Artemisia: Rule Breaker
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
The hidden history of women artists continues with Artemisia Gentileschi, the most studied and famous of the sixteenth and seventeenth century female artists. Long a favorite of art historians, she has not received much public recognition. She survived a rape and a deadbeat husband to establish a successful career and win economic freedom.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) She grew up alongside her father Orazio in his Rome painting studio along with her three brothers. Her mother died in childbirth when she was twelve. As the eldest, she ground pigments, mixed colors, and did prep work. Initially, painting wasn’t so much a chosen vocation but an essential means to support the family. Orazio was a fairly successful painter who recognized the financial potential of his talented young daughter. She soon surpassed him with fame and talent. We know of about fifty-seven of her paintings and up to one hundred may be lost or mis-attributed.
Orazio Gentileschi, Portrait of a Young Woman as Sibyl, detail of Artemisia, c. 1620, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, public domain.
Artemisia completed her first large painting at age seventeen. Not content to only paint what most women artists painted – portraits - she painted multi figured “history” scenes, consisting typically of mythological and religious works. History painting was a man’s world and held in higher regard than portraiture. Narrative scenes had more potential for commissions and earnings. They were also more difficult to compose and paint.
Because her style and approach to painting is so closely linked to her father’s there are many paintings tentatively attributed to one or the other. What is not disputed is that Artemisia became a well-known and successful painter who hobnobbed within elite circles. Her career and life story are linked to her father both through his training and the sexual assault she suffered from one of his sexual predator colleagues.
Orazio (1563-1639) worked in Rome’s quickly evolving art scene and became friends with the rogue Caravaggio , who had a marked influence on Orazio’s style. Orazio was thirty-seven and widowed father to four children when Caravaggio’s dramatic and influential art appeared in the Contarelli Chapel (San Luigi dei Francesi, 1599-1600) with three canvases of the life of St. Matthew. In modern jargon, Orazio and Caravaggio “hung out” a lot together; neither were angels of virtue.
Orazio was an average painter and not exactly brimming with original ideas. He quickly adopted some of Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting, placing figures closer to the viewer, and reducing the number of figures to make for more compelling and marketable art. Yet Orazio remained conservative and never achieved the theatrical Caravaggesque results. By the 1620s (ten years after Caravaggio’s sudden death) Orazio returned to a cookie-cutter approach with uniformly lit scenes with stage-like figures who show little or no emotion. Not that he was incapable of painting differently, but more likely as a response to the style of the day and patron’s wishes. He finished his career in England, painting for the royal court.
Orazio Gentileschi, Portrait of a Young Woman as Sibyl, c. 1620, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, public domain.
In two paintings from the early 1620s, Portrait of a Young Woman as Sibyl and Danaë, Orazio brilliantly depicts the rich fabrics, crumpled bed sheets, and rich colors. Danaë represents a Greek mythological figure, who increasingly in the seventeenth century is depicted with eroticism. Danaë’s father confines her to a room as an oracle predicted she would give birth to a son who would kill her father. But Zeus, the all-powerful sky god, found a way to Danaë by transforming himself to gold coins that would fall upon her and impregnate her. A winged cupid pulls back the curtain to allow the coins to enter the room. As prophesied, she gives birth to a son who kills her father.
Portrait of a Young Woman as Sibyl uses Artemisia as the model, dressed in contrasting orange brocade and blue dress. He frequently used his daughter as a model. Sibyl is an Old Testament prophet. The composition is unusual in that she turns to face the viewer directly, and is one of Orazio’s more convincing paintings. Artemisia is about twenty-seven years old in the painting. Painting his daughter as Sibyl may refer to a turning point in Artemisia’s life that took place about eight years earlier during the trial following her sexual assault.
Orazio Gentileschi, Danaë, c. 1621-3, The J. Paul Getty Museum, open access.
The Assault and Trial
Artemisia’s rape and trial overshadowed her artistic achievements for decades. She was characterized by art historians as either a loose woman or angry feminist. Neither gets it quite right. The trial transcript gives us a full picture of the situation and Artemisia’s character.
