Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638
Born: July 8 1593 Rome, Died: 1652/23 Naples
Writing about Artemisia Gentileschi is a pretty daunting task, considering that she is such a prominent, fascinating figure of the Baroque period. The Baroque was a style of art, music, literature, and architecture that swept Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It favored elaborate, and often very dramatic, features— think the palace of Versailles, Bach, and Vivaldi. Gentileschi was alive during this time of excess and beauty, and still managed to create her own distinct artistic techniques.
Born in Italy to an artist father, Artemisia was exposed to painting from a young age. Her father, Orazio, was fairly well known, and was a huge follower of the artist Caravaggio. This inclination was passed to his daughter, as Artemisia often mimicked Caravaggio’s style, namely his use of tenebrism: the use of high contrast between light and dark areas, which are usually more paramount.
The Calling of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, 1600
This piece is a perfect example of tenebrism. Much of the image is shrouded in darkness, but areas that the light touches are very bright and colorful. Gentileschi develops this style later in life, but many of her early pieces are less contrasted.
Despite her eventual success, Gentileschi’s life was not without obstacles. Her mother died when she was twelve, and several years later she was raped by a fellow artist, Agostino Tassi. Her father, outraged, took the case to the courts, leading to a long, cruel, and ultimately unfruitful experience, which involved the budding artist to provide evidence under torture against her assaulter. Tassi was not sentenced, and also did not follow through on his promise to marry Artemisia, which he made right after raping her. Although this seems so horrible to us— Why would you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who did something so horrendous to you? —marriage was seen as appropriate in this situation. Artemisia was now young, single, and no longer a virgin, which despite the aura of progressiveness of the era, was still considered to be a terrible disgrace.
By 1616, Gentileschi was married to an artist and living in Florence. She was the first woman to join the Academy of Design there, and soon became extremely well known. Unlike the few other women in art at the time, who focused on still life and portraiture, Artemisia created many historical and Biblical pieces. Her works were often dynamic and violent, expressing what many feel to be her anger and pain after her experience with Tassi.
One of her most famous paintings is Judith Beheading Holofernes, depicting the beautiful widow Judith murdering the cruel general Holofernes who was distracted by his lust for her. Caravaggio actually did a painting on the same subject and of the same name, which many critics consider to be less captivating. Both of the images are included below, and I personally side with that opinion. Gentileschi’s depiction is more graphic, more realistic— dark blood is spurting out of the victim, covering the sheets. Caravaggio’s, though it features the same violent scene, is much more tame. The women in Gentileschi’s piece are also much more involved in the act. There is concentration and determination on their faces, and they exude strength as they both clutch the sword. The woman in the second painting, though very beautiful, appears to be merely an observer of the act, holding the (presumably very heavy?) sword daintily in one hand, a look of fear or disbelief in her eyes.
Gentileschi, 1621 Caravaggio, 1599
The general consensus, unfortunately, is that Artemisia’s later life wasn’t very noteworthy. She continued painting, but she shifted from her highly contrasted paintings depicting dark subject matter to more tame paintings of the court life of royalty in both Spain and England. She lost respect of some members of the artistic community in Italy, who saw her new style (similar to the Spanish way of painting) as unsophisticated. Modern critics, too, think her paintings from this area are largely boring. Some writers contend that this is because Gentileschi’s later works are classically feminine, and therefore seen as less innovative as her prior works. She died in Naples in either 1652 or 53, and not much is known about the end of her life.
Like Sofonisba Anguissola, Gentileschi’s paintings were also attributed to men after her death, but to a much lesser extent. She still received a great amount of recognition in history, but many attributed her very early works to her father, who often worked alongside her. Artemesia carved out an unmistakable niche for herself as an artist, a feat difficult for anyone at the time, much less a woman. She was also unafraid to acknowledge her success and talent, claiming once that her work was desired all across Europe. Her ability to not only overcome tragic events and adversity, but to really thrive is so incredible. It’s no wonder that she is both a key figure of the Baroque period and a major feminist icon.
Susanna and the Elders, 1610
One of Artemisia’s first paintings. It’s kind of understandable that she didn’t get credit for this initially— how many of us could do this at 17??