Women in Art: Artemisia Gentileschi

Today I’m going to talk about an artist you’ve likely heard of, Artemisia Gentileschi. Or rather, most of us have heard of her as the woman artist who was raped and then spent the rest of her career depicting her personal revenge upon men in her artwork.

Which, in case you were wondering, is complete and utter crap. But I’ll get to that in a minute. First, some background!

Sidenote: Generally I refer to artists by their last names, but as I’ll be discussing both Artemisia and her father Orazio in this post I’ll be using first names. Not pulling a Bill Clinton is Clinton, but Hillary Clinton is Hillary type thing!

Artemisia's "Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting"

During the 1600’s women were not well received as artists, and needed exceptional circumstances (read: either money or privilege and often both) to pursue artistic careers. Apprenticeships were generally only open to young men. Women who wanted to go into art had to be either wealthy, born to an artist, or go into a convent that produced artwork. Artemisia Gentileschi was lucky enough to be born to the painter Orazio, opening doors that would be closed to many other women of the time period.

Not to say that she owes her success to her father. Artemisia was incredibly talented. Her technique and her unique perspective on frequently used artistic subject matter separates her from other artists of the time. She’s one of the few women artists who is consistently featured in art history classes, often the only woman artist. In my high school art history class she was the only woman artist we learned about before the 1900s.

So Artemisia was able to apprentice under her father. She learned much of her stylistic techniques from Orazio, who followed Caravaggio’s style. However, Artemisia’s work is much more naturalistic compared to Orazio’s idealization.

Orazio's "Madonna with Child"

This is when things become truly depressing. Artemisia was denied entrance into the all-male academies of art because of her sex. Women were not allowed in the academies, no matter their level of talent. Seeing as how Artemisia was incredibly talented and deserved to become an artist, Orazio asked one of his peers, Agostino Tassi, to privately tutor her. Under his tutelage Tassi raped Artemisia, and then coerced her into continued sexual relations with the promise of marriage. Once Artemisia realized that Tassi would never fulfill this promise she told her father what had happened. Orazio sued and Tassi pulled out all of the stops, having friends claim to have also slept with Artemisia, and generally damaging her reputation in any way he could. It eventually came out that Tassi was already married. Tassi was allowed to choose between jail time and exile from Rome. He chose the latter, but returned only four months later.

A horrible experience for anyone to go through. And to make it even worse, it would define her artwork in the eyes of historians and critics for a very long time.

More after the jump!

Artemisia's "Judith Slaying Holofernes"

The painting above? Throughout high school whenever Artemisia was mentioned, and specifically when this piece was mentioned, someone would pipe in and say that she created this because she was raped. Even the teacher taught this as fact. Artemisia was raped and that led to this painting.

Not only are we giving far to much credit to her rapist (many attributed Artemisia’s talent as being inspired by a man in an attempt to rationalize the concept of a talented and intelligent woman), but we’re completely ignoring how art was commissioned and produced during the time period. Artists generally did not choose their subjects. They would be commissioned to create a piece. That person would choose the subject, and then the artist would create it to their specifications. Not to mention that the subject of Judith Slaying Holofernes was very popular during the time period, and no one attributes the male artists’ talent and creativity to their pasts.

Here are just a few examples of Judith/Holofernes paintings of the time period:

Caravaggio's "Judith Beheading Holofernes"

Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Judith with the Head of Holofernes"

Andrea Mantegna's "Judith and Holofernes"

Peter Paul Rubens' "Judith with the Head of Holofernes"

 Despite the fact that Artemisia had no say in the subject matter and was part of a rather large group of artists painting Judith and Holofernes, Artemisia was singled out to have deep personal meaning behind her work. Not to say that those artists were not affected by their personal experiences, just that Artemisia was the only one defined by them. All further, and even previous (I did not know that she had a tardis…) works by Artemisia were thoroughly scrutinized and made to fit the mold of her as an angry woman who was both inspired by and vengeful towards her rapist. 

"Susannah and the Elders" Despite the fact that Artemisia painted this piece in 1610 and was attacked by Tassi in 1612, many falsely attribute the subject matter of this piece (a virtuous young Susannah who was sexually harassed and threatened by the elders of her community) to her rape. This piece is also sometimes attributed to her father, Orazio, as many works by women of the time were falsely attributed to their male counterparts and relatives.

