Artemisia Gentileschi: Victim or Heroine?
As the light spills into the eerie dark room, the eyes are drawn to its center where a gruesome act is being committed. The shimmering light bounces off the detailed outlined figures of two women, bathing them in hues of gold and white, creating an intensely dramatic effect against the striking dark background.
One woman is seen clad in a gold, green, and burgundy silk dress. Her face glowing in the golden light displays a fierce determination evident only by her furrowed brows. A gold bracelet adorns one of her outstretched arms, and by her stance, one can conclude that she is intent on accomplishing a task. The light continues to travel down her arms, as the eyes capture the ghastly violent act and comes to rest on a man lying at the edge of his bed evidently overpowered by the unwavering determination of the two women looming over him.
A huge masculine but powerless hand reaches out, clutching and pushing to no avail, in a fierce struggle to free his left arm that is being pinned down to his chest by one woman’s weight. The other woman unswervingly holds down his head against the bed with one hand while her other hand severs his head from his body with a sword. Crimson red bursts out of Holoferne’s throat, spilling over the crisp white linen. His face is frozen in a timeless nightmarish agony while the seemingly fearless and determined Judith, along with her maidservant, completes his decapitation.
This intensely powerful painting in oil on canvas of Judith Slaying Holofernes is one of the many paintings done by an early 17th century Baroque female painter known as Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia Gentileschi’s use of chiaroscuro effects, color and composition, realism, and genre subject matter, a style after Caravaggio’s, is reflected in many of her paintings throughout her lifetime, and like her counterpart Caravaggio, may have been influenced by their tragic and scandalous past.
The dramatic light and dark or chiaroscuro style paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi’s reflected a skill that originated with Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio, born in 1571, was known for his hot temper, and explosive and liberal lifestyle. He was often criticized for his radicalness in breaking from the traditional Christian iconography and outrageous subject matter. However, Caravaggio’s real offense was that he had challenged the whole God-given ideology of Roman art, drawing it down to earth from its higher spheres, making his biblical characters more mundane and often vulgar.
Caravaggio’s critics accused him of using a dark background simply to hide his inability to build up a real pictorial prospettiva. On the contrary, Caravaggio needed this limitation of space to concentrate his composition with the intent of bringing the event directly and persuasively before the eyes and into the heart of the worshiper. In spite of the academic criticisms, it was the directness of his art that brought him notoriety and even popularity (Friedlaender x-xxiii).
It was during the years from 1600 to 1610, when Caravaggio was almost at the peak of his career that many records emerged of violent acts committed by him. All the literary sources agree in pointing to Caravaggio’s violent and quarrelsome temperament and to his extremely disorderly behavior, which is fully confirmed by the numerous police records in the State Archives of Rome. Known to walk around the streets of Rome carrying a large sword looking for adventure and trouble in the company of wild companions, Caravaggio became notorious for causing trifling incidents and small disturbances of the peace. Among these records, more serious accusations exist which resulted in several arrests. The most serious report was when in a sort of duel, he killed one Ranuccio Tomassoni from Terni whom he had played ball and quarreled. It is probable that the circumstances of his life, the poverty of his early years and other personal difficulties caused him to become bitter and rebel against convention (Spike 6-22; Friedlander 118-129).
In the later part of the 1500’s, Caravaggio became acquainted with Orazio Gentileschi, a Roman painter. It is reported that this friendship did not last due to the hot and quick temper of both painters, but the close artistic relationship that existed between them brought young Artemisia Gentileschi in contact with him.
Artemisia Gentileschi, born July 8th, 1593, was the eldest and only daughter of Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone, and the only of four children to develop a significant aptitude for painting. During her adolescence, the works of the era included some of the most important pictorial ensembles seen in Rome: The Carraci frescoes in the Farnese Gallery (1599-1604); St. Andrew frescoes in S. Gregorio Magno by Guido Reni and Domenichino (1609); and, Caravaggio’s paintings for chapels in S. Luigi dei Francesi (1599-1604) and S. Maria del Popolo (1600-1601) (Garrard p.13-14).
In 1610, the year of Caravaggio’s death, Artemisia was 17 when she painted Susanna and the Elders. It is believed that Artemisia possibly posed as the model using her reflection in a mirror.
