Artemisia Gentileschi: A 17th-Century #MeToo Heroine and Painter of Stories
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque artist. Born in Rome in 1593, she was the eldest daughter of Prudentia Montoni and the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. She lived in Rome, Florence, Venice, London, and Naples, and was well-known in her lifetime, with an international clientele. Working in the style of Caravaggio, she became one of the most accomplished artists of her time.
Gentileschi is best known for her self-portraits and her depictions of Biblical stories. In 1638, Charles I of England invited her to visit London to join her father, Orazio, who was working there. It was during this visit that she painted her Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting. The self-portrait depicts an allegorical image of the abstract concept of painting. The Royal Collection of the British royal family owns the painting today.
Allegorical art was popular during the Baroque era. The art included elements that symbolized ideas like love, justice, music, or painting. According to Cesare Ripa (1560-1622), a popular Italian iconographer of the time and author of the book Iconologia, “Painting” should be shown as “A beautiful woman, with full black hair, disheveled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat.“
Gentileschi’s decision to portray herself as the allegory of painting was audacious. She knew that she could be that beautiful woman that Ripa describes, and that no male artist could use himself as the model. She had the clothing and jewelry necessary to imitate the allegory, and it wasn’t hard to arch her eyebrows and twist her hair into a messy bun. She chose not to cover her mouth with a cloth, despite Ripa’s description, which was a bold statement that she would not be silenced.
Rape by Agostino Tassi
Gentileschi’s assertion that she herself can represent the allegory of painting is especially admirable when you think about what she had survived by the time she painted her 1638-1639 self-portrait. In 1611, the painter Agostino Tassi raped her. Tassi was an acquaintance and collaborator of her father, Orazio, and an art tutor for Artemisia, hired by her father. Tassi found Artemisia alone, painting in the family studio at their home, and attacked her. A female tenant was in the house at the time, but chose not to say anything.
After the assault, Artemisia’s father convinced her to continue to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they would get married. Tassi reneged on his promise to marry her, however, as it turned out he was already married. Nine months after the incident, when Orazio learned that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to marry, he pressed charges against Tassi.
An infamous trial, meticulously recorded in documents that survive, ensued in 1612. Artemisia was accused of being immoral and lying about the attack. Under torture by thumbscrew, she stuck to her story and Tassi was found guilty. He was banished from Rome, though the punishment was never enforced.
Following the trial, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to marry a little-known Florentine artist, an older man by the name of Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi. Artemisia left Rome for Florence shortly after the marriage.
Gentileschi’s Successful Art Career
As the old adage says, living well is the best revenge. After Artemisia Gentileschi moved to Florence, she became one of the most accomplished painters of her time. She painted for dukes, princes, duchesses, cardinals, and kings, and was the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence.
She painted at least seven works for the influential Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and enjoyed the patronage of his mother, Christina of Lorraine, Duchess of Tuscany. In 1635, she wrote to her friend the astronomer Galileo Galilei, “I have seen myself honored by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works, not only with great gifts but also with most favored letters, which I keep with me.“
She had five children, though only one daughter survived. Prudentia, named after Artemisia’s mother, became an artist herself. Artemisia also had a love affair with a wealthy Florentine nobleman named Francesco Maria Maringhi. In 2011, author and art historian Francesco Solinas discovered a collection of 36 letters that show that Gentileschi had a passionate affair with Maringhi and that her husband knew about the relationship. In fact, her husband actually maintained a correspondence with Maringhi on the back of Artemisia’s love letters. He accepted the affair probably because Maringhi was a powerful ally who provided financial support to the couple.
She depicted strong themes in her artwork of rape survivors, murderesses, and female icons, including Cleopatra and Venus, while at the same time demonstrating a unique skill for painting natural-looking female figures. According to the inscription on French artist Jérôme David’s engraving of her, she was “a miracle in painting, more easily envied than imitated.“
Paintings of Judith Slaying Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi paintings didn’t always show beautiful women engaged in relatively peaceful activities as her self-portraits did. Some of her paintings are a chilling representation of the most disturbing stories from the Bible. One of her most famous paintings is so brutal that it deserves a trigger warning. Her circa 1612-1617 painting of Judith and her maidservant beheading Holofernes depicts the Biblical story of the killing with ferocious precision. To see the painting, click here.
The story of Judith was well-known to Gentileschi’s audience at the time, but might be less known to modern audiences. Judith was a beautiful widow who lived in the town of Bethulia in Israel during the sixth century B.C. An army set siege to the town, and Judith went into the enemy camp to meet with their leader, Holofernes, a general for Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Assyrians. Holofernes was so charmed by the widow that he drank too much wine and passed out, after which Judith took his sword and cut off his head. She brought the severed head back to town which inspired the Israelites to attack, causing the Assyrians to flee.
Later in life, around 1623-1625, Gentileschi painted a less disturbing version of Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes. Judith is still holding the sword she used to behead Holofernes, and the maidservant is bending down to collect the severed head. In both versions of her Judith paintings, Gentileschi seems to be getting revenge for the violence that she experienced. Or perhaps she is just showing a strong, heroic woman helping beat the Assyrians in war.
