Getting revenge through painting

“Judith Slaying Holofernes” c. 1620, Artemisia Gentileschi.

     Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-ca.1656) is today considered one of the most accomplished painters of her generation.  She was also the most important woman painter of Early Modern Europe because of her paintings’ originality, excellence, and the number of paintings that have survived.  During her life she was both praised and ignored by the critics — recognized as having genius, but seen as something monstrous because she was a woman using creative talent that was thought to be only found in men.  Since that time, according to Mary D. Garrard, she “has suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber.”

     Artemisia, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, learned drawing, how to mix paint, and how to paint in her father’s workshop.  She showed much more talent than her brothers, who also apprenticed there.  was a teenage prodigy, working in her father’s studio.  Her first solo work, “Susanna and the Elders” (1610) was so good that many suspected her father of helping her. 

     Despite her talent, Artemisia was not allowed to enter the all-male professional academies of art.  At the time her father was working with an artist named Agostino Tassi to decorate part of a large palace in Rome.  Orozio hired Tassi to tutor his daughter privately.  One day Tassi found her alone in the studio.  He pushed her into a nearby bedroom and locked the door.

Self-portrait. 1630s, Royal Collection

      After he raped her, Tassi told her he would marry her to save her reputation (according to the custom of the time, this would erase the crime).  Because of his promise, she felt compelled to continue her relationship with him.  However, when Agostino reneged on his promise, Artemisia’s father brought a lawsuit against him.  (Women were not allowed to bring charges in court.)  .

     The ensuing seven-month trial was vicious.   Artemisia was questioned, given a gynecological exam, and tortured with thumbscrews to make sure she was telling the truth.  Durng the trial, it came out that Tassi had planned to murder his current wife, committed adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings.  At the end of the trial, Tassi was imprisoned for one year. 

     After the trial (and possibly because of it), Artemisia went on to live an unusually independent life for a woman of her time.  She set up her own studio, learned to read, and was the first female member admitted to the Accademia del Disegno.  She married Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist, and moved to his home town of Florence.  There she became a successful painter with many wealthy patrons. 

     Because of her unusual life and career, she has become a symbol of the feminist movement.  Books and plays have been written about her life.  The1997 movie “Artemisia” was loosely based on her life, but inaccurately portrayed the relationship between Tassi and Artemisia as a passionate affair rather than a rape.  However, court documents clearly indicate the violence Artemisia suffered and the great courage she showed in going to trial.

Susanna and the Elders, Schönborn Collection

     Probably because of her rape and subsequent mistreatment, Artemisia painted a number of unsually strong pictures of biblical heroines, in which the women rebel against their situations.  One of her most famous paintings, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” amazed everyone.  People culd scarcely believe a woman had painted it.  “What strikes one most,” wrote Roberto Longhi in 1916, “is the impassibility of the painter.”  Artemisia had dispassionately noted exactly how blood would spurt in this situation, and she had painted Judith not only looking directly and calmly at Holofernes as she kills him, but also standing back to avoid staining her dress with blood.  One can imagine her thinking, “Tassi, this one’s for you!”

     She and her husband had four sons and a daughter, but only the daughter survived to adulthood.  In 1621 Artemisia left her husband and returned to Rome, and later had another daughter.  Eventually she moved to Naples in search of better commissions to support herself and her daughters.

     In 1638, at the request of Charles I of England, Artemisia joined her father in London, where Orazio was working as court painter.  Charles I was a fanatical art collector, and he was probably intrigued by Artemisia’s fame.  Orazio died suddenly in 1639.  Artemisia had her own commissions to fulfill after her father’s death, but by 1642 she had left England (where civil war was just starting).  Not much is known about her subsequent movements, although by 1649 she was in Naples.  The last known letter to her friend and mentor Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily is dated 1650, and makes it clear that she was still fully active as an artist.  Recent evidence shows that she was still accepting commissions in 1654.  It is possible that she died in the devastating plague that swept through Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out a whole generation of artists in that area.

Published by on March 2013. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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