By Austin Bowes
On July 8th, 1593, an amazing artist was born. Her name? Artemisia Gentileschi. You might have heard of her. From doing a little digging into her life, I know there is so much more to her beyond her Baroque brushstrokes.
Artemisia had some ease getting into the art world because her father, Orazio, was an established Tuscan painter and he demanded she receive the same type of education that he received. This was especially true when Artemisia was found to be more talented than her brothers. Orazio was the first to train Artemisia, and he made sure to include some of her most influential artists, including Michelangelo and Caravaggio (who was Orazio’s contemporary). Caravaggio’s style, and his contrasts of light and dark, deeply influenced Gentileschi’s paintings.
Artemisia was no stranger to tragedy. When she was only twelve, her mother passed away, leaving Artemisia as the only female of the family. Five years later, she was raped by a colleague and close family friend.
While Orazio was busy with a commission, he hired his friend and artist, Agostino Tassi, to tutor Artemisia. He raped her and blackmailed her into continue having sexual relations with him while he promised his hand in marriage (it’s important to remember that in this time, if a woman had sex before she was married, she was “ruined” in every way possible, so if she married him, she would not have been “ruined” publically). Reportedly, there was another man involved. After nine months, Tassi married another woman, which erupted in a backlash from Orazio. Orazio pressed charges against Tassi, claiming he had “stolen Artemisia’s virginity” (because Orazio was her father, this meant she was his property during the time). Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews, as well as extensive gynecological examinations, to verify her testimony. After many months, Tassi was sentenced to one year behind bars, but the decision was annulled and he never served time. Not very hard to imagine where Artemisia’s “feminist attitude” came from, I think.
This story is reflected in Artemisia’s first official work, “Susanna and the Elders.” This painting depicts the Biblical story in which Susanna takes a bath in her garden while two elderly men watch her, then blackmail her into having sex with them or else they’ll publicly claim she was promiscuous. In the end, Susanna does not have sex with them and is almost stoned to death before Daniel (a Biblical figure) questions the situation and the elders are put to death. Artemisia’s story is eerily similar, and she captures the moment in which the elders are blackmailing her and she is forced into a life (with rape) or certain death situation. Artemisia captures Susanna’s fear and anguish. She is one of the first artists to incorporate more legitimate emotions into her female characters, which are, undoubtedly, her focus.
By the way, her event of her rape, trial, and this intense piece all happened when Artemisia was seventeen.
Artemisia’s most famous work is “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” Essentially, the story (which was incredibly popular during the Baroque period) is that of Judith, protecting her town from the general Holofernes who wanted to destroy it. To do so, she found him in his tent, and seduced him and got him so drunk he fell asleep. At that point, Judith and her maidservant beheaded Holofernes, saving Judith and her people.
This scene had most famously been done by Caravaggio, but Artemisia’s painting has so much more. Judith and her maidservant are much more in the action of beheading this man; their hands are firm, their body weight is pushing down onto him, the blood is a dark and sinister red. One truly feels that Judith is invested in this endeavor. Artists before (and even after) Artemisia presented Judith as a woman quite removed from the action of killing, even painting her facial expression as one who had no passion for what she did. Caravaggio, too, is guilty of this, but Artemisia filled her work with a woman’s passion, which has led scholars to believe she is one of the first feminist artists of our time.
After Artemisia’s death in 1656, she was somewhat forgotten, and most of her worked was attributed to other artists, especially her father (they both signed “Gentileschi”). She has more recently been found an incredibly expressive and progressive painter for her time, and I would say that some of these themes could still be considered progressive today. I believe her to be a resilient and masterful woman of the Baroque period, and a wonderful role model for all.
Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.