Artemisia Gentileschi: A Star Reborn – Art, Rape, Feminism

Based in part on the Smithsonian Associates Lecture by art historian Aneta Georgievska.

“I will show your illustrious lordship what a woman can do!” painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- c. 1652) wrote to a potential patron. “She emphasized not what an artist could do, but a woman,” our host notes. In the 17th century when female artists were practically non-existent, Gentileschi was confident, prominent, and, for part of her life, fairly independent.

Respected painter Orazio Lomio Gentileschi, an adherent of Caravaggio’s precepts (like using live models without glamorizing them and chiarascuro, a treatment of light and shade), taught his daughter Artemisia to draw and paint. (Her mother died when the girl was 12.) She worked alongside her brothers on some of Orazio’s commissions. Preternatural talent was quickly evident. Her earliest surviving work is Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Susanna and the Elders 1610 (Public Domain)

The painting is suffused by feminism. Here’s a beautiful, innocent young woman spied upon, then threatened by two older men: Have sex with them or be declared a harlot to the village. She refuses and becomes a symbol of female virtue. Georgievska asks us to observe the panic in her expression and the way her body turns, soft white flesh against an unyielding stone wall/bench. “It’s a moment that suspends narrative. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Artemisia is known to have studied works of antiquity. Some say this figure is based on the goddess of love. The host points out that Venus governs sensual pleasure and this girl is a virgin. Like her father, she created several versions of her works fulfilling market demands. Unlike him, she adapted her style to historical and geographic mores. (The artist lived at various times in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, and London.)  

In 1611, Orazio was working with landscape/seascape painter Agostino Tassi decorating vaults inside Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. The men were friendly. There are stories that Orazio asked Agostino to tutor Artemisia and those that say the two had an amorous relationship. In any case, he had free access to the Gentileschi home. As she testified in his trial for rape, Agostino came into the room while she was painting, threw her brushes and palette on the floor, and attacked her. She scratched at him and drew a knife to no avail.

Landscape with a Scene of Witchcraft by Agostino Tassi (Public Domain)

The Gentileschis decided to press charges because Artemisia had been “spoiled” as a woman- without an excuse for losing her virginity. Rape was a crime against a family. Apparently the older painter had promised to leave his wife and marry the girl. One story has Orazio and/or an upstairs tenant whom the girl had befriended unlocking a stairwell door so that her assailant could enter quietly.

In court, Artemisia was subject to a primitive “lie detector” test in the form of thumb screws (two metal bands from top and bottom pressing on and eventually breaking fingers) potentially maiming her for life. “This is the ring you gave me and those are your promises,” she declared indicating jewelry on her hand. Amazingly her fingers survived intact. The perpetrator was sentenced to a five year banishment from Rome, never enforced.

Orazio arranged that Artemisia marry a minor Florentine painter and move away from the scandal. He wrote to the Grand Duchess Cristina of Lorraine requesting patronage for the young woman: “She has become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer…” “Reubens wrote a similar letter for Van Dyke,” Georgievska says. “It shows that her father thought of Artemisia as a professional artist.”

Allegory of Inclination (Public Domain)

In Florence, she was the only woman admitted to Academia delle Ari del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She learned to read and write and attended theater which helped depict lavish clothing. Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (a relative of the esteemed artist) commissioned Artemisia to paint an allegory of a virtue associated with Michelangelo. What resulted was Allegory of Inclination. The image shows a marine compass and guiding star, perhaps a nod to new friend Galileo. Unfortunately (and oddly) nudity made it embarrassing, so drapery was added by another artist.

Self Portrait as a Lute Player (1615) shows an analogy between the harmonies of art and music as well as being a metaphor for seductive beauty, here (played), then gone. “It’s as if she was saying, I have the right to show my beauty, but you don’t have the right to possess it without my permission,” the host comments.

Left- Self Portrait as a Lute Player (Public Domain) Right- Self Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria both 1615 (Public Domain)

Four years later, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria reiterates her visage. Catherine refuses a suitor to become a bride of Christ. She’s tortured and stretched on a spiked wheel. God sent lightning to strike the wheel, but released, she was decapitated. Catherine holds part of the broken wheel and the palm of martyrdom. The former might refer back to the painter’s own torture. The palm might stand in for a brush. In 2019, this work sold for over four million dollars, but then the surface is damaged.

Artemisia never shied away from illustrating violence and created a great many works depicting vengeance of a woman against a man. A series of paintings representing Judith Slaying Holofernes (in order to save the Israelites) are particularly visceral. In Caravaggio’s painting of the same name, the maid servant is encouraging Judith who recoils in horror. In Artemisia’s, Judith is “absolutely up there in terms of power,” Georgievska says. Knife in hand, she’s strong, calm and exacting.

Top: Judith Beheading Holferenes by Caravaggio ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.) Bottom: Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (Public Domain)

Ostensibly because of a scandalous affair she was having, the couple moved back to Rome where the artist found a wide range of new patrons. Venice was next, then Naples, where she was finally allowed to work on a cathedral commission. Artemisia had artist friends and lovers. One of these, Simon Vouet, painted several portraits of her.

In 1638, Artemisia joined her father at the court of King Charles I of England, a collector of fine art. The two worked together until Orazio suddenly died a year later. She finished her own commissions and returned to Naples. It’s speculated the painter died in a plague there around 1656. A remarkable woman and a remarkable artist.

Top: Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holoferenes by Orazio Gentileschi (Public Domain) Bottom: Judith with Her Maidservant Holding a Basket with the Head of Holferenes by Artemisia Gentileschi (Public Domain)

“There are about 57 works by Artemisia Gentileschi and 94 percent (49 works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men.” (Italian art critic Roberto Longhi) Her women were brave and rebellious rather than weak or sensitive. Some historians (and feminists) adhere to the revenge theory, while others say she was merely catering to the public’s prurient interests.

Among several The Passion of Artemisia (2002), a novelized version of the painter’s life by Susan Vreeland is recommended. The book Maestra by L. S Hilton (2016) includes Artemisia as a central reference for the main character. The film Artemisia (1997), by Agnes Merlet tells the story of becoming a professional artist, her relationship, with Tassi, and the trial.

Opening: Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting 1638 (Public Domain)

Aneta Georgievska is a knowledgeable and lively lecturer. She provided considerable context and background too lengthy for this article.

More of the wonderful streamed lectures at Smithsonian Associates

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.