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Artemisia Gentileschi: Canvases that Reflect a Life

Updated on February 27, 2012
"Self Portrate as the Allegory of Painting" by Artemisia Gentileschi
"Self Portrate as the Allegory of Painting" by Artemisia Gentileschi

In the 17th century women didn’t paint. Men painted. Rembrandt and Rubens painted, so did Vermeer and Velazquez. Caravaggio painted. Orazio Gentileschi was a painter as well. Women were not painters. Orazio seems to have not gotten the memo and when he saw promise and found a prodigy in his young daughter Artemisia he rejected the idea’s and social restrictions of the time and began to tutor her himself regardless of the fact that she would never be aloud to train in an academy due to the fact that she was a woman. Durring her life Artemisia painted more than thirty four works of art. Many of these pieces reflect a life that was shaped by her relationship with her father and a rape that she suffered from a tutor in her teens.

There is some argument as to which work was Artemisia’s first but the two that are in question are both depictions of Madonna and Child one which is hers and she based off of a painting done by her father. Both works convey an intimacy between the baby and his mother that seems to be uncommon in works by male artists. In both there is a clear use of chiaroscuro and technical composition that are impressive for a sixteen year old girl to have done.

The Two Madonna and Child Paintings
The Two Madonna and Child Paintings
Saint Cecilia
Saint Cecilia

Artemisia often worked alongside her father and his subjects influenced her and were often her own. Orazio often painted women playing instruments so it is not surprising that one of Artemisia’s early works, done in her late teens, was “Saint Cecilia”, a women playing a lyre. While the subject was without a doubt pulled from her father the technique was not. She seems to have been influenced by the techniques of Caravaggio who’s works her father had taken her to see and she may have met before his death in 1610 at the start of her career. In “Saint Cecilia” she appears to have rejected her fathers softer, late Mannerist style.

Because women were not educated at the time Artemisia did not learn to read or write until an adult and it was only because she was the daughter of a painter and her saw talent in her and was willing to defy society and cultivate that talent that she learned to paint. By age seventeen Artemisia had learned all that she could from her farther Orazio and because Artemisia could not gain access into the art academies and they would not allow her to sketch or paint nude males her father found a tutor for her in his friend and collaborator Agostino Tassi.

Agostino was evidently a charming man and with his charisma and charm people, including Orazio found it easy to overlook his questionable past. This questionable past included a wife that he had abandoned, a wife that he had acquired by rape. During that time if a man raped a women and took her virginity the law required that he marry her. Still Artemisia was tutored by the man. Her first signed and dated work was done during her early days of being tutored by Tassi and it was found to be so mature and well done for a seventeen-year-old that many thought her father had done it. The painting shows the Biblical story of Susanna, a young women being sexually harassed by the community elders. It was a popular subject but rather than show Artemisia as being flirtatious or coy like many of the male artists had done in the past Artemisia shows Susanna to be shying away from the attention, embarrassed and ashamed, frightened and repulsed by the large leering men. Artemisia finished this painting before her rape at the hands of Agostino Tassi but it has been thought that the painting probably reflects her life and emotions at sexual advances by Tassi and other artists in his studio when she first began to train there.

At the age of nineteen Artemisia was raped and had her virginity taken by her tutor Agostino Tassi. Remarkably the transcripts of the seven-month-long rape trial have survived. According to Artemisia, Tassi, after months of trying to be alone with her cornered her in her bedroom and raped her. Afterwards he promised to marry her, and the two began a consensual relationship that lasted many months Orazio discovered the relationship and charged Tassi with the rape of his daughter.

During the trial Artemisia was accused of not having been a virgin at the time of the rape and of having many lovers. She was subject to embracing examinations by midwives to determine whether she had been "deflowered" recently or a long time ago. Even more embarrassing for Gentileschi, Tassi testified that her artistic skills were so pitiful that he had to teach her the rules of perspective, and was doing so the day she claimed he raped her. She as also subject to torture with thumb screws to determine if what she said was the truth.

Tassi put up quite a defense but as the trial dragged on more of his past seemed to surface and his prior misdeeds could not be hidden from or ignored by the courts. Tassi had been imprisoned before for incest with his sister-in-law and had charged with arranging the murder of his wife. He was eventually convicted on the charge of raping Gentileschi and exiled from Rome. Due to his fame and power he was back within four months.

During the trial Artemisia painted what may be one of her most famous works of art “Judith Slaying Holofernes”. The story told is a Biblical one; Judith was a nobel Jewish widow in a village taken by the Assyrian general Holofernes. She captivated him with her beauty and then gained access into his tent where he had a feast and passed out from too much wine. She saw her opportunity and beheaded the general and then smuggled his head back to her town to prove the the Assyrians were now without a leader and soon the village had thrown them out. The work stands out not only for the technique and the composition but also for the unique was Gentileschi has portrayed Judith. Judith had been painted many times before and had even been the subject of Caravaggio’s. In the past she had been depicted as frail and ashamed by her actions of murder. Though she was doing the physical act a slicing the head off a man much larger and stronger than herself she still appears to be very feminine. This is not the case in Artemisia’s painting. Judith as substantial, she has muscle and she is actively engaged in her task, there is no looking away from what she is doing as if it isn’t happening. Artemisia’s Judith is engaged and interested in enacting her revenge on this man who has violated her home. Perhaps this painting was Artemisia’s way of expressing her own emotions and enacting revenge on the man who violated her. Her very own Holofernes.

