Artemisia Gentileschi – Painting in her own terms

The story that you’re about to read has been a VERY long time coming. It’s the story of one of the painters that is going to be making quite a buzz this year, even though she would have been about 400 years old, had she still been alive. Her name is Artemisia Gentileschi and her prices have skyrocketed as of late. In November, her Lucretia sold for € 4.8 million at an auction in Paris when the estimated price for her paintings was originaly somewhere between 600.000 $ and 800.000 $. Interest in her work is clearly reaching new highs with an exhibition at the National Gallery in London set to open its doors to the public in April 2020.

In a time when women rarely had access to work and only existed in a social and legal sense through their family bonds, either marital or paternal, Gentileschi was one of the few women who got the chance to unravel their precious talent. Born in 1593 in Rome from a painter father named Orazio Gentileschi, she started painting when she was 16. It didn’t take long for her father to realize that she had a gift for drawing and painting in contrast to her brothers. 

Even though Orazio wanted Artemisia to either join a convent or get married, it became very clear early on that she was not destined to do eather. On the contrary, she was going to have a career in painting, contrary to what everyone was expecting from her. Rome was, at the start of the 17th century, the place where Baroque started taking shape as a distinctive style in art and architecture. Everyone was under the spell of Caravaggio’s brush strokes at the time. Both Orazzio and Artemisia were quick to follow his lead and establish their own style within the space of “Caravaggism”, using his influence to create their personal approaches to baroque painting. Even though Artemisia was starting to flourish under the patronage of her father, her achievements were overshadowed by a traumatic event that happened in 1611.

A friend of her father’s,Agostino Tassi, who was a fellow painter became Artemisia’s worst nightmare. He had come to Rome not without several implications with the law. His powerful friends helped him find a place in the city and Orazio, who recognized his influence in the art world was quick to establish amical bonds with Tassi. Artemisia’s father wanted her to have adequate training in painting, so he invited Tassi to tutor her at the Gentileschi residence. During the tutoring session and despite her refusal to accommodate him sexual desires, Tassi raped Artemisia. Her friend and neighbor Tuzzia, that lived right upstairs ignored her screams, leaving her at the mercy of her rapist. Rape was not frowned upon due to the infrigment of the victim’s sexual freedom. Rape was an act that brought shame and destroyed a family’s reputation. 

Given that women did not have individual rights, their social existence was only relevant in the context of groups, such as family or the church. They would get married to ensure their survival and gain a higher social, if any, status. Protecting a woman’s virginity was of paramount importance. If a woman dared to have sexual intercourse or even have the mildest of flirtations, she was in danger of being seen as a whore and therefore she would become unable to have a spouse. As a result, a woman’s rape was a family matter in the sense that any rape victim had to consider their life as doomed. That was not the case for Artemisia though. Orazio Gentileschi wanted to prosecute Tassi. And so he did. The trial was long and painful as Artemisia not only re-lived the whole incident, but was also brutally tortured by the method called sybille. Tassi was deemed guilty, which resulted to five years of exile from Rome.

Despite the fact that the whole story was deeply traumatic, Artemisia was one of the few women (of her time) that did not let a rape dictate their life outcome, as it was normally the case at the time. She continued working and, slowly but surely, she gained the respect of her peers. The fact that she was accepted in the Academy of Design in Florence was a miracle on its own. At a time when most painters and their assistants knew how to read and write and used their skills to take notes in their practice, Artemisia was not given a chance to learn how to write her own signature. Records of the trial do not contain Artemisia’s signature, even though it is clearly stated that she was present. There is no doubt whatsoever that she couldn’t even write her own name. It wasn’t that her family didn’t think she was smart enough. It was that women were not supposed to go to school at all. You can imagine the obstacles she had to face compared to her male counterparts, who were literate and could use all kinds of resources for their work.

Artemisia was not unaware of the discrimination she faced in the art world. Simply the fact that she was the first and only woman to be accepted in the Academy of Design would be enough for her to notice her social standing. Even though her father served as her patron and supporter and tried to pass on his knowledge, that was not enough on its own. She even expressed her resentment towards the situation in one of her letters, making it more than clear that she was well aware of what was going on for women at the time. Let alone women who were aspiring artists. 

