Sweeping aside the night, Artemisia and her angel paint the dawn. An alchemical turbulence turning nocturnal obscurity into the promising light of day. Stepping onto the Roman stage of the 17th century, amid great male painters, appeared an audacious woman. Through her peerless use of color, brush stroke, and luminosity, Artemisia Gentileschi created forceful and sensuous women immersed in their story. Passing through all the adversity her life served up, she rose to celebrated prominence, never forsaking her true gift, her authentic vision.
Born July 8, 1593, Artemisia was the only girl in the family and the only child with an aptitude for her father’s profession. At age twelve she lost her mother, Prudenzia, who died in childbirth. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, already an accomplished Roman artist, began tutoring her in mixing colors, even though she could not yet read or write.
Extending out from Rome, all of Europe was at war with itself over religion – Catholics versus Protestants. It was, however, a good time for artists such as Orazio with the Roman Catholic Church richly investing in artistic renderings of biblical stories in an attempt to quicken religious fervor. This new calling, later known as Baroque, afforded artists advantageous positions and ensured their personal pathway to immortality. Most notable of the Italian Baroque artists was Caravaggio, a contemporary of, and influence on, Orazio who then instructed Artemisia in his style.
Astonishing her father’s associates, in 1610, at the age of 17, Artemisia’s debut painting, Susanna and the Elders, realistically exhibited the female nude body in a way rarely seen before and touchingly rendered Susanna’s vulnerability.
In presaging her own exposure of living in an artist ghetto with no mother and a father often out, Artemisia sensed the danger. Orazio was working on a palace fresco with a landscape artist named Agostino Tassi and asked him to instruct his daughter in perspective. Instead, the scoundrel, already accused of numerous sexual abuses, raped Artemisia. As the laws of her era treated rape as a crime against family honor, not a violation of the woman, Artemisia believed her only salvation was to marry her rapist. So for nine months, lured by his promises of marriage and unaware he was already married, she allowed his advances. At last Orazio found out the betrayal and, without consulting Artemisia, forthwith petitioned the Pope for a canon law trial of Tassi.
Brutally, the trial dragged on for seven months – exposing Artemisia to gross vulgarity. Tassi hired fraudulent witnesses to testify she was a whore. The court inflicted torture on her hands to test her veracity and ordered an examination by two midwives to confirm her defloration. Desperate to save the family honor, Orazio put together a generous dowry and enticed a friend’s brother (a Florentine artist) to marry his daughter. The court sentenced Tassi to banishment from Rome. But in truth one month after the trial ended, Tassi was simply freed.
Artemisia wed the Florentine and they immediately left for Florence (1612-1620). Against all odds, Artemisia developed into a compelling painter, discovering that her access to female nudes as a woman provided her a lucrative edge. She so impressed the great-nephew of the renowned Michelangelo that he paid her three times the rate paid to other artists to paint Allegory of Inclination (1615-16), placing it among other masterpieces dedicated to Michelangelo. Originally pictured nude, and in later years covered, the woman in Inclination displays a disposition of readiness for a spiritual moment. And so Artemisia’s skill aroused the favor of the Medici family, fascinated Galileo, and in 1614, earned her election to the Accademia del Disengno, an honor no woman had previously attained.
The excitement of ascendancy and powerful patrons was magnified by four pregnancies and births, only to be tempered by the loss of three of the infants with only her daughter, Prudentia surviving. So as Artemisia mixed and painted, she did it pregnant and then in black. Some sources claim her husband was a gambler and philanderer and some say Artemisia had her own affairs. Without knowing whether it was fame, gender, financial woes, and/or personal improprieties, the winds of change called her back to Rome (1620-1626), and then on to Venice (1626-1630).
The 1625 Roman census lists Artemisia as head of household, from which we can assume she left her husband in Florence. By then, Europe’s religious upheaval progressed into the Thirty Year War (1618-1648), causing famine, plague, and the death of some eight million people before it ceased. Reflecting war’s brutality, two of Artemisia’s most violent and well-known masterpieces were painted during these years: Judith and Holofernes (1620) and Judith and Her Maidservant (1618-19). They narrate a story from an old testament book about a Hebrew woman and her handmaid beheading an Assyrian general. A common theme of her day, Artemisia’s narrative distinguished the women’s revolutionary action through a physically realistic stance.