The painting is based on the biblical story of Susanna, in which two elder’s lust after a young matron. Artemisia depicts Susanna as a voluptuous nude woman crouched into a defensive posture by the advances of two conspiring lechers; “the work would prove all too prophetic” quoted O’Neill (O’Neill par. 8).
The painting displays no obvious connection with Caravaggism, but only a single detail shows us that she has begun to look at the art of the radical master. This is seen in the foreshortened hand of the elder on the left of Susanna; the hand is spread as in an ovoid shape, which directly resembles a hand in Caravaggio’s Casa Coppi Judith Beheading Holofernes of 1598-99.
Instead, Artemisia’s composition and animated facial expressions and gestures display a mature assimilation to that of her father’s style, which was her only influence in her early life. Since females were not allowed to follow the normal paths of men with all the privileges bestowed on the gender, Artemisia’s father, Orazio, was her only access to the profession (Garrard p. 15-16).
Artemisia surprisingly soon accomplished an independent style that was influenced by the exposure she received from artistic monuments in Rome and the great artists of the time. During one of her two excursions in the early summer of 1611, Artemisia became acquainted with Agostino Tassi, a landscape and marine painter from Florence who was working in the Quirinal Palace in Rome in collaboration with Giovanni Lanfranco, Carlo Saraceni, and her father Orazio.
At the time of Artemisia’s visit, the decoration of the Sala Regia was being carried out by Tassi and his colleagues on frescoes in the Quirinal, in the Sala del Concistoro. Later on, that same September, they would begin work in newly built “Casino of the Muses” of Scipione Borghese. Among the muses and the musicians who served as poetic image counterpoints to the feasts and entertainment of Scipoine Borghese, appears the portrait-like image of Artemisia. The inclusion of Artemisia’s image may have been meant to commemorate an artistic debut as well (Garrard 19-20).
The ceiling decoration was painted in confectionary colors of some improbable Italian dessert and Artemisia’s portrait, elegantly dressed and holding a large fan, gazes out over the balustrade. It is said that Artemisia Gentileschi posed for her father Orazio, who painted all the other figures as well, making music or standing about enjoying it (Nation par. 1). Reportedly, it was during this time that Tassi had been asked by Orazio to instruct Artemisia in perspective because of his skill in architectural perspective. The lessons that followed may have led to the initial sexual encounter with her leading to the famous rape trial of 1612, a scandal that followed Artemisia, affecting and shaping her artistic career (Garrard 20).
Although Orazio kept his daughter confined to his house, as was the custom among respectable Romans, the Gentileschi’s house also functioned as a studio. The constant traffic through the household exposed Artemisia to models, colleagues and patrons, all mainly men. This proximity to the male gender sparked malicious gossip that only served to injure and mar Artemisia’s reputation (O’Neill par. 9).
The extensively documented testimony of the trial reported that on May 6, 1611, Orazio was away from the house, when Tassi entered the home, and found Artemisia alone in the company of Tuzia, a tenant and supposed friend of the Gentileschi’s household. Artemisia testifies that Tassi ordered Tuzia to leave the room, which she did against Artemisia’s wishes, and was left alone with Tassi who then violently rape her. Immediately after the rape, Tassi promised to marry Artemisia, only if she agreed to continue an intimate relationship with him. Unaware that Tassi was already married, Artemisia agreed to it to save her family honor (O’Neil par.9; Garrard p. 415).
In March of 1612, after Tassi refused to keep his promise to marry Artemisia, Orazio Gentileschi filed suit against Agostino Tassi for injury and damage. The trial that followed sparked a public scandal that became a seven-month ordeal full of humiliation and suffering for Artemisia, who was subjected to embarrassing questions, public physical examinations by two midwives, and the torture by Sibille (a primitive torture by thumbscrews or metal rings tightened by strings around her fingers) to prove that she was telling the truth that she was a virgin when Tassi “deflowered” her (O’Neil par. 9; Garrard p. 21).
The trial came to an end, but not without the trauma and scandal that destroys the reputation of innocent lives, especially that of a respectful and gifted young woman. The trial was filled with moral and sexual sordidness, and the few facts that can be gathered from the half-truths and lies from the characters involved in the incident included some very seedy types, indicative of raw seventeenth-century reality (Garrard 20). Tassi was convicted and his sentencing to a five-year banishment from Rome, apparently was never enforced (O’Neill par.11).