There is a lot of speculation amongst art historians on whether Artemisia expresses her rage towards Agostino Tassi and revenges herself for the rape that traumatized her or whether she just chooses her violent scenes as a way to express her anger towards the universal suppresion of women. Of course, no one can deny that every artist carries a part of himself in their work, but we couldn’t forget that Artemisia’s subjects were very common for the painters’ of the 17th century.

Nonetheless, it is not only her subjects that inspire awe. It is their execution that makes her stand out as among many painters of her era. Her Caravaggio influences are crystal-clear. The light focuses on the subjects and the rest of the painting stays rather dark. Humans display intense emotions and often use violence. What is also clear is her preference for female subjects, undoubtedly because of her own female identity. Females in Artemisia’s paintings appear strong, assertive but at the same time sensual. In a world where women were almost exclusively painted by men, Gentileschi’s outlook is a breath of fresh air, even by the 17th century standards. Her heroines are not passive by any means. Maybe this could be the only argument that works in favour of those who think that her paintings are mostly talking about her rape. 

Her most famous painting is Judith Slaying Holophernes. Its first version was completed in Naples in 1610. A second version, created in 1620, is displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Holophernes was an army general that came to destroy Judith’s town. In this biblical tale Judith seduces him with her beauty and then proceeds to decapitate him with the help of her servant. To complete an already gruesome story, Holofernes wakes up from the drunken state that Judith managed to lead him in, right before Judith slays his head. This biblical story is another tale of a beautiful woman getting revenge over a powerful man. This type of stories became more prevalent as time went on, forming a theme called Power of Women by art historians.

This theme was widely common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, so it’s not that Artemisia was particularly innovating in her choice of subject. It was its execution that made Gentileschi the legend that she is today. Her direct influence from Caravaggio and the use of intense contrast between bright and dark colours are what made her Judith stand out from the rest of the Judiths out there. She makes the most of the story by placing the action right in the centre of the canvas,not holding back from producing a violent painting that would be hardly used as a decorative element in a prince’s living room or study. 

Another striking fact about the painting is that Artemisia has incorporated Galileo’s parabolic law on movement in her second Judith. In this version, Holofernes’ blood is splattering everywhere in parabolic forms whereas in the original Judith his blood is sprawling on the sheets without any particular rhyme or reason. Noone would expect that Gentileschi would have incorporated the state of the art theories on physics, but having Galileo (the father of the theory of parabolic law of projectiles) as a colleague at the Accademia del Disegno in Florence definitely helped. As you can clearly tell, Artemisia Gentileschi did not have the typical female experience. 

However, that is not her only notable painting. Judith and her Maidservant, painted in the middle of the 1620s, when Artemisia lived in Rome, is deemed by many as Artemisia’s finest work. The canvas depicts the departure of Holofernes’ Assyrian Army right after his decapitation. Judith’s maid is seen hiding the general’s head while Judith responds to a, probably, minor disturbance. The scene takes place in Holofernes’ tent, which explains why both women are surrounded by military equipment. For yet another time, Gentileschi chooses to shed light in the figures of the two women by a third party, probably someone that is in the middle of entering the tent. 

Another one of Artemisia’s paintings that deserves our attention is Sleeping Venus, a representation of Venus, sleeping almost completely nude with the presence of her son, Cupid, who is seen fanning her with a peacock feather in the top right corner of the canvas. Painted during Artemisia’s second stay in Rome, Sleeping Venus, seems more as an attempt of the painter to accustom herself to a potential patron’s wishes. Otherwise, it would have been unexplainable for her to paint a female figure so obviously surrendered to the male gaze. It is suggested by historians that Artemisia might have asked for a helping hand during the making of this painting, given that she herself was not as experienced with painting landscapes. Either way, this painting is captivating and it shows Gentileschi’s extensive knowledge of the female anatomy.