The depth of her genius for detailing forceful women carried over into more uplifting subjects, such as her Aurora (1625-27), where her virtuoso use of color and captivating realization of the female body offered praise to the Roman goddess of dawn. This opening led her to Venice, an Italian state not ensnared in the Thirty Years War and a fertile ground for intellectual and artistic exploration, Artemisia flourished – earning praise from both patrons and poets. Adapting to her new audience, she mastered the Venetian style of painting in broad strokes of white, glazed over with color, rendering a new luminosity. It is known that Philip IV, King of Spain requisitioned from her, Hercules and Omphale, endorsing her as one of Europe’s greatest painters.
In Venice she formed new liaisons, one of which resulted in the birth of her second daughter, Francesca, making her singularly responsible for an infant, a daughter of ten, and a demanding occupation. Reluctantly driven from Venice by the invading bubonic plague, she fled with her girls to Naples (1630-1639), where she carried on the Venetian trend as seen in Cleopatra (1635) and Bathsheba (1636).
Securing patronage of Naples’ Spanish viceroy, her art became leveraged for power and favors in various circles. But with conflict intensifying between France and Spain, her Spanish sponsorship weakened and her finances teetered precariously as she struggled to put together a large dowry for her daughter Prudenzia’s marriage.
Out of necessity she accepted the invitation of Charles I of England, undertaking the arduous sea journey to London (1639-1642), with her younger daughter. Orazio was living there, in poor health, and Artemisia helped him complete the muses at the Queen’s summer house before he died. Her only picture dated to this period, Allegory of Painting (1638-39), weaves self-representation into story, a theme, it is believed, she blended into many of her paintings like Lucretia (1612-13); Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1615-17); Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1618-1619); Aurora (1625-27); and Clio, Muse of History (1632). Adapting these characters, she offered herself, body and soul.
Her creative spirit flagged in London and she returned to Naples (1642-1654?), where devastation of years of famine and war rendered lean times. In 1649, she wrote that marrying off her second daughter, Francesca, bankrupted her. Poets’ verses reference pictures now missing and her own later letters allude to her decline in health.
Her date of death remains unknown, although an uncovered contract verifies she was still working in 1654. Enthusiasm for her art remained active throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries and feminist interest stoked a 20th century revival.
To look at her art and life, it is clear her gift lies not only in the enrichment to be gained from her paintings, but also through her living example. She never acquiesced to the dutiful gender pressures of her era; succumbed to the personal adversities of rape, scandal, financial loss, pregnancies/deaths of her babies, and the burden of solely raising two daughters while competing with the masculine masters of her day; or even collapsed under the worldly burden of war, famine, and plague. Instead she lived authentically ever true to herself and her art. That we all might strive to live in truth to ourselves, whatever our gifts.
You can view more of Artemisia Gentileschi’s art here.
Art History Books:
- Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann, “Orasio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001.
- Mary Garrard, “Artemisia Gentileschi”, Published by Princeton University Press, 1989.
- Jesse M. Locker, “Artemisia Gentileschi, The Language of Painting”, Published by Yale University Press, 2015.
- Anna Banti, “Artemisia”, Translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, Originally published by Anna Banti, 1953, Published by University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
- Alexandra Lapierre, “Artemisia”, Translated by Liz Heron, Originally published in France by Editions Robert Laffont, S.A., 1998, First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus, 2000.
- Susan Vreeland, “The Passion of Artemisia”, Viking Penguin, New York, New York, 2002.
- “a woman like that,” 7th Street Film Syndicate, Directed, Produced, Written and Edited by Ellen Weissbrod; Produced, Written and Edited by Melissa Powell, 2009-10, awomanlikethatfilm.com/watch/terms.
- Karen J. Lloyd, caa.reviews, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting, Jesse M. Locker, Dec. 17, 2015, http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/2573#.WFrOqfArKUk
- Griselda Pollock, “The Female Hero and the Making of a Feminist Canon, Artemisia Gentileschi’s representations of Susanna and Judith,” Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories, Chap. 5, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, http://faculty.winthrop.edu/stockk/women%20in%20art/pollock%20gentileschi%20judith.pdf.
- “The Catholic Reformation and the Baroque Style,” Chap. 20, file:///C:/Users/Justine/Downloads/fie10143_ch20%20(6).pdf
- Wikipedia, “Thirty Years’ War,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years’_War
One thought on “Artemisia Gentileschi – Authenticity in the Face of Adversity”
I love that she is Italian
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