Always looking to position Artemisia to obtain more lucrative commissions, Orazio arranged for his colleague Agostino Tassi to teach her perspective painting at Orazio’s home when she was about 17. Orazio, who wasn’t an angel, had worked with Tassi on some frescoes. Tassi had a long criminal history of sexual offenses, which he bragged about. Rape, sexual, and physical assault were all part of his well-known history. When a female chaperon left the room where Tassi and Artemisia were working together, he took advantage of the situation and raped her.
His crime was discovered and he agreed to marry her, which he never intended to follow through with. Nine months later Orazio began a prosecution against Tassi and the chaperon for conspiring to deflower his daughter. Deflowering a virgin lessened the daughter’s potential value as a bride. Rape as we think of it today wasn’t a crime as such and the suffering and trauma of the victim barely mattered. Losing virginity equated to losing family honor, in reality the honor of the males. Orazio did not want the family name blighted. It might hurt business.
The defloration proceedings did not take place as a jury trial as we would experience today. It was not an open process. Private interrogation and judicial torture were used routinely to discern if people were telling the truth. A torture called the sibyls was used on Artemisia consisting of metal rings on the fingers that were tightened via a set of cords. Testimony under torture either collaborated or challenged previous statements by the witness or other witnesses. Other individuals also submitted to torture. The evidence obtained by torture and interrogation was then handed over to the magistrates who decided the verdict. Tassi was convicted and exiled for five years – a sentence he never served. His patrons bailed him out and annulled his condemnation. He continued to work in and out of Rome.
As an eighteen-year-old the court records show she was self-assured, poised, and defended herself with integrity. She was not submissive. However, she also was not an angry woman. Orazio was pleased the family name was restored, but to avoid suspicion, Artemisia was married off to the first man who would take her in 1613, a good for nothing little known artist from Florence. About ten years later the husband disappears from her life. She had five children (only one survived) and managed a growing, thriving art business as her fame grew, receiving no support from her husband. Documents show the only thing he was good at was spending her money and putting the family in debt. Unfortunately documents also show she was usually paid less than equivalently talented male artists. Bold and assertive, once Artemisia established her career she set up a huge studio in Naples, where she worked for about two decades. Her fame was due to her artistic success and talent, not her sexual assault and trial.
She started her career in Rome, then worked in Florence, then back to Rome, on to Venice, Naples, England, and back to Naples. In each city she participated in elite literary and artistic circles. Although illiterate at the time of the trial, she learned enough to read and write. She was highly regarded by her contemporaries for her wit, poetry, and art. A turning point occurred when she was the first women accepted into the Accademia del Disegno in Florence which gave her unprecedented financial and legal independence from her father and her low life husband; unheard of at the time. She now had freedom from relying on a man’s permission to buy art supplies, travel, sign legal documents, conduct business, or open a studio. Her clients included the pope’s nephews, King of Spain, Queen of France, King of England, and nobility in each of the cities in which she resided.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Danaë, c. 1612, The St. Louis Art Museum, open access.
Around the time of her marriage she completed the Danaë, the same subject her father would paint the next decade. The rich textural details of the red and white bedding contrast with the maidservant’s blue dress. The maidservant holds out her dress to catch some of the gold. Artemisia infuses the scene with eroticism with the gold falling directly into Danaë’s pubic area, as she clutches pieces of gold with her eyes closed and head tilted back on the pillow. Orazio’s Danaë is awake and reaching upwards; Artemisia’s is in a dream like state. Her composition is more original than Orazio’s with the maidservant replacing cupid, although from a technical viewpoint it is very similar to her father’s paintings. Previously Venetian painters Titian and Tintoretto also painted Danaë and served as prototypes for Artemisia.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Decapitating Holofernes, c. 1620, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons, Google Art Project.
Artemisia’s most famous subject is the grisly murder scene of Judith beheading Holofernes, either in the act of, or shortly thereafter. She completed seven versions of this Old Testament tale during her career. Holofernes, an Assyrian general, invaded the Israelites. Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, befriended him, got him drunk and in order to halt his destruction of her homeland, beheaded him. She was hailed as a heroine.
