In an era when women were rejected from art academies, and where it was not likely or easy for patrons or the artistic community to accept women as artists, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1656) emerged to become a brilliant, well-known Italian Baroque master.
Artemisia’s rise to success stems from her father, the prominent painter Orazio Gentileschi, who brought her to his workshop where she was first introduced to painting. She quickly demonstrated a talent well beyond her age, and beyond that of her two brothers. She painted Susanna and the Elders (1610) when she was only seventeen, which not only exhibited her advanced skills, but also her unique perspective as a woman. The painting depicts a young woman, naked from the chest up. Her arms are raised to block the unwelcome attention and advances of two lecherous men. Gentileschi was not the first to reimagine the scene of the biblical Susanna and her voyeurs. It was a common painting subject, but under Gentileschi’s hand, the picture emphasizes Susanna’s trauma.
In 1611 Artemisia’s father hired Agostino Tassi, a well-known painter with whom he worked, to tutor her privately. While under his tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. In order to restore her dignity and future (a significant consideration for women at the time), Artemisia stayed with Tassi with the expectation that they would be married. After nine months Tassi reneged on his promise, and Artemisia’s father then pressed charges on Tassi, which at the time he was only able to do because she was a virgin.
Artemesia’s highly-publicized rape trial lasted seven months. The transcripts (which can be found in Mary D. Garrad’s book Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art), reveal that Tassi was previously a convicted rapist, had served time in jail, and had been known to rape both his sister-in-law and his previous wife. They also show that Tassi had an obsession with Artemisia, was prone to jealous rages when she was around other men, and that he had even bragged that he had deflowered her.
Despite these facts, Artemisia still had to prove her honesty with a torture device called thumbscrews, causing serious injury to her hands as she responded to their repeated questioning. While it is not known how this affected her ability to paint, the torture is known to be painful and lasting. The crushing process involves a victim placing their fingers in the instrument, with varying degrees of screws and toothed iron bars that the torturer uses to slowly crush and break bones.
After the trial, Tassi was sentenced to a year of imprisonment, though he never served the time.
Shortly after the trial, Artemisia’s father arranged to have her marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, another, yet more minor, artist of the time, in order to save her reputation, and she moved with him to Florence. There she was commissioned to do a painting for Casa Buonarroti (a property Michelangelo owned and left to his nephew, Lionardo Buonarroti). She also enjoyed the patronage, as other significant artists did, of the influential and wealthy Medici family. In Florence she garnered great success, becoming the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. She also maintained good relationships with influential people and respected artists, including Galileo Galilei, who she corresponded with for a very long time.
Artemisia’s work quickly gained a reputation for capturing dramatic, raw scenes that reflected her early extremely troubling years. For example, in Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-1620) she paints herself as Judith and her rapist Tassi as Holofernes. Biographer Mary Garrard proposes that it functions as “a cathartic expression of the artist’s private, and perhaps repressed, rage.”
In Artemisia’s Judith and her Maidservant (1613–14), Judith and Abra have killed Holofernes and have his head in their basket, and while alert to the danger of their mission, they gaze with determination and caution, not with fear.
Another common theme to paint was Lucretia, the wife of nobleman Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, whom he described as virtuous and loyal. The legend goes that a group of men decided to spy on their wives to test their loyalty. When one of the men, Sextus Tarquinius, son of the tyrannical King of Rome jealous, saw Lucretia was indeed virtuous he set out to rape her the next day. After the rape Lucretia committed suicide, and these events are thought to have triggered the Roman revolution.
In Artemisia’s Lucretia (1621), Lucretia appears defiant, grabbing her breast enraged, before she commits suicide because of her rape.
In spite of her success in Florence, Artemisia’s husband had many financial debts to creditors, and eventually she fell out with him and returned to Rome in 1621. In 1638 she was invited by Charles I of England to his court, where her father was also currently serving. Between 1638 and 1636, Artemisia produced her famous Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Her portrayal of herself as the epitome of the arts was a bold statement and was considered very controversial, for in that era of time women seldom held jobs, or were very well-known or regarded for them.
In 1642 Artemisia left England, but historians are not certain of her whereabouts until 1649 when she lived in Naples and corresponded with Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily, her mentor. Her last known letter to him is dated 1650.
While no one can confirm when or how Artemisia died, some believe she passed away in 1656 in a plague in Naples that virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
For nearly 300 years after her death, Artemisia Gentileschi was relegated to obscurity, until renewed and overdue interest rightfully claimed her place as one of the greatest Italian Baroque artists of all time.