Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome on 8 July 1593, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. She learned drawing, how to mix color, and how to paint. Since her father’s style took inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn. Her approach to subject matter was different from her father’s, however, as her paintings are highly naturalistic, where Orazio’s are idealized. Orazio was a great encouragement to his daughter since, during the seventeenth century, women were considered lacking the intelligence to work. At the same time, Artemisia had to resist the “traditional attitude and psychological submission to this brainwashing and jealousy of her obvious talent” *. By doing so, she gained great respect and recognition for her work.
*Bissell, Ward R. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonne. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615–1617, Artemisia Gentileschi
Susanna and the Elders, her first work, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi
The first work of the young seventeen-year-old Artemisia was the Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) (1610, Schönborn collection in Pommersfelden). At the time, some influenced by the prevailing misconceptions, suspected that she was helped by her father. The painting shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the language of the Bologna school, which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists. It is one of the few paintings on the theme of Susanna showing the sexual accosting by the two Elders as a traumatic event.
In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, so Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Another man, Cosimo Quorlis, was also involved. After the initial rape, Artemisia continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they were going to be married and with the hope to restore her dignity and her future. Tassi reneged on his promise to marry Artemisia. Nine months after the event, when he learnt that Artemisia and Tassi were not going to be married, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of this 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 enjoined in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological examination and torture using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. The trial influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late twentieth century.
* Thumbscrew (torture); A victim’s thumbs or fingers were placed in the vice and slowly crushed. The thumbscrew was also applied to crush prisoners’ big toes. The crushing bars were sometimes lined with sharp metal points to puncture the thumbs and inflict greater pain in the nail beds. Larger, heavier devices based on the same design principle were applied to crush feet and ears.
Judith I, 1901, Gustav Klimt/Judith Beheading Holofernes 1598–1599, Michelangelo da Caravaggio
This event became her anger and she expressed the anger in her paintings. Also, in her pictures which represent *Judith Beheading Holofernes, She drew all faces of Judith as hers face and Holofernes are Tassi on her paintings. Unlike other ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, Judith looks like a strong woman and she has a tenacious grip. Usually, Judith had been expressed as a weak and fascinating woman in those days. For example, Gustav Klimt drew Judith as a fascinating femme fatale. Also, Michelangelo da Caravaggio drew Judith as a weak and delicate woman.
*The book of Judith: The Book of Judith has a tragic setting that appealed to Jewish patriots and it warned of the urgency of adhering to Mosaic law, generally speaking, but what accounted for its enduring appeal was the drama of its narrative. The story revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
That she was a woman painting in the seventeenth century and that she was raped and participated in prosecuting the rapist, long overshadowed her achievements as an artist. For many years she was regarded as a curiosity. Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressionist painters of her generation.
Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–1614, Artemisia Gentileschi
Because Artemisia returned again and again to violent subject matter such as Judith and Holofernes, a repressed-vengeance theory has been postulated. Some art historians suggest however, that she was shrewdly taking advantage of her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market in sexually charged, female-dominant art for male patrons.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), 1638-1639, Artemisia Gentileschi
The most recent critic, starting from the difficult reconstruction of the entire catalogue of the Gentileschi, tried to give a less reductive reading of the career of Artemisia, placing it more accurately in the context of the different artistic environments in which the painter actively participated. A reading such as this restores Artemisia as an artist who fought with determination—using the weapon of personality and of the artistic qualities—against the prejudices expressed against women painters; being able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, embracing a series of pictorial genres that probably were more ample and varied than her paintings suggest.