Powerful woman artist and rape survivor Artemisia Gentileschi was born today, 429 years ago

Home » Powerful woman artist and rape survivor Artemisia Gentileschi was born today, 429 years ago
'Judith Slaying Holofernes', 1614-1620, by Artemisia Gentileschi

July 8, On This Day

‘Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’, 1638-39 by Artemisia Gentileschi

A powerful feminist icon in the world of art, Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was known for “being able to depict the female figure with great naturalism and for her skill in handling colour to express dimension and drama”. She was born on July 8, 1593.

The artist, who initially painted in the style of Caravaggio, is considered among the most accomplished 17th century artists. One of the most definitive aspects of her trajectory had been her being a rape survivor as a young woman, and participating in the trial of her rapist — a chapter that critics and art historians read as having profoundly influenced her work.

Today, she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation, with major exhibitions celebrating her work across the world. Many of Gentileschi’s paintings feature women from myths, allegories, and the Bible, including victims, suicides, and warriors.

Artemisia lost her mother at a young age, and her father Orazio Gentileschi was a painter from Pisa, who was deeply inspired by Caravaggio. Artemisia was primarily raised by him and it is likely she was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, which explains her technical inspirations and influences.

‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1610, earliest of the surviving works by Artemisia Gentileschi

Wikipedia chronicles, “In 1611, Orazio was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. One day in May, Tassi visited the Gentileschi household and, when alone with Artemisia, raped her. Another man, Cosimo Quorli, played a part in the rape as well. A friend of Gentileschi’s was present during the rape, but had not thought it necessary to help her. With the expectation that they would marry in order to restore her virtue and secure her future, Artemisia started to have sexual relations with Tassi, but he reneged on his promise to marry her. Nine months after the rape, when he learned that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to be married, her father Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Orazio also accused Tassi of stealing a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of the trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. At the end of the trial, Tassi was exiled from Rome, although the sentence was never carried out. During the trial, Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews for the purpose of verifying her testimony.”

Eventually, Gentileschi walked out of the shadow of the experience and went on to marry and have children, and to lead a flourishing career across Rome, Venice, England and more, with commissions pouring in from high society.

‘Venus and Cupid’, c. 1625-1630, by Artemisia Gentileschi
‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy’, 1623, by Artemisia Gentileschi

In several of her paintings, Artemisia’s dynamic heroines appear to be self-portraits. 20th century onwards, Feminist studies raised the academic interest in Artemisia Gentileschi, underlining her rape and subsequent mistreatment, and the expressive strength of her paintings of biblical heroines, in which the women are interpreted as willing to manifest their rebellion against their condition. Some art historians suggest that she was shrewdly taking advantage of her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market in sexually charged, female-dominated art for male patrons.

Speaking about one of her most iconic renditions of Caravaggio’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ (she made six versions of the theme), an analysis in The Guardian points out, “Gentileschi…brings out an element of the biblical story no male artist had ever dwelt on. In most paintings, including Caravaggio’s hallucinatory rendering, Judith has a servant who waits to collect the severed head. But Gentileschi makes the servant a strong young woman who actively participates in the killing. This does two things. It adds a savage realism that even Caravaggio never thought of – it would take two women to kill this brute. But it also gives the scene a revolutionary implication. ‘What,’ wonders Gentileschi, ‘if women got together? Could we fight back against a world ruled by men?’”

It is speculated that Gentileschi died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656, which virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.

‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’, 1614-1620, by Artemisia Gentileschi
‘Judith and her Maidservant’, 1613-14, by Artemisia Gentileschi

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