One month after the rape trial, in order to get her out of Rome, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to marry a minor Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi. Soon after the wedding, the newlyweds left for Florence where Orazio had asked for patronage for his daughter from the grand duchess of Tuscany (O’Neill par. 11).
Artemisia emerged as a self-directed and independent artist after the rape trial, and her instant Florentine success is probably explained by her arrival as a protégée of the prominent Florentine, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, great-nephew of the sculptor Michelangelo.
Buonarroti, a strong advocate of Artemisia, who may have also been a close family friend, opened doors for Artemisia in Florence. Artemisia produced great works, such as the Judith Slaying Holofernes(1612-13), a recreation based on the prototypes seen in Rome of Caravaggio’s Judith of c. 1598-99, and Rubens’s Great Judith.
In this scene, the key moment is immortalized in the story of a Jewish widow, Judith, who saves the city of Bethulia from attacking Assyrians by murdering their commander. But the violence depicted in this painting pushed Artemisia in the vanguard of artists who pushed Caravaggesque naturalism to horrific extremes. Here she began to exhibit a distinctly creative adaptation of Caravaggio’s imagery to her own art, which continued to sustain her through the 1630’s. It was said that Artemisia Gentileschi brought Caravaggism to Florence and the Judith Slaying Holofernes supported this claim (Garrard 32-34).
Another painting of Artemisia where women are seen taking violent retribution against men with calm self-assurance is found in the Jael and Sisara. Like the Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia’s heroines often looked like her (Nordland, Shulman par. 2). The paintings that followed of the Judith’s(1613-14) included the Pitti Judith, a painting less violent but extremely Caravaggesque in its simplicity, cool color, assertive chiaroscuro, and in the drawn virility of its heroine (Garrard 39); and, the Judith and Her Maidservant (1625), which is by universal acclaim, one of the great masterpieces of the Caravaggesque Baroque. The artist once again displays the dynamic chiaroscuro, dramatic narrative, and the creation of monumental female heroes.
In contrast to Caravaggio’s characters, which normally for a few exceptions and much like his male characters, portrayed the traditional female characters as youthful beauties or wrinkled old women. Artemisia’s figure of Judith is much older, mature, and heavier than her previous representations; a representation of her own creation that evolved from a line of active and increasingly powerful female characters (Garrard 67).
Artemisia’s loss of her mother at the age of twelve, her traumatic rape, the betrayal of her close friend Tuzia, and the need for female friendship may have inspired the creations of the Judith’s. According to Garrard, Artemisia’s paintings “have as their expressive core a solidarity and unity between women” (Garrard 21).
In 1616, during their stay in Florence, Artemisia became an official member of the Academy, making her the only woman member since its founding in 1593. Artemisia and her husband were documented in the records of the Accademia del Disegno, where they were known to use the facilities frequently. Unlike cities like Bologna, Rome, or even Cremona that boasted famous women artists in the sixteenth century, Florence in 1614 had yet to see any active female artists (Garrard 24).
Artemisia’s swift emergence in Florence as a member of the Academy also points to her early support by the Medici family. Cosimo II, who became a Grand Duke, followed his father Ferdinando I in protecting and supporting the Academy. Only with the support of a princely patron like the Grand Duke, could a female artist like Artemisia, “unique in this profession,” as Orazio had described her, have taken a seat in the Accademia del Disegno (Garrard 34-35).
Before Artemisia left Florence, she had completed at least seven paintings for the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and his family; and, included among her most dazzling work was the Conversion of the Magdalene, which as stated by O’Neill, “marked the first step in her path toward artistic renown” (O’Neill par. 12).
Among many of Artemisia’s painting were the Penitent Magdalen (1617-1620), which exhibited both the normative proportions and anatomical naturalism, and the Allegory of Inclination (1615-16).
The Allegory of Inclination, was one of a group of paintings requested by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger for the galleria in Casa Buonarroti to fill an artistic program that he had devised to glorify his illustrious great-uncle. The paintings on the wall and ceiling depicted important episodes in the artist’s life and the events following his death (Garrard 41-43).