"The Penitent Magdalene"

"Jael and Sisera" Jael slays her aggressor, Sisera, a cruel Canaanite leader who ruled Israelites for twenty years, by driving a tent peg into his brain. Guess who art history thinks represents Artemisia and who represents Tassi.

"Cleopatra" Artemisia painted a number of famous women in the bible and in history.

"Lucretia" Lucretia was raped and committed suicide to save her family from dishonor. Critics often claim that Lucretia stands in for Artemisia.

Artemisia’s work is very impressive, using chiaroscuro, color, and dramatic poses very well. It’s a mark of her talent that she stands out as one of the few women frequently represented in art history. However, what we know of her is often not from analytical and logical research as with most artists, but from guesses and storytelling and trying to fit her into the role we want her to play. Defining Artemisia by her rape is as fair as defining Michelangelo by the death of his mother as a young child. Understanding an artist’s personal life is fantastic, but only so far as historians don’t ignore the facts in favor of a good story. 

And just a suggestion, don’t watch the movie. The whole thing is twisted into a love story between Artemisia and Tassi, it’s sickening to watch the romanticization of rape. Particularly since the viewer is lead to believe the movie is based upon fact.

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10 thoughts on “Women in Art: Artemisia Gentileschi

  1. Umbr3 says:

    thanks for making this article, I’m happy that theres some people who actually recognize Artemisia as she really was, and not the assumed “vengeful woman artist” like so many short-sighted dumbarses seem to. enjoyed reading this.

    • Thanks! It really makes me angry when people tell me how Artemisia Gentileschi was seeking revenge in her work. It makes me even angrier that that’s the way so many art historians teach it. I’m glad to see there are many people who know otherwise!

  2. Suzan says:

    My life partner and I were able to see her show at the New York Metropolitan Museum.

    It was mind blowing, incredibly powerful art and an a defiant artist.

    I don’t think the anger stemmed only from the rape. I read this powerfully feminist spirit, a defiance in an age when women were not supposed to paint.

    A rage against the structure if the patronage of the rich. Like Caravaggio and several other artists her work dared people to look at it and even more dared them to hang it and show it.

    And she was the only woman of that general period who painted that way and with that power.

    Or at least the only woman we know of. I am reading a book by Joanna Russ “How to Suppress Women’s writing” she tells of wives whose work was credited to their husbands.

    We know of painting that much of the work was done by students, so perhaps there were many women who painted only to have men given credit for their work.

    • You’re so lucky to have seen her work! I’m very jealous, I haven’t seen any of her pieces in person yet. That book sounds fascinating. I imagine that the visual arts and writing have a very similar history of crediting work to husbands, brothers, etc.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many women painters whose students were credited with their work. I wrote about Harriet Hosmer earlier (here: https://whatistalent.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/women-in-art-harriet-hosmer-and-hiram-powers/), and her sculptures were often credited to her assistant’s skills rather than her own although she employed common sculptural practices of the time.

  3. ninjanurse says:

    great post. I went to the National Museum of Women’s Art in DC and it was an eye-opener.

  4. Great post! Nice points about chronology.

    I discovered Artemesia at the big NY Metropolitan retrospective years ago, and in college art history class. While the professor did a great job contextualizing Artemesia within studio art production of the 1600s (and we also learned about Sofonisba Anguissola though the question of whether these artists had a “female” perspective kept rearing its ugly head in discussion). Unfortunately, the overarching narrative about Artemesia Gentileschi’s career continues to devolve into essentialism about her rape. It’s a classic case of women are associated with the personal, while men are associated with the universal. It’s sad that we continue to see Artemesia’s work — particularly as it is presented in mainstream culture — as a product of her biography, rather than as a complex product, which men’s work is allowed to be.

    • Exactly! It’s disappointing that explanation of women’s work is never fully divided from their personal lives. It seems as though current art history texts and classes are doing a better job than before, but it still seems to be a reoccurring problem.

      That’s interesting about your class’s discussions of “female” perspective. It’s frustrating that men’s work is considered neutral while women’s work is always seen as a product of gender. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  5. Bellevite says:

    Fascinating! I don’t know much about art history, so this was great to read. I also appreciate the great niche you have found for your blog. It is nice to read something special like your blog with it’s very unique focus.

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