Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome itself on July 8, 1593. She was the eldest child and only daughter of the moderately, but not hugely, successful painter Orazio Gentileschi. Her name meant devotee of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, so her parents were already thinking about strong women when she was born, and you can go on thinking about strong women throughout this episode.
We know absolutely nothing about Artemisia’s childhood or training, but it seems pretty safe to assume that her father taught her to paint. By the time she had reached her late teens, he was also promoting her work, as well he should, because it was better than his.
Orazio was employed decorating churches, and there is a figure in one which might be a portrait of his daughter Artemisia. I admit, I was surprised that he would give his daughter a double chin, but standards of beauty do change.
Meanwhile she was painting her first surviving work: Susanna and the Elders. She was 17 years old and already she had the hallmarks for which she would become famous, one of which is strong Biblical women.
The story of Susanna is not familiar to those of us who went to Sunday School with a Protestant English Bible because it’s in what we call the Apocrypha, but Artemisia’s audience would have known it well: Susanna is a young married woman bathing in her garden. Two men had hidden in her garden waiting for her, and they demand sex. She refuses, even after they threaten to publicly accuse her of adultery. They do accuse her, but Daniel (as in Daniel and the lion’s den) realizes their stories do not align. Their false accusations are thrown out, and Susanna is cleared of all wrongdoing because “there was no dishonesty found in her” (Susanna 1).
Look at that, it’s a sexual harassment claim that actually turned out well. Protestants say it’s apocryphal.
Artemisia depicted the initial encounter and places Susanna in the front and center, nude and twisted in obvious distress while the two lecherous men peer over a wall looking down on her. If you want to interpret that as a depiction of patriarchy in a nutshell, there’s plenty of material to work with.
If you are wondering whether Artemisia chose her heroine because she had personal experience with Susanna’s plight, your suspicions are about to be confirmed. If this is a sensitive subject you do not want to hear about, now’s the time to skip forward a bit.
The Rape Trial
In 1612 we suddenly have a wealth of information about Artemisia. She bursts into the historical record because that was the year that Orazio brought charges against his colleague Agostino Tassi for raping his only daughter, so we have pages and pages of the proceedings. They are filled with excruciating anatomical detail, not to mention every bit of the mudslinging we’ve all come to know and hate in the equivalent modern cases.
Tassi said Artemisia was a loose woman with lovers all over the city, which, in case you’re wondering, is not actually relevant to the question of whether he raped her or not. He also said Orazio was sexually abusing his own daughter. She said she was a virgin until Tassi came along. The court decided to medically ascertain whether she was a virgin or not and she was not. But it seems pointlessly humiliating since no one was claiming she was a virgin anymore. Tassi hired friends (including one of Artemisia’s) to lie for him and against her. The Gentileschis pointed out Tassi’s previous criminal record, which was lengthy (and verifiable). But Orazio also lied because he said Artemisia was 15. She was 19, which doesn’t make Tassi’s behavior right, but even today, that age difference would be considered significant.
To ascertain the truth, the court put strings or chains around her fingers (not Tassi’s) and gradually tightened them to see if she’d recant. She stuck to her story. It was basically month after month of public agony for Artemisia, both physically and emotionally.
There is one very key difference in this ugly affair between then and now. No one seemed to view the rape itself as an unforgivable violation of Artemisia’s rights as a human being. Rape was bad, but fixable. All Tassi had to do was marry her, and it would all be good. This was everyone’s opinion, including Artemisia’s, who states quite clearly that they had many sexual encounters after the initial rape, but she consented to them only because Tassi kept saying that he would then marry her, only he never did and eventually she found out that he couldn’t marry herbecause he was already married. From Orazio’s point of view, the point of bringing the case was to coerce Tassi into providing a dowry for her so someone else could be bribed into overlooking her loss of virginity (Christiansen, 287).
It didn’t happen. After eight months of acrimony, the court agreed that Artemisia had been raped. Tassi was sentenced to five years of exile from Rome, and if he didn’t leave he could be sent to the galleys, which sounds maybe okay except that it wasn’t enforced. Within weeks of the trial, Tassi is carrying on as usual (Christiansen, 287).
For Artemisia, there was no recompense beyond the court’s declaration that she was right. That’s it. One month after the trial ended, Artemisia married Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, about whom I have almost no information. Either he really didn’t care about her deflowered status or he was paid by Orazio to pretend not to care. It’s not clear. The couple immediately moved to Florence.
So here you have Artemisia assaulted by one man, lied about by others, tortured by the men of the court, and packed off away from her home by still another man. Imagine her frame of mind.
