Notable Women Artists of the Past: Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria," c. 1615-17 -- The National Gallery, London

[This article was originally published in The Portrait Signature, 2000, Volume 4]

Prior to the Twentieth Century there were precious few women who achieved any appreciable degree of recognition as artists. Those who did so deserve to be acknowledged for having persevered in the face of social prejudices, taboos and prohibitions that male artists did not have to overcome in the development and marketing of their own talents, and which women artists of today likewise have not had to endure to such a degree, at least in the field of art. The church was a powerful and dominant force in Europe, and considered it inappropriate for women to study the nude male figure, or to depict it in drawings or paintings. This was but one of many handicaps imposed on women wishing to pursue art as a vocation in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In Renaissance and Baroque Italy only the daughters of artists and girls of noble birth were given training as artists. Noble women were expected to be well versed in all aspects of culture, including drawing and painting, and thus were taught by artists hired by their families to tutor them in these disciplines. There were, however, restrictions on what subjects were deemed appropriate for them and what were not, as it was more important that they be proper ladies than great artists, in the eyes of society. Consequently, the training most of them received was not as complete as it was for male students and apprentices. Of the women who were trained in art, most of them did not go on to pursue careers in that field, instead abandoning it, for all practical purposes, when they married and had children. Their artistic endeavors thereafter were done more as a hobby than a vocation, in most cases, with a few notable exceptions.

Although few Masters would accept female students in those days, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was privileged, as the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, to study under him while still a child, working in his studio as an apprentice from age seven or so, and subsequently to study with Guido Reni, according to one account. As her father was a contemporary of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio at a time when both lived and were active in Rome, it is highly likely that Artemisia would have known him while she was very young and in her student stage, and most certainly would have seen his paintings. Her work does show a strong Caravaggio influence. A scandalous figure himself, Caravaggio defied conventional tastes and attitudes in his painting and his life, shocking the public with depictions of holy figures more naturalistic than the idealized images then in vogue, and by outrageous behavior in his personal life (including killing a man in a fight). Perhaps the young Artemisia might have been impressed by this as well as by the powerful visual impact of chiaroscuro in his works. She was to exhibit her own fierce determination in defiance of the prevailing attitudes of society at the time. Despite the many prejudices against women working in what was generally regarded as a man’s field, Artemisia, solely through the quality of her work, gained a reputation as a portraitist and history painter surpassing that of her father, and established herself as a successful artist in her own right.

We may regard the recent movie, “Artemisia” as fiction, though there were elements of truth in it here and there. Whereas the movie treated her association with Agostino Tassi as a love affair, the truth is well documented in trial records as being entirely different. While Artemisia was still a teenager, her father asked Tassi, a landscape and seascape painter with whom he had been collaborating, to teach her perspective, as he was known as an expert in that particular aspect of art. At one of these lessons Tassi forced himself on Artemisia, who cut him with a knife in her fight to resist. Contrary to the movie story, there was no love affair between them, though Tassi did offer to marry her after forcibly deflowering her. His sincerity might be seen as open to doubt, in light of the fact that he did not follow through on his promise. Artemisia’s predicament, as a non-virgin, compelled her to look at this possibility as her only hope of maintaining a respectable reputation in the eyes of the society in which she lived. Tassi, however, reneged on his agreement, and Orazio filed suit against Tassi for the rape of his teenage daughter when he found out about it. A trial ensued, and throughout the proceedings, which included the physical torture of Artemisia to ascertain her truthfulness, she continued to maintain that it had not been consensual, as Tassi had contended. In addition to the torture, a measure commonly employed in trials in those days, she was subjected to a humiliating ordeal in the form of a vaginal examination to establish that she had been a virgin prior to the attack, to counter Tassi’s charges that she had been with many men before him. It soon came to light that he had been sued for rape before, had impregnated his wife’s sister, had arranged to have his wife murdered, and had obtained this same wife in the first place by raping her and then proposing marriage, as he had with Artemisia. The trial officially cleared up any questions regarding Artemisia’s virtue prior to the rape, but nonetheless left her marked for life in a number of ways. Shortly after the trial, Artemisia married the Florentine painter Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, who had testified in her favor at the trial, in contradiction to Tassi’s assertion that Artemisia had been promiscuous, and the couple moved to Florence. There has been much speculation on the effects of the ordeal on her psyche and her motivations for painting the Old Testament Biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes more than once, with good reason to suppose a connection.

After moving to Florence, Artemisia gained a number of lucrative commissions, and became an official member of the Academie del Disegno in 1616. She painted several versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes, a theme also painted by Caravaggio, and other paintings depicting historic and Biblical stories with female heroes, some of them executed while living in Florence. It is known that she met Anthony Van Dyck and Velasquez when they were in Italy, on equal ground as contemporaries. She went to England around 1638, or perhaps earlier, residing at the court of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, and painted there for two or three years, including a collaboration with her father on a large commission for the Queen’s House at Greenwich.

Thirty-four paintings by Artemisia are known to exist today, though she undoubtedly painted many more, some of which may not have survived, and some of which could possibly be attributed to other artists.

Artemisia Gentileschi overcame all the difficulties she encountered, and established herself as a well-respected artist quite independently of her father and her other teachers, with a successful career that lasted until the end of her life at age 60.

While we may certainly lament the extreme unfairness of the terrible treatment Artemisia had received as a teenage girl, the least of which were the restrictions on the teaching of art to female students, it is highly likely that this episode, and its effect on her, is what gave her work its extreme emotional impact. The emotional content is precisely what makes the difference between a competently painted picture by a well-trained painter, and a masterpiece. The best artists have always, and will always, put something of their own psyche, their own personal intensity, into their work, and it is that quality, strongly expressed, which connects with the sensibilities of the viewer and registers its impression indelibly and unmistakably upon them. These experiences, both positive and negative, serve to bring out that intensity and give great artists their unique identity, and their work its power. Thus the most trying ordeals, and the effects these trials and struggles will inevitably have on the artist, can be the genesis of something positive, and perhaps something great, when channeled into art.


Read more about Artemisia Gentileschi in Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art, by R. Ward Bissell, 1998, Penn State University Press