The latter is easily confirmed if one examines other samples of her work, and especially her painting entitled Susanna and the Elders. Painted in 1610, when she was only seventeen years old, Susanna and the Elders is based upon a biblical story about a girl, Susanna that is approached by two elders that threaten to ruin her reputation unless she accepts to entertain their sexual demands. In this picture, the two elders are seen hovering over Susanna threateningly, while she shows her discontent by twisting her body in an attempt to make them go away. This angle is harder to achieve. Danaë is, also, another good example of Artemisia’s anatomy knowledge.  Danaë is inclined in an angle that compliments her curves. This image is such an incredible nude that we find it hard to believe that it was painted when Artemisia was only nineteen years old. And this is more a matter of talent than anything else.

From 1620 to 1625, Gentileschi produced two powerful works that are, yet again, inspired by biblical stories. In 1620 she focused on telling the story of Jael and Sisera. Sisera is a defeated general that Jael took in with the promise of hiding him from the generals and providing him with food and shelter. However, her services were rather cruel, may I say, as she killed him by driving a tent peg through his temple. A rare subject for painters of the Baroque era, this painting is often worked on Mary Magdalene as Melancholy, joining thousands of artists that attempted to portray the feeling of melancholy throughout history, and she succeeded. Her version of Mary Magdalene is a dimmer one. Her choice to concentrate the light on Mary and keep the rest of the canvas dark, makes for a more dramatic painting that catches the viewer’s eye. For another time with Mary Magdalene, Gentileschi showed her skill at creating different textures and colors, that give the painting a richness that one wouldn’t expect.

Gentileschi knew how to provoke with her paintings, whether they were showing powerful women revenging themselves or nudes that scandalized the minds of 17th century patrons. A commission for the ceiling of the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Allegory of Inclination, received alterations seventy years after its production because Leonardo di Buonarroto thought that the nudity was too much for the residents and their visitors. This is why he commissioned El Volterrano to paint clothes over the female’s figure. It was not the only time that Artemisia’s nudes were deemed as too provocative for her patrons. Danae was, also, thought as too revealing, even though no third parties proceeded to any alterations. 

Despite her eventful life and constant difficulties that emerged throughout her life, she became a well established artist, supported by both the House of Medici and the court of Charles I of England. Her stay in Florence was particularly productive. It was there that she painted some of her best works, such as Self-Portrait as a Lute Player and Judith and Her Maidservant. This success did not come without effort, though. Her strategic moves were what got her a place in the courts of several royal families. She would send letters to princes and give them her paintings in exchange for a visit or a thank-you letter. In one particularly interesting letter to Don Antonio Ruffo, a famous art collector, Gentileschi tries to assert herself in an effort to receive support for her work. 

“You feel sorry for me because a woman’s name raises doubts until the work is seen; I shall not bore you any longer with this female chatter. The works speak for themselves. […] And I will show Your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do, hoping to give you the greatest pleasure. […] You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman”, Artemisia writes. There is no greater evidence of Artemisia’s self-confidence and power than these words, with which she proves why she became such a successful painter. It took determination and a great deal of courage for a woman to achieve professional status and earn a living from her art at that time. Her undeniable talent could not save her from financial struggles, after her return to Rome from Florence. The possibility of lucrative commissions drove her decision to move to Venice and, a few years later, to Naples. 

Her biggest journey was the one she took to London, in 1638. There, she helped her father complete his commissions for the court of Charles I of England and did some work of her own, even though there are hardly any paintings with her signature. While she worked without pause up until 1654, she started becoming increasingly dependent on her assistant. Artemisia died around 1656 under unknown circumstances, leaving her works subject to everyone’s interpretation. While feminist art historians tend to see her works as an expression of a woman’s rage towards the male opression, a more collected approach would be to aknowledge Gentileschi’s experience and interpret her work according to the circumstances under which it was created. Artemisia Gentileschi’s work as a whole reveals a skilled artist, a true master of chiaroscuro and tenebrism that deserves to be at the Pantheon of Baroque artists.