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!
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.