Artemisia Gentileschi was the most important woman painters to come out of the Early Baroque Era and is one of the most recognized women artists today, but that recognition was not without struggle. Gentileschi was one of the many artists who were influenced by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio during the sixteenth century and her paintings had a darker, shadowed like quality to them. Though our Stokstad texts barely mention her, it does say, “one of Caravaggio’s most brilliant Italian followers was Artemisia Gentileschi, whose international reputation helped spread the Caravaggesque style beyond Rome.” (Stokstad, Pg. 725). Woman artists were a rarity during that period in time and for many years both before and after, for they were not allowed in studios and had to be taught by their fathers who painted, if they were lucky enough to be related to a painter. Painting was almost solely done by men, so the fact that a few talented women artists managed to become successful in the field was nothing short of a miracle and could even be considered a step towards equal rights for women. Gentileschi’s success didn’t come without her own trials, tribulations and struggles though, even while going through a rape case in the courts she fought to keep her virtue, kept painting and produced many, many paintings. Most other woman would have given up after going through something like, but Gentileschi managed to stay strong and focus on her work as a painter. She struggled a little bit in her life, but Artemisia Gentileschi created many amazing paintings and turned out to be one of the most recognized woman artists throughout time.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s father lived in Rome and was a well-respected painter from Pisa named Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia was born in 1593 and was the only one of his four children to follow his footsteps and become a painter, she was determined to do so. Because there were no women allowed in studios, they could not learn the trade unless they were taught by a father or an uncle, so her father had to take her under his wings and teach her and train her himself. If he were to not train her himself, there would have been no way that she would have been recognized as a qualified artist. At the age of twelve, Artemisia’s mother died and she lived in a world filled entirely with men, she was surrounded by them. Gentileschi completed her first known and most famous painting, Susannah and the Elders, at the age of seventeen in 1610, the same year that the artist Caravaggio died. Her take on Susannah and the Elders was astonishing, by looking at it you can tell it was painted with the perspective of a woman. She was raped by a painter named Agostino Tassi, who worked with her father, just a few months after painting Susannah and the Elders, at only seventeen years old. “According to Artemisia, Tassi, with the help of family friends, attempted to be alone with her repeatedly, and raped her when he finally succeeded in cornering her in her bedroom. He tried to placate her afterwards by promising to marry her, and gained access to her bedroom (and her person) repeatedly on the strength of that promise, but always avoided following through with the actual marriage.” (www.arthistoryarchive.com). After being raped, most women would be married off to their rapists to keep their virtue, but Tassi was already married. Artemisia and her father decided to open a trial and a case against Agostino Tassi and try to bring him to justice for what he did to her. The trial lasted for seven months and Artemisia was tortured to prove she was telling the truth, but she won the case and was able to get some sort of justice from the man who raped her. Agostino was found guilty, his part helped prove that, “Tassi had been imprisoned earlier for incest with his sister-in-law and was charged with arranging the murder of his wife. He was ultimately convicted on the charge of raping Gentileschi; he served under a year in prison and was later invited again into the Gentileschi household by Orazio.” (www.arthistoryarchive.com). Gentileschi went through something brutal and traumatizing and it’s a miracle she was able to obtain justice against her rapist through the courts. However, this event from her past would go on to effect her future and influence her style of painting as well as her life.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape clearly influenced her paintings and her life, she went on to paint themes about women in power and justice being delivered to the men in her paintings. “Artemisia was married off one month after the trial to a family friend, Peter Antonio Stiattesi whom she left within a few years. Soon after the trial, she painted her first Judith beheading Holofernes painting, clearly a cathartic expression of her rage and violation.” (www.arthistoryarchive.com). Two years after her rape, nineteen-year-old Artemisia finally returned to painting and it was to focus of her young life, but first she had to leave Rome. She had to leave the place where she grew up because the city and its surroundings were too much of a reminder of what happened to her and how she was let down and taken advantage of by the men in her life. She grew up respecting, trusting and learning from the different men she was surrounded by and they let her down greatly. “Her Father Orazio had taken up her case largely in order to defend his own honor, and relations between father and daughter were never to be the same again, he was instrumental in her relocation and her return to respectability.” (Rabb, Pg. 182). “Artemisia’s instinct for independence, even though now accompanied by two daughters, seems to have reassured itself as her life stabilized.” (Rabb. Pg. 183). She had become very self-reliant and would only ask for male help when she really needed it, so she would hire one of her brothers. They would do things to help her, like transporting her work around. “The Estrangement from her father certainty continued, perhaps because, his own honor satisfied, he became reconciled with Agostino a few years after the trial.” (Rabb, Pg. 183). Artemisia created many painting in her lifetime and the majority of them had women in the central roles of her paintings. Artemisia painted the biblical heroine Judith five times in ten years, “In one version Artemisia makes the figure of Judith, holding both the sword that has cut off the head of Holofernes and the head itself, suggest a self-portrait.” Judith Slaying Hlofernes is thought to be her most powerful painting, and is thought to be worthy of Caravaggio himself. The rape and loss of reputation she went through was traumatizing, but one can argue that it was these events in her life that led her to her subject matter of women in power delivering justice to men, which in turn, eventually made her become one of the most recognized women painters from the sixteenth century.
Artemisia Gentileschi was soon making a name for herself as a qualified painter and her talent was soon recognized. Shortly after moving to Florence, she had become an official member of Florence’s Artist Academy and was the first woman to ever receive that honor. In fact, “The great-nephew of Michelangelo, a leading figure in the city’s artistic circles, promoted her work and gave her a major role in the decoration of the Casa Buonarroti, a house that he was turning into a shrine to his great-uncle.” (Rabb Pg, 185). One of her biggest successes, she received commissions from the Medici themselves. She also became part of a lively and famous group of artists, who in one way or another were inspired by Caravaggio. It was not often believed that women artists created their talented paintings, so many women artists created self-portraits of themselves painting and that’s exactly what Gentileschi did around 1630. King Charles I of England went on to buy Gentileschi’s Self Portrait a few years later. In 1630, Artemisia Gentileschi then moved to Naples for the remainder of her life, with an exception to the three to four years she lived in London. Her success continued and in 1638, Charles I called her to London, to join her father in a major decorative project. After her death in 1652 her work fell into obscurity and it took three hundred years before she attracted significant interest to her work again. She made a name for herself during her lifetime and painted many recognizable paintings and while she may have been forgotten as an influential artist for a few hundred years, there is no doubt now that she is one of the most influential artists to come out of the sixteenth century.
A big part of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life reads like a novel; Gentileschi went through a lot in her lifetime, from rape to her struggles as a woman artist, but the events in her life made her the recognized artist that she is today. If it wasn’t for the hard times she went through she might not of made paintings that focused on women in power and the deserving justice brought onto men. She was influenced greatly by Caravaggio and created brilliant paintings, many of which had a more darker, shadowed look to them. Her first known painting that she finished before her rape, Susannah and the Elders, had a much lighter and brighter look to it, compared to the darker, Caravaggio influenced work that she created after. Artemisia Gentileschi fought for the rights to be a successful and influential woman artist and will remain one of the most well known artists to come before the women’s movement for equal rights.
1. Stokstad, Marilyn. Cothren, Michael W. Art History. Laurence King Publishing, London. 2011
2. Rabb, Theodore K. Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age. Pantheon Books, New York. 1993
3. Artemisia Gentileschi. The Art History Archive. http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/baroque/Artemisia-Gentileschi.html