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Artemisia Gentileschi: a Pioneer Among Women Artists

By Sophia, published on 16/09/2019 Blog > Arts and Hobbies > Painting > The Life of Artemisia Gentileschi

If one should ask you to name your favourite post-Renaissance painting or sculpture, which would you claim?

Are you coming up empty? Don’t feel alone…

Many people tend to include the Baroque period in the Italian Renaissance era, which lasted roughly two centuries and yielded amazing artworks… overwhelmingly by male artists.

Were there any female artists that flourished during either the Renaissance or Baroque eras?

Of course, there were! It was just much harder for any of them to gain any type of recognition in the art world and attract any patrons.

Even our featured artist was often accused of passing off her father’s work as hers, which was never actually true, although father and daughter did work together at times.

Who was this remarkable woman who blazed through life, paintbrush in hand? How is it that, in a time when women were not believed to have artistic abilities, she had both the respect and renown generally reserved for male artists?

Artemisia: her name fairly demands her to become one of the first women artists. Her work commands us to look closer – at the woman behind the brush as well as the works she executed.

It is our pleasure to do so.

Growing Up Artemisia: Early Works

Artemisia's self-portrait, an early work Some say that Artemisia is the most important female painter in art history Source: Wikipedia via the History Blog

Artemisia was born in Rome, in 1593 – although the state archive records indicate that she was born in 1590.

Her father was Orazio Gentileschi, a mannerist painter whose style was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, the master of the day. When each of his children grew big enough, he took them into his studio to teach them how to paint.

Much to his surprise, his daughter – not his sons, showed the most promise. Soon, he was bragging around about his most exceptional girl-child.

Indeed, Artemisia excelled in her brushstrokes. She seemed to have an intuitive grasp on how to mix colours and to contrast light and dark elements in a painting for maximum effect.

Her realistic human depictions seemed so true to life that one might believe that the canvas’ subject may walk right out of the painting, as though she were a living person. And she was not one to paint still lifes…

Whereas her father tended more toward a representational ideal of his subject matter, Artemisia was more of a realist: she showed what was there, not what should be.

For their differences in perspective and other reasons, her father felt she would broaden her palette through the teachings of another master.

Agostino Tassi, a painter of some repute, had been working with Orazio, mainly in painting architectural decoration.

He was a con man and a cheat; even his last name was stolen from a high-ranking baroness to support his story of having been adopted into nobility. Adulterer, liar and already convicted of petty crimes… this was the man that Orazio entrusted his daughter to.

Agostino and a helper of his raped Artemisia when she was only 18 years old.

In an odd twist, she continued intimate relations with Tassi on the promise that he would marry her – thus make her legitimate. Nine months later, with no nuptials in the works, her father finally pressed charges against him.

We have to understand that the trauma of being raped was legally irrelevant at that time; her ‘loss of honour’ – meaning that she was no longer a virgin, was on trial.

Indeed, there was a trial, during which Artemisia was tortured to force a confession that she had instigated her rape.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could return to business as usual after such an ordeal but it seemed that Artemisia did just that. After the trial, she was married to a fellow artist from Florence who either didn’t know about or, presumably, forgave her loss of virginity.

Life went on.

Helen Frankenthaler, the expressionist painter, is another great female artist… but her life was much easier than Artemisia!

Lot and his daughters is a classical representation of a biblical theme Artemisia excelled at figurative biblical representations such as Lot and his Daughters Source: Wikipedia via the Toledo Museum of Art

Artemisia, Artiste at Large

Shortly after her marriage, Artemisia and her new husband relocated to his hometown, Florence, where she soon landed a commission from Casa Buonarroti – a former property of Michelangelo’s.

Today, it is an art museum featuring the works of that great sculptor and painter.

About four years after settling in Florence, Artemisia’s daughter was born (it is quite unfortunate that not much is known about her other than she too was a painter; no works of hers exist).

Artemisia found professional success with Florentine patrons and academics alike; she was the first woman ever to gain admittance to the renown Academic Art and Drawing school.

Although she was well-thought-of in art circles and had several wealthy patrons, Artemisia and her husband were not doing well financially or legally. Her material support of her husband’s excesses caused a particular strain on the marriage; she and her daughter returned to Rome without him.

