Baroque Artist Artemisia Gentileschi, the #MeToo Movement's Old Master
“My illustrious lordship, I'll show you what a woman can do.” -- Artemisia Gentileschi to her art patron Don Antonio Ruggo
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Martyr, 1615
Here's my guide to the compelling life of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi and her most important masterpieces.
I bet you've never heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, am I right? She was one of the most talented painters of the Baroque period, rivaling Caravaggio himself. After seeing one of her paintings in Rome, I've become a little obsessed with her. I even adore her name; it so mythic and mysterious.
As a young girl and aspiring artist, Artemisia was the victim of sexual violence. Yet she overcame the harrowing experience and her society's hostility toward female artists, becoming the first woman inducted into the illustrious Accademia in Florence. Adversity begat genius, as it so often does.
Artemisia Gentleschi, Samson and Delilah, circa 1630-38
Women didn’t have many career options in 17th century Italy. They either became mothers or it was "get thee to a nunnery." The men in their life controlled their destiny and dictated what they could do. Few women broke free of these shackles. But the indomitable Artemisia did, against all odds.
A self-made Artemisia became a favorite of rich patrons and royalty. She filled her bold canvases with suffering yet fierce heroines from mythology and the bible. In seeking revenge through art, she's become the #MeToo movement's favored old master.
But Artemisia wasn't just a victim. She was an immensely gifted feminist icon and protagonist. She was a savvy and self-assured business woman in a patriarchal society. Artemisia empowered herself, forged a career, supported her family, and was a Baroque genius in her own right.
Artemisia Gentileschi, The Annunciation, 1630
A Short Biography of Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593 to an artistic family. Her father was a well known artist at the time, Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio was a friend (and drinking buddy) of Caravaggio. Artemisia met and was influenced by him, becoming a "Caravaggisti" or follower of Caravaggio.
From a young age, Artemisia showed great artistic promise. When her other died when she was just 12, Orazio brought Artemisia into the studio for lessons. She mixed pigments, made varnishes, and learned techniques such as chiaroscuro. When Artemisia needed more formal tutoring, Orazio hired a tutor, his colleague Agostino Tassi.
At the time, Tassi was a famous Roman artist, specializing in tromp l'oeil effects. His job was to teach Artemisia perspective. Except like many powerful men, Tassi preyed on women. He was rumored to have committed incest and murdered his first wife.
One day he brutally raped 17 year old Artemisia. Afterward, Artemisia attacked him with a knife. To pacify her, Tassi promised to marry her to save her honor. Except for one niggling problem -- he was already married.
Simon Vouet, Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1623–26),
After the attack, the pair began a relationship. It sounds hideously awful, I know. But at that time, Rome was a barbaric and brutal place. It wasn't uncommon for marriages to follow rapes.
Orazio eventually discovered the affair. When Tassi refused to marry Artemisia, Orazio was outraged. He brought rape charges against Tassi. Since rape wasn't enough of a crime to formally charge someone, he threw in some theft and attempted murder charges as well. Tassi refused to confess.
A lengthy and controversial 7 month trial ensured, which received monstrous publicity. Artemisia was once again victimized. She was put on trial herself (sound familiar?), given vaginal exams, and physically and verbally tortured.
Her inquisitors used 17th century "lie detectors," sibilles and thumbscrews, to crush her fingers. The theory was that a liar wouldn't endure the torture. Artemisia did, reiterating again and again that "it is true, it is true" that Tassi raped her. In contrast, Tassi was never tortured.
Tassi was convicted and exiled from Rome. But he got away with the crime, never serving his sentence. Pope Innocent X liked Tassi's art, so he pardoned the artist. Tassi's second rate art work is long forgotten. But every word of the court case survives today in transcript.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Corsica and the Satyr, between 1630-1635
Two days after the trial, Artemisia fled to Florence. She married a Florentine man named Pierantonio Stiattesi, who basically became her agent. Marriage was essential for her career, in an age of papal dominance. Artemisia set up shop and doggedly pursued a career on the same terms as men.
Artemisia's dramaturgical paintings subverted traditional norms. They are all about women. They show self-motivated women in action and in control. Artemisia gave women a voice they weren't permitted. In her own words, Artemisia viewed herself as "the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman."
Artemisia was a master of nudes and facial expressions. Influenced by Caravaggio, she was best known for her stark and theatrical use of light and shadow. Artemisia would choose traditional subjects but render them in untraditional and visceral ways, with fully realized three dimensional women dominating the canvas.
Artemisia was famed for her self portraits. Like Rembrandt and others, she used her own image to help spread her celebrity. Against impossible odds, she became a wunderkind court painter with steady commissions. She told her friend, the great scientist Galileo, “I have seen myself honored by all the kings and rulers of Europe.”
Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, 1630 -- sold for $4.7 million in 2019
In 1615, Artemisia was inducted into Florence's Academy of Arts and Drawing, the greatest honor bestowed on that era's painters. It changed the course of her life. She was deemed the equal of men and could manage her own affairs. She could travel, buy her own supplies, sign her own contracts, and network.