Another picture in Artemisia’s early years in Florence is the Minerva (1614-15). The painting’s rose-lavender and salmon drapery, the deep green of the laurel in Minerva’s hair and hand are set against an olive-gold and silver-gray shield, creates an effect of subdued richness. Its odd combination of the naturalistic and the ideal finds no correspondence in Artemisia’s later work (Garrard 50).
Several subsequent paintings throughout Artemisia’s life included the
Lucretia (1621 & 1642)
Cleopatra (1621-22 & 1630’s)
Portrait of a Gonfaloniere (1622)
Esther before Ahasuerus (1622-23)
Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1622-23)
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630)
The Annunciation (1630)
Birth of St. John the Baptist (1631-33)
Proculus and Nicea (1636-37)
The Martyrdom of St. Januarius (1636-37)
The Adoration of the Magi (1636-37)
Sleeping Venus (1630’s)
David and Bathsheba (1640’s)
Lot and His Daughters (1640’s)
The Triumph of Galatea (1645-50 in collaboration with Bernardo Cavallino)
Bathsheba (1640’s several paintings) and,
Tarquin and Lucretia (1640’s) (Garrard 54-134).
Artemisia’s life was not easy. Her marriage to the unfaithful Stiattesi and the death of three children took a toll on her. Left to raise alone her only surviving child, Prudentia, Artemisia found commissions hard to come by in a man-made world.
In 1627, with hope of securing new patronage, Artemisia moved to Venice. Once there she received a commission form Philip IV of Spain to paint a companion piece to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck’s Discovery of Achilles.
Two years later, fleeing the plague of 1630, which wiped out one-third of Venice’s population, Artemisia moved on to Naples, who was then under Spanish rule. There in Naples, Artemisia accomplished the completion of the first altarpiece of her career and a public commission for a major church. She found herself haggling over prices and constantly having to defend the value and originality of her art. (O’Neill par. 14).
Artemisia continued to paint, and throughout her lifetime she infused her art with the spirit of a masculine Caesar that must have prompted many a male peer to think that she painted like a man. Nevertheless, as she grew older, Artemisia’s work became more graceful and “feminine,” and in death she was reclaimed to stereotypical femininity. Little was written of Gentileschi’s extraordinary creative life, only some thirty-four paintings and twenty-eight of her letters remain to speak the truth (Garrard 136-138).
Nearly 400 years later, citizens are startled by the imagery of the famous Judith Slaying Holofernes. The artist’s gender and notoriety only heightened the effect even to the Italian art patrons of the early 17th century, with their taste for dramatic, even violent, imagery. Hindered by a society that expected women to be either nuns or wives and tarnished by scandal, Artemisia, nevertheless, became the most accomplished female painter of her time. According to the inscription on artist Jerome David’s engraving of her, Artemisia was “A miracle in painting, more easily envied than imitated” (O’Neill par. 2).
After centuries of neglect, Artemisia was rediscovered and is everywhere. A popular new novel, The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland was published, and a play about her Lapis Blue Blood Red opened on Broadway. However, most important, and exhibition of her works and those of he father Orazio displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has solidified her reputation as a dynamic and original artist, and one of the very few female painters of her time who was bold enough to tackle historical and allegorical themes (O’Neill par. 3).
Painter to dukes, princes, cardinals and kings, in Artemisia Gentileschi’s case, recognitions is long overdue. In 1635 she wrote to her friend, the astronomer Galileo “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” (O’Neill par. 5).
Artemisia Gentileschi had a tragic past, and her gender may have hindered her artistically in a gender-biased era whereas an artist, was not taken seriously; nonetheless, she rose above it all. Her paintings full of natural simplicity, realism, and Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro effects were lauded extravagantly throughout Europe. Driven with fierce determination Artemisia Gentileschi ultimately became one of the greatest female artists of the Renaissance-Baroque period.
Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Getileschi. Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1989.
Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1974.
Spike, John T. Caravaggio. New York: Abbeville Press, 2001
O’Neill, Mary. “Artemisia’s Moment.” Smithsonian 33.2 May 2002. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 24 February, 2004 <http://www.epnet.com>
Danto, Arthur C. “Artemisia and The Elders.” Nation 274.13 April 2002: 33. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 24 February, 2004 <http://www.epnet.com>
Nordland, R. and Shulman, K. “A Brush Mightier Than the Sword.” Newsweek 118.4 July 1991: 55. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 24 February, 2004 <http://www.epnet.com>
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