1652/1653. Recent evidence, however, has shown that she was still accepting commissions in 1654—though increasingly dependent on her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo. Thus it might be speculated that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
Let’s now enjoy some of her most celebrated works:
For a woman at the beginning of the 17th century, being a painter like Artemisia represented an uncommon and difficult choice, but not an exceptional one. Before Artemisia, between the end of the 1500 and the beginning of 1600 other female painters had successful careers, including Sofonisba Anguissola (Born in Cremona around 1530 – Palermo around 1625), was called into Spain by King Philip II and Lavinia Fontana (Bologna, 1552 – Rome 1614) departed for Rome by invitation of Pope Clement VIII. Later Fede Galizia (Milano or Trento, 1578 – Milano 1630) painted still lifes and a Judith with the head of Holofernes.
Other female painters began their career while Artemisia was alive. Judged on their artistic merits, Longhi’s statement that Artemisia was “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting” may be questioned, but there is no doubt that Artemisia continues to be among the most highly regarded of female artists, and has finally taken her place among the great artists of the Baroque.