Gentileschi’s later Judith painting employs a dramatic contrast of light source and shadow, a technique known as chiaroscuro. The choice to use chiaroscuro, along with the intense subject matter, is reminiscent of Caravaggio, who also painted the Judith story. His version shows lots of blood and intense expressions on the women’s faces. To learn more about his version, click here.
Many artists painted the Judith story, including Botticelli, Giorgione, Cranach the Elder, Goya, and more recent artists such as Franz von Stuck and Gustav Klimt. As an aside, and for a quick comparison, note that Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) focused on the seduction part of the story. He was intrigued by Judith’s ability to charm Holofernes, and his beautiful painting is a respite from the more violent paintings of the topic from the Baroque era.
Bathsheba, also a character in the Bible, was another favorite subject of Gentileschi. According to the Old Testament, Kind David saw Bathsheba bathing with her maids, and lusted for her. He inquired after her and then summoned her to the palace where they had sexual intercourse. Bathsheba was married to a soldier named Uriah. King David was also married. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David ordered her husband home from war in the hopes that he would sleep with Bathsheba, thus covering up the infidelity. Uriah didn’t go along with the plan, however.
After repeated efforts to convince Uriah to come home to Bathsheba, David gave the order that Uriah be placed on the front lines of the war. When Uriah was killed in battle, as David assumed he would be, David married Bathsheba. Shortly thereafter, Bathsheba gave birth to a baby but the baby died, in divine retribution for David’s sin.
Later, Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, who succeeded David as King when David died of old age, making Bathsheba the Queen Mother.
Bathsheba and David are often the subjects of famous painters. Rembrandt painted Bathsheba and many Degas paintings depict women in their bath, in reference to Rembrandt’s painting. And who can forget the amazing marble statue of David by Michelangelo in Florence?
The tale of Bathsheba seems to have resonated with Gentileschi, probably because of her own personal story. She created at least five paintings of Bathsheba. In Gentileschi’s 1636-1637 version of the story, Bathsheba sits on a balcony and three maids attend to her bathing water, hair, and jewelry. David can barely be seen peeking at her from an upper balcony.
Susanna and the Elders Paintings
A similar story, the Biblical story of Susanna, was also one of Gentileschi’s favorite topics, resulting in at least six paintings on the subject. The story is another case of creepy voyeurism. Gentileschi’s earliest surviving artwork, Susanna and the Elders (Pommersfelden), depicts the story of Susanna. She painted this version when she was only 17.
Susanna was a beautiful, young Hebrew wife who was falsely accused of adultery. She was bathing alone in her garden, having sent her attendants away, when two lustful male elders secretly observed her. As she returned to her house, they stopped her and threatened to claim that she was secretly meeting a young man in the garden unless she agreed to have sex with them.
Susanna refused to be blackmailed and was arrested. She was about to be put to death for adultery when the young Daniel, who later gained fame for surviving a den of lions, interrupted the proceedings, shouting that the elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent woman. The two men were questioned separately and exposed as liars when their accounts didn’t match. This story has a happy ending (happy for Susanna anyway). The false accusers were put to death, and virtue triumphed.
Later Years and Legacy
Gentileschi left Florence and returned to Rome in 1621 and then moved to Naples in 1630, a city rich with artist workshops and art lovers. She set up a studio in Naples and remained there for the remainder of her career, with the exceptions of her trip to London and some other journeys.
The precise date of her death is not known, but documentation shows her still living in Naples in August 1654. Some historians speculate that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656, wiping out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
Gentileschi enjoyed significant success as an artist. She was admired by the most respected artists of her time and garnered the favor and protection of influential people, including Cosimo II de’ Medici and Galileo Galilei. In the 18th and 19th centuries, art historians tended to focus on her more as a curiosity than a serious artist. In the 20th century, she started to gain more respect again, as feminists and other scholars reexamined her art and concluded that she was one of the most important and original painters of her generation.
Modern viewers often assume that her more bloody artwork, the ones concerning Judith slaying Holofernes for example, are revenge for the rape that she survived. But scholars disagree about its significance on her work. Wealthy patrons at the time had a taste for violence and eroticism, and Gentileschi was a good business woman who knew which art would sell. In addition, assuming that her art is only about this experience does her artwork injustice. Regardless of her gender or her traumatic past, she was a successful and immensely talented painter whose work rivals that of her Baroque contemporaries.
In 2001 an extensive exhibition of the art of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, father and daughter, was held in Rome before traveling to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and then the Saint Louis Art Museum. The exhibition, “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy” featured 51 paintings by Orazio and 35 by Artemisia. The exhibition helped renew interest in Artemisia’s artwork both in Europe and the U.S.
The Palazzo Reale Milano plans a major exhibition dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi and the other great female artists of the 17th-century, including Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Fede Galizia, and Elisabetta Sirani. It opens December 3rd, 2020 in Milan, Italy. Let’s hope that the show will travel to other countries as well!