The scene usually has varying degree of blood splatter while in the act of decapitation, or Judith shown in triumph hoisting his head up by his hair, usually with the older maidservant Abra assisting in the disposal of the head. In both the Detroit Institute of Art and Florence Galleria degli Uffizi scenes Artemisia leverages her knowledge of Caravaggio with dramatic light and dark to capture the emotion of the scene. Judith holds her hand up to the candle light as if to pause momentarily after the act; in the earlier rendition Judith is depicted in the act of assassination. Holofernes’ blood splatters and soaks into the white bedsheets.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1623-5, Detroit Institute of Art, public domain.
Artemisia skillfully uses color, especially in the Detroit painting, with deep hues of red, blue, and gold. Both these paintings were probably done during her second Rome period after moving back from Florence, with the husband while raising their young children. Artemisia’s depictions of Judith beheading Holofernes are often viewed as angry feminist paintings following her rape (especially in the 1970s), however they are increasingly seen, in consideration of her life work, as depictions of women with formidable character, standing up for what they believe.
As Artemisia established her career and set up shop in various cities, her work shows less Caravaggesque influence. The light is more balanced and the scenes less dramatic. She maintains her brilliant colors and textures, but the scenes are more subdued. Self-portraits figured prominently in her work. Nearly two-thirds of her known paintings contain some form of self-portrait, mostly early or later in her career. Did the patron request this? Does it hark back to her father using her as a model? That remains unclear. Her paintings most likely were featured in palaces for their families and guests to enjoy. These are usually not straight forward self-portraits but Artemisia is both subject and portrait.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1615-17, National Gallery, London, open access. The painting was cleaned, re-touched, and framed in 2019. The National Gallery purchased the painting for $4.5 million in 2018.
Self-Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, painted while she was in her late teens, represents the saint with halo, martyr’s palm and the spiked wheel on which the saint was tortured. However, Catherine was saved from her death (she was later beheaded) and touches the broken wheel. She depicts herself, and St. Catherine, as survivors. She gently turns towards the viewer with grace and calmness. This was painted during her time in Florence when she was establishing herself as an independent artist away from her father’s studio.
In her late thirties Artemisia painted another self-portrait where she appears in the guise of the allegorical figure of painting. Undoubtedly this play on words and idea resonated with the intelligentsia of her day. Artemisia, unlike Sofonisba or Lavinia, did not need to make self-portraits as giveaways to entice patrons. She completed this self-portrait while in London towards the end of her career, when her father was also painting in London. They collaborated a bit for the last time.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory or Painting, c. 1638-9, HM Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Collection, London, open access. It is signed “AGF” on the foreground corner. The F stands for Latin “facet,” meaning done or made.
She conforms to some standard iconographic images of the allegorical theme of wearing a gold chain with a mask, changing her hair color to black, but breaks with others including a twisted pose looking away from the viewer and concentrating on the act of painting. We cannot see what she is painting. She leans on a stone ledge probably used for grinding colors and her sleeve has remnants of paint. It is an unusual self-portrait in that to capture oneself painting in this pose is very difficult. It is an engaging painting and technical analysis of the surface shows she made very few painted over changes to the composition or pictorial elements.
Artemisia died in Naples, most likely of plague, in 1656. She seems to have been quickly forgotten until her re-discovery in the 1970s and 1980s. Art historians have shown a keen interest in her for decades and now some museums have honored her with exhibits and her paintings have recently sold well at auction houses.
No longer ignored, in November 2019, Artemisia’s forgotten painting of Lucretia sold for over $6 million at auction. A newly discovered Artemisia depicting David and Goliath (c.1639) was probably also done in London towards the end of her career.
The National Gallery in London is mounting it’s first UK Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit April – July 2020; now postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bohn, Babbette. “From Oxymoron to Virile Paintbrush: Women Artists in Early Modern Europe.” A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, John Wiley & Sons, 2013, pp. 229-49.
Christiansen, Keith and Judith W. Mann. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The Metropolitan Musuem of Art, 2001.
Cohen, Elizabeth S. “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 31, no. 1, 2000, pp. 47–75. www.jstor.org/stable/2671289.
Locker, Jesse M. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting. Yale University Press, 2015.
Nicholson, Elizabeth S. G., Rebecca Price, Jane McAllister, Karen I. Peterfreund, eds. Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque. Skira, 2007.