Works from her time in Florence include:

  • Jael and Sisera (Museum of Fine Arts, Hungary), oil on canvas
  • Judith Slaying Holofernes, 2nd version, on display at the Uffizi Gallery
  • Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1st version, hung in the Palace of Capodimonte, Naples
  • Self-Portrait as a Lute Player Wadsworth Athenium Museum of Art

Find out how Artemisia’s work measures up to other great women painters.

Artemisia and Daughter

It has never been easy for a single parent to get by in the world, even one with the reputation and professional connections that Artemisia had.

While she quite enjoyed the welcome lavished on her upon her return to Rome, there was little substance to all of the praise and acclaim. It was quite a struggle for her to find a place to live for herself and her child, and even harder to land any commissions.

She did partner up with Simon Vouet, a French painter who is better known today as the one who introduced Baroque style French painting. Even he could not help her make any gains.

Artemisia had always had a strong personality and a fierce independent streak. While the novelty of being a female painter blinded potential patrons to her less attractive qualities, that blush was now gone and potential customers found her brashness off-putting.

To make things worse, her father had moved to Genoa to fulfil a commission there; not even he was around to help out with the occasional meal or a place to sleep.

Artemisia saw that she had no choice: she set about changing her image and her art, making herself a bit softer and her work not quite so brutal and intense. Nevertheless, her newest depiction of Susannah and the Elders cemented her reputation as a painter of biblical heroines.

There would be no success in Rome. It was time to move on.

Georgia O’Keeffe, the American artist, might have been another such wanderer…

Artemisia's work is typical of Baroque Italy The works of Artemisia epitomise the Baroque art movement in Italy Source: Wikipedia via Napolipost.com

Calling Naples Home

Artemisia’s reputation as an artist had obviously kept growing in spite of her not landing any commissions. Her arrival at Naples was celebrated; in fact, art historians believe that she was invited there by the Duke of Alcala – he owned three of her canvases.

In Naples, she found work painting in a cathedral, which bought a table and put food on it. She also painted Birth of Saint John the Baptist (Prado Museum, Madrid).

Artemisia was surprisingly well-known among Englishmen!

Traveller Bullen Rimes records in his diary his meeting with Artemisia and a group of other painters whom he casually referred to as ‘… who also paint.’ Artemisia, of course, was mentioned by name.

So it came as no surprise that, when her father became court painter for Charles I, Artemisia would feel right at home, by his side and among the English. She didn’t travel there on a whim; she too had been invited by the king.

Her father died after only a year at court. Artemisia finished her commissions and then decamped just as the English Civil War broke out. Her return to Naples was unremarkable but her work showed a shift toward more feminine themes.

One of her last paintings, an oil paint on copper titled Virgin and Child with a Rosary, depicting a maternal scene, seems to reflect her father’s style of painting more than her command of light and shadow. Of all the paintings by Artemisia, this one most reflected maternal sentiment.

It’s not exactly known when Artemisia died but it is suspected that she, along with an entire generation of artists succumbed to the plague that ravaged the city in 1656.

Would you believe that impressionist painter Mary Cassatt had much in common with Artemisia?

Analysis: What Did Artemisia Want to Say?

It is easy to interpret Artemisia’s depictions of strong, heroic women as reflections of herself. It is even easier to believe those gory renderings such as Judith Slaying Holofernes as allegorical of her desire for revenge for what she endured.

Obviously, a woman who had been treated so badly must have revenge fantasies! Why, if she weren’t a weak and puny woman, surely it would be her beheading that invading general instead of Judith!

And it must be her, not Susannah, feeling shame in front of The Elders, especially as it was painted so soon after her trial…

In short: whereas Frida Kahlo painted herself and her emotions, Artemisia painted the religious world Italian society was steeped in.

While nobody today can know what was going through the artist’s head as she chose and painted those works, the latest postulate presents the idea that Artemisia had, above all else, a keen sense of marketing and the sensationalism of her rape trial was like hard currency for her.

The fact is, Artemisia was neither Susannah nor Judith but all of the heroines she depicted and none of them.

Like so many women today, Artemisia Gentileschi endured horror and moments of pure bliss; she was smart and talented and hard-working and wise. Whether she lived in a time when women, as a rule, were only expected to produce the next generation is immaterial.

The fact that she did so much more besides raising a child is what matters.

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