Women in Art

Artemisia Gentileschi

An impassioned artist, Artemisia was born in Rome at the end of the cinquecento. Eldest daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia became one of the most accomplished followers of Caravaggio. She had been exposed to art at an early age and it was her father who provided and supported her artistic development. When further instruction was required for the study of perspective, a private tutor, Agostino Tassi was hired. Although her painting of Susanna and The Elders (1610) displays a decidedly feminine point of view, Artemisia is best known for her dark scenes of graphic violence. Feminist art historians have pointed out that perhaps these depictions of violence express violence which had been imposed upon the artist. This connection is linked to the fact that at 19 years of age, Artemisia was allegedly raped by her instructor, Tassi. The trial which resulted was quite sensational and did more harm to Artemisia than to her assailant. She was tortured by thumbscrews in an attempt to verify her allegations but in the end Tassi was eventually acquitted. One month after the trial, Gentileschi married and moved to Florence where she achieved considerable success and produced some of her finest paintings. She received a large commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti and enjoyed the support of the Medici family. In 1616, she became a member of the Accademia del Disego despite women's lack of acceptance in the formal art institutions. Artemisia returned to Rome in 1620 but relocated to Naples in 1630 where she spent the remainder of her life living in comfort and enjoying the patronage of nobility. While she was mainly known as a portrait painter, it was Artemisia's dramatic history/religious paintings which earned her the reputation of artist extra ordinaire.

Bio by Lisa MacDonald

An excerpt from Gentileschi by Mary Garrard
Powerful though it is, Artemisia's Uffizi Judith has been little admired and much criticized. It was hidden away in the eighteenth century because the Grand Duchess Maria Luisa de' Medici could not stand to see such a horror; in the nineteenth century the writer Anna Jameson described it as "a dreadful picture." Today, the painting hangs in an inaccessible stairwell of the museum, not on public display. Why should Artemisia's picture have been considered excessively violent when Caravaggio's equally violent art was often snapped up by collectors and praised by critics? The answer is clear enough: her Judith offends because it presents a socially unacceptable violence, the murder of a man by women who carry out the action so purposefully they may seem as much vindictive as heroic. This chilling image of female retribution has, in fact, been interpreted by some writers as Artemisia's imagined revenge against the man who raped her several years earlier. In 1612, Orazio Gentileschl brought suit against his friend, the artist Agostino Tassi for the rape of his daughter, initiating a now-famous trial that lasted seven months. The extensive trial testimony has been preserved, material that makes quite clear that Artemisia endured sexual harassment and intimidation from Tassi and other men as well.

Artemisia's experience was not unusual, for rape and violence against women were as commonplace in seventeenth century Italy as they still are, unfortunately, today. What is unusual is that she was able to use that experience as emotional raw material for the creation of radically subversive images of the biblical character (she painted at least four versions of the Judith theme) whose story gives full vent to the principle of violent punishment for a violent act.

Artemisia's Judith paintings are powerful images, resisted by many who find the occasional violence perpetrated by women more shocking than the ubiquitous violence practiced by men. (A modern equivalent both in its plot and the critical response it provoked is the 1991 film Thelma and Louise.) Yet we need not advocate murder as an appropriate punishment for rape to recognize the psychic catharsis provided by Artemisia, for herself and for all women who live in male-dominant cultures, in her images of strong, self motivated women who -unusually in art- take physical action upon men rather than being acted upon by them.

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Image List
Judith Beheading Holofernes

Judith Slaying Holofernes

The Penitent Magdalen

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Woman Playing a Lute

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