Artist profile: Artemisia Gentileschi – Intro

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

Trigger warning: this post discusses rape and violence.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, (c. 1638)

I’ve found it difficult to start my first post about the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). When she was a teenager, the man who was supposed to be tutoring her raped her. This is an art blog, and I don’t like to talk about or think about such traumatic things, but many scholars (reasonably so) believe this event was integral to her painting; and besides, I wouldn’t want to dishonor Gentileschi by glossing over what she lived through.

Now that I’ve started, I feel better. So, on to her biography.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome Prudentia Montone and the painter Orazio, whose style took after the famed artist Caravaggio. Her style, too, shows his influence: dramatic lighting and high contrast. Her mother died when she was twelve. Like Sofonisba Anguissola, she was the eldest of several children, although Artemisia was the only sibling to go into art. She trained under her father, and then under a tutor, Agostino Tassi.

Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Prior to raping her, Tassi and others in his studio harassed her while she tried to study art. Her painting Susanna and the Elders, in which Susanna is disturbed by the elders’ inappropriate attention, indicates this. Once he did rape her, Tassi promised to marry her in exchange for continued sex. This went on for about a year, until her father found out and pressed charges.

In Renaissance Italy, rape only counted if the woman was a virgin. Had Gentileschi not been a virgin at the time Tassi raped her, nobody would have cared because she would already have been “ruined”. (Some people still have this attitude.) Tassi was able to string her along because the “solution” to the situation was marriage: marrying her rapist would restore her reputation.

Similar to many trials today, Artemisia was accused of being a slut. She was also subjected to a vaginal examination and torture with thumbscrews (very painful). Tassi even insulted her artistic talent. However, Tassi was well known for having raped other women, including his sister-in-law and a wife he “acquired” by rape – who he had murdered at a later date.

Scholars agree that Gentileschi’s most famous painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, as well as many others with similar subject matter, was how she processed these traumatizing events. A strong, capable woman saws through a man’s neck, blood spurting everywhere – I’ll be talking about it next week.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1612)

Although he was convicted and exiled from Rome (which is pretty awesome), Tassi was back within a year (not so awesome). The accusations of promiscuity haunted Gentileschi throughout her career, even appearing in mean-spirited poems at the time of her death.

After the seven-month trial was over, Orazio hastily married Artemisia off to another painter, in all likelihood because he didn’t think he would be able to get her married to anyone else after the rape scandal.

Gentileschi and her husband lived in Florence, where they became members of the Academie del Disegno (Academy of Design) in 1616. She was the first female member of the Academie. Her patrons included members of the ruling Medici family, and among her friends were Galileo (yes, the Galileo) and the grand-nephew of Michaelangelo. She may have met Sofonisba Anguissola at some point – which would have been awesome. While in Florence, she went by “Artemisia Lomi”, using the last name of her uncle to avoid connection to the rape trial.

Her marriage was a strained one. Both husband and wife took out debts to pay for materials, but it looks as though the husband liked to gamble. Gentileschi also had at least three children, but it is unclear whether they survived childhood.

Gentileschi traveled between Genoa, Rome, and Venice in the early 1620s. By 1624, she had returned to Rome and was listed as the head of her household in the census – her husband was out of the picture. At that point, she had had two daughters that she was bringing up as artists. She was known as a “famous Roman artist” and a “celebrated woman painter”.

Around 1630, Gentileschi relocated to Naples; while living there, her patrons included Philip IV of Spain (a king), Charles I of England (a king), and the Duke of Modena (a duke). Although she wasn’t short on talent or fame, she still tended to be short of money.

From 1638 to 1641, she lived in England to fulfill obligations to Charles I and aid her ailing father in completing An Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown, which adorns the ceiling of Malborough House in London.

Orazio died in 1639. Artemisia stayed at court until the English Civil War began in 1641, returning to Naples. She lived the rest of her life there, continuing to paint and run a studio in which her daughters worked. The year of her death is unclear – it is usually listed as 1653, but she may have died in an outbreak of plague in 1656. Although her life was not nearly as happy and blessed as Sofonisba Anguissola’s, Gentileschi also furthered the acceptance of female artists in Europe and contributed greatly to the Western canon of art.

Until the 1990s, Artemisia Gentileschi was largely ignored and her paintings credited to her father and other artists. A disastrously inaccurate film was made about the rape scandal, but its inaccuracies did encourage further research – too bad the filmmakers didn’t make that effort.

In the past two decades, her work has gained worldwide attention and appreciation. She’s been the subject of books, websites, and museum exhibits. One such resource I’ve found invaluable is The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi. I highly recommend taking the tour through her work and art via this site.

So we made it to the end of the post! In October, I will be talking about Gentileschi’s strong women, especially Judith, as well as her less violent paintings.

Other parts in the Artemisia Gentileschi artist profile series
Powerful women



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