Unfortunately, things went awry in Florence. Artemisia began a torrid affair with a Florentine noblemen. Her husband gambled away and mismanaged their fortune. The new Medici heir wanted only perfect bible paintings. Gossip, scandal, and crushing debts ensued. In 1621, the pair separated.
Artemisia subsequently lived and worked in Rome, Venice, and then Naples. She also worked in London from 1638-41 at the court of Charles I. Artemisia is assumed to have died of the plague that devastated Naples in 1656.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Magdalene in Ecstacy, 1623
Artemisia Gentileschi's Artistic Legacy
Artemisia turned the savage events of her life into beautiful oil paintings. She fought back with a battle cry of images of powerful women. She was the feminist hero of her own life, producing progressive and expressive art.
But when Artemisia died, her hard won work fell into obscurity. She was omitted from historical accounts of the period. Then, in 1916, a Caravaggio scholar published a piece on Orazio and Artemisia. In 1947, a popular novel was written about Artemisia, which sensationalized her story and her art.
Now, Artemisia's art is back in the spotlight. Artemisia has been the subject of academic reassessment and blockbuster exhibitions. She's now a symbol of the #MeToo movement and women's struggle against tyranny.
Art historians consider Artemisia the best female painter of the 17th century. One historian calls Artemisia "the first woman in the history of western art to make a significant and undeniably important contribution to the art of her time."
60 of Artemisia's paintings survive today, 40 featuring women. Artemisia's art has become popular, attracting a wave of market and museum interest. Many of her father's paintings are being reattributed to her. Her first major retrospective exhibition is scheduled to appear at the National Gallery in London when it reopens.
Artemisia has also cemented her place in the old boy old masters club. In 2017, the National Gallery in London purchased Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria for 4.5 million. In November 2019, one of her portraits of Lucretia sold for over $4.7 million.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610
Artemisia Gentileschi's Best Paintings
Let's take a look at some of Artemisia's greatest works.
1. Susanna and the Elders, 1610
Susanna and the Elders (above) is Artemisia's first known painting. She uses a biblical story. Two old men are spying and preying on a virtuous married woman bathing. They threaten her, saying they will spread false rumors unless she provides sexual favors.
Susanna must choose between rape and death. Like Artemisia, she doesn't choose death. Susanna is falsely put on trial for adultery. Unlike Artemisia, Susanna is vindicated and her accusers put to death.
another Artemisia rendering of the Susanna story from 1622
Artemisia renders the tale of sexual violence from the female POV. She focuses on the women's modesty and plight. She gives it a creepy rendering. The men are explicit villains, brazenly harassing Susanna and intruding on her space, not hovering in the distance as other artists depicted them.
Given the timing of the painting's completion, many historians believe the painting relates to Artemisia's own assault. Interestingly, in Artemisia's trial, it was revealed that Tassi had a friend that also lusted after Artemisia, ogled her, and bothered her.
Judith Beheading Holofernes is Artemisia's most famous painting, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This painting shows a classic biblical scene, popular with many artists including Caravaggio. It's the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes, in which a heroic woman beheads the warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel.
Typically, a widowed Judith is portrayed as virtuous, delicate, or almost disgusted by her murderous task. The actual act of beheading wasn't even depicted, until Caravaggio's 1599 treatment.
Artemisia's version is even bloodier, a shocking beheading. The focus of the painting is Judith, not Holofernes. He looks to be almost dead, his limbs visually cut off and body radically foreshortened.
Caravaggio's version of Judith and Holofernes, which was considered shocking at the time. Artemisia's version takes it up a notch.
Judith is depicted as a muscle-y determined woman on a mission. She's not subtle or disgusted. She's out to get her man with a large sword and rolled up sleeves.
Rivulets of blood spill onto white sheets. To give it an autobiographical spin, Artemisia renders Judith as a self portrait and gives Holofernes the face of Tassi. A virtual act of revenge in paint, with Judith as Artemisia's alter ego. Indeed, one of the cameos on Judith's bracelet appears to depict the goddess Artemis.
Artemisia also portrays her handmaiden in the act of holding down Holofernes, rather than just mutely standing by to accept the head. It's as if, together, the two women can hold down the powerful man who threatens them. It's a grim depiction of female agency.
A less refined earlier version of Judith Beheading Holofernes is in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, ca. 1638-39, Royal Collection Trust Edinburgh
3. Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)
This painting is Artemisia's most celebrated self portrait. She depicts herself poised and ready to realize her vision on an empty canvas. And she's not meek. She looks forceful, the brush as her weapon.
Artemisia boldly portrays herself as the female personification (allegory) of art, at a time when most women couldn't even pick up a brush. Her gold necklace, with the dangling mask, is a symbol of Pittura, or personified painting. Pitturas are supposed to be shown with a gagged mouth. But Artemisia doesn't follow this "rule;" she refuses to be silenced.