Soon after the trial ended Artemisia moved to Florence and married painter Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi despite the fact that her “honor had been spoiled” and she was “ruined”. it was here that she launched a successful career alongside of her husband and they both became members of Academie del Disegno, which had ned before been done by a woman. She had many patrons in Florence, including Grand Duke Cosimo the second from the Medici Family.

Not long after beginning married life in Florence with Stiattesi Artemisia revisited Judith with her painting “Judith and Her Maidservant”. She shows the tense moment after Holofernes’ beheading as Judith sneaks away with her trophy, the head. It is thought that perhaps Gentileschi is using this painting to resolve her feelings about her rape and Tassi. Some scholars have suggested that this painting is suggesting a symbolic castration of Agostino Tassi. Judith is seen as strong and detrmined to do what is needed to defend herself, this is quite a contrast to the fearful Susanna of three years earlier. Perhaps this is a direct reflection of how Artemisia has grwon herseld from a shy and nervous girl who does not stand up for her self to a grown woman who has gone through pain and humilation at the hands of a man and not has the maturiy and couage to do something about the situations she is handed.

Regardles of the reason Artemisia revistied the story of Judith the painting is magnificent as with her other paintings of Biblical strys Artemisia depicts the heroine much diferently than her male contemporaries did. Male artists often depicted Judith as standing triumphant with Holofernes's head, but Artemisia chooses to capture the danger and risk. The use of comosition captures the urgency and risk of the two women as they try to get away undetcted and the dark background contrasted with the golden skintones and fabrics draw the viwers face to the women and the head in the basket is almost not seen until a shocking second glance.

Durring her time in Florence she did many commisioned paintings where the subjusct was often someone sitting or their portrate. These paintings included one of the goddess Minerva likely commisioned by Marie de‘ Medici with Anne of Austria as Minerva. As was Artemisia’s style Minerva is strang and exudes strength and power but when Artemisia chose her own hreoines they where often Biblical women The fact that this is a Goddess reflects the Medici’s their love of the clasics and their legacy as humanists dating back to the Rennisance. Accounts and records indicate that these paintings are what kept a roof over her and her husband’s (who had taken to gambleing) head and food in their childrens mouths. She is thought to have had at least two sons who probably died in infancy and a daughter who she is thought to have taught to paint but no work sruvives by the girl. After the trial and moving the Florence Artemisia suffered a strained relationship with her father but with the birth of Orazio’s grandaughter the two renewed their relationship.

At about the time she returned to Rome, Artemisia painted a new version of the slaying of Holofernes. Perhaps because the return to the sceen of her rape brought back old memories and feelings. This painting was almost identical to her first if it wasn’t for the changes in color and the far more bloody and violentness of it all. The gold of Judith’s dress was so distinctive that it later became known as “Artemisia gold” The owner of the painting, Grand Duchess Maria Luisa de' Medici, found it to be so very graphic and horrifying to look at that she hid it away and it wasn’t until 2002 that it was first publicly displayed. She never returned to Florence for while she was away her primary patron, Cosimo II died and her reputation in the city had been damaged due to her debts.

Alongside of her two paintings of Judith slaying Holifernes her self portrate entitled “Self Portrate as the Allegory of Painting” is another of her well know works. Though the film places this work much earlier in her career, before she even becomes a student of Tassi’s, this was in fact done later in her career at the end of her stay in Rome right before she moves to Naples and aquires Phillip IV of Spain and Charles I of England as patrons. In order to acheive the odd view of herself she most likely used two angled mirors.

Throughout her life Artemisia Gentileshi painted many Biblical seans depecting women in compramising situations with men. Sometimes these women are the ones with the power and are luring the man to her such as with “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” and perhaps this is how she wished things cold have been for her as a willing member of her sexual experences, not as a rape victim and other times she returns to Baetrice or Judith, both women who were taken advantage of as she was. Many of what she painted over her life was sexualy charged and shows that even years after her rape and the painful trial that followed and resulted in her shame, embarassment and torture her art remained to reflect her life, her pain, her thoughts and her soul.


Artemisia. Dir. Agnes Merlet. Perf. Valentina Cervi and Miki Manojlovic. Cinecitta Studios, 1997. DVD.

Boyd McBride, Kari. "Artemisia Gentileschi." Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <>.

Cohen, Elizabeth S. "The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History." The Sixteenth Century Journal 31.1 (2000): 47-75. Print.

Judith. Good News Bible. London: Collins, 2009. Print.

Lapierre, Alexandra, and Liz Heron. Artemisia: a Novel. New York: Grove, 2000. Print.

Silvers, Anita. "Has Her(oine's) Time Now Come?" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48.4 (1990): 365-79. Print.

"The Life and Art of ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI." The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi. Ed. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <>.


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