Some art historians have wondered whether Artemisia might have intended the painting to be a send up of the many pretentious portraits by male artists depicting themselves at work. But it's probably just evidence of theoretical sophistication or her commitment to art.
But there's another possible reading. Given that Artemisia had just arrived in London when she painted the self portrait, it could also be interpreted as an advertisement for prospective patrons. In the painting, she essentially invites the viewer to visit her studio. The piece was later purchased by King Charles I of England, one of Europe’s greatest 17th century collectors.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as a Lute Player, circa 1616-1618
4. Self Portrait As a Lute Player
In this painting, Artemisia shows herself a lute player. Portraits of people playing musical instruments was a common Renaissance theme. The painting was likely commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici. In 1998, it was discovered in a private European collection and auctioned off.
In 1998, the painting was virtually unknown. But that changed quickly. In 2014, it was acquired for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut for more than $3 million.
The headdress, hoop earrings, and low neckline suggest that Artemisia is playing the part of a gyspy or courtesan performing for an audience.
Artesimia Gentileschi, Mary Magdalen as Melancholy, circa 1622-25
5. Mary Magdalene as Melancholy
Artemisia painted different versions of Mary Magdalen over her career. This one shows Mary in melancholy, though she appears appealing and voluptuous nonetheless. The painting is similar to one found in Seville Cathedral in Seville Spain.
The penitent saint appears tired from crying at the loss of Jesus. Artemisia portrays Mary Magdalene as reconciled with her past and at peace, not in shame as Caravaggio and other artists rendered her. Some art historians have speculated that the crease in her arm is an allusion to sex.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1615–17.
6. Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria
In this self portrait, Artemisia depicts herself as a confident and regal Saint Catherine. Saint Catherine was the daughter of the governor of Alexandria. She publicly rebuked the Emperor Maxentius for his cruelty.
The emperor organized a debate between her and his 50 best philosophers, which legend holds Catherine won. Her reward? She was tortured on a spiked wheel. Legend holds that the wheel shattered at her touch. That having failed, Catherine was beheaded.
With this self portrait, Artemisia allies herself with tortured women who told the truth and suffered for it. She stares brazenly at the viewer, with the spiked wheel in hand and a halo on her head. It's the wheel that was broken, but not her.
Her rosy visage is incredibly realistic. Her dress is rendered with beautiful sfumato technique, where shades of paint are blurred together.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, 1625
In Lucretia, Gentileschi again explores the subject of harassment and rape. Lucretia depicts a female figure on the brink of suicide. Lucretia was a Roman noblewoman IRL. Rather than be dishonored, she killed herself after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of an Etruscan king.
Many other painters have tackled Lucretia. But none in the same way as Artemisia. Artemisia shows the moment before the suicide, when Lucretia contemplates the act. She portrays a determined Lucretia, secure in her decision. Lucretia's story is no different than Artemisia's, except that Artemisia chose a different outcome.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant, 1625
8. Judith and Her Maidservant
Years after Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia returned to the theme with Judith and Her Maidservant. In this work, she paints the moment after the beheading. The women work together in quiet communion. Judith looks warrior-like, spotlit by a flickering candle.
The painting showcases Artemisia's absolute mastery of rich color and light, trademarks of the Baroque. The use of chiaroscuro heightens the drama of the scene.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Danae, 1612
The Greek myth of Danae tells the story of a young woman confined to her bedroom by her father, King Acrisius of Argos. An oracle predicted that Danae's son would cause Argos' death. So he wanted to eliminate any chance of his daughter getting pregnant.
But Zeus foiled this stratagem. He transformed himself into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae. She birthed Perseus, who later fulfilled the prophecy.
Danae was the subject of many paintings. Artists depicted her as either virtuous or slutty. Artemisia's Danae is neither sexually aggressive nor innocent. Instead, she's shown experiencing (and perhaps enjoying?) the consummation.
Some art historians believe the painting may depict a sexually aroused Danae, citing the clenched fingers. Others interpret the clenched fist to represent sexual violence and resistance to Zeus.
This painting was originally attributed to Artemisia's father Orazio Gentileschi, who also painted a version of Danae. But it was re-attributed to Artemisia in the late 1990s, due to its bright colors and resemblance to Artemisia's 1621 Cleopatra.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Cleopatra, 1633-35
The pagan warrior queen Cleopatra is another favorite subject for Artemisia. Cleopatra was one of the most powerful women in the ancient world. She's typically eroticized by male painters.
Artemisia instead shows her at the moment of a self inflicted death, with rigor mortis setting in. Mistreated by men, Cleopatra, like Lucretia, decided to take her own life. It could be read as another interpretation of female agency by Artemisia.
Cleopatra is in a private collection in Rome. There is also a second version of this painting in Milan.
You can also explore Artemisia Gentileschi's works on Google Arts & Culture. Here's an excellent Smarthistory video about her painting Judith Beheading Holofernes.