Then realize that her next painting shows another heroine from the Apocrypha. In that story the Assyrian general Holofernes has brought his armies and laid siege to the Jews so that they cry out to God for deliverance. Judith, a wealthy Jewish widow, steps forward to save her people. Dressed in all her finery, she and her maid walk into the Assyrian army camp, claiming that they had fled the Jews and had important intelligence on them. She charms Holofernes and he drinks a lot. Then she takes the man’s own sword and hacks off his head. The maid packs up the severed head in her bag, and they sneak back to the Jews, who are delighted. They hang the bloody head from the highest walls, rout the disoriented Assyrians, and all is well, thanks to Judith and her maid.
The painting Artemisia complete shortly after the rape trial shows the two women at the bloodiest moment, hacking off the head of Holofernes. Coincidence? Well, some art historians have seen this as justified feminist rage against her rapist. Still others have seen Oedipal rage in it. Maybe Holofernes is standing in for her father here. He should have protected her, and he failed.
Others have said that to reduce her to a vengeful feminazi is just as reductionist and stereotypical as Tassi’s view of the immoral slut. And still others have said the painting was probably a commission and she didn’t choose the subject, so it doesn’t mean anything (Christiansen, 290).
I myself think she was angry, probably at the whole world. Whether she chose Judith or someone chose Judith for her, she would never again be a normal young woman. That path was closed to her. She would have to look elsewhere for a role model.
A Painter of Women
Florence was a good place to be. Marriage, a love affair, and a succession of babies did not stop her painting, maybe because four out of five of the babies died. If she had stayed in Rome, her art might have remained buried in her father’s workshop. Or in Tassi’s. In Florence she was cut off from both and professionally speaking, she soared.
By 1615, she was described as a well-known artist. By 1616, she was an official member of the Florence Academy, the first woman ever to be allowed admittance. Her admittance was probably due to the support of the Medici family and also by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Not the famous one, he was dead, but his grandnephew (Garrard, 34-35). Also she was helped out in some payment issues by a fellow resident of Florence: Galileo Galilei.
While in Florence, Artemisia solidified her reputation for painting women like St Catherine, the Penitent Magdalen, Minerva, and later Cleopatra and Esther. She could do gorgeous fabrics on these women, but she was also a specialist in the female nude.
It is a common cause of complaint that female artists could not achieve what the men did because they were barred from the institutions where male nudes modeled. Artemisia grew up in a home that could well have had male models from time to time, and she was a member of the Academy which definitely did have male models. Whether she was present or barred from the room at such times is not clear, but it is true that unlike the great masters of her time, Artemisia does not seem to have favored painting male nudes, at least in her surviving works. She, or those around her, might not have thought it was an appropriate subject for her to paint, access or no.
Female nude models were still rare in the Academy, and art historian Mary Garrard goes so far as to say that as a woman Artemisia had informal access to such women, which gave her an advantage over her male colleagues in the realm of the female nude (Garrard, 42).
I’m not sure I buy that theory. I can’t argue about Academy policy. I’m sure Garrard knows more than I do about that. But the whole history of the world proves that men with any money at all rarely had any trouble getting informal access to female bodies when they wanted them. I think Artemisia painted women (clothed and unclothed) because she wanted to and because she had patrons who were willing to pay for it. Not because she had an unfair advantage. Records show that Artemisia was paid more than some others for paintings of the same size (Garrard, 44).
In 1621, the Medici Grand Duke Cosimo II died, and there went a lot of patronage. Artemisia went back to Rome, but maybe not directly. She seems to have spent some time in Venice, but we know only because some Venetians wrote poetry and letters that mention her (Locker, 6). There’s also a theory that she paused in Genoa, where she could have met Sofonisba Anguissola, who I covered last week (Garrard, 55). There’s not much documentation available for this period.
In Rome and Naples
The Rome census of 1624, though, shows Artemisia as the head of her household, with two servants and one surviving daughter (out of five children born). Her husband had drifted out of the record as unobtrusively as he drifted in, but he wasn’t dead. We know because years later Artemisia asked a friend if her husband was still living (Garrard, 63). She didn’t even know. So that tells you something of their degree of separation. Artemisia was a single mother, living by her paintbrush.
Rome at this point was awash with church commissions. Fear over those Protestant heretics up north had sparked a flurry of building for the glory of God and His servant the pope, and all those churches, including St Peter’s had to be decorated. None of those commissions went to Artemisia (Christiansen, 340). But she did paint here what many consider her masterpiece. It’s Judith again, this time just after the bloody deed was done, pausing at some sound in the distance while her maid finishes wrapping up the head. It’s a gorgeous study of light and dark as the tent is lit by a single candle, and part of Judith’s face is obscured by a shadow.
It’s also interesting for its realistic portrayal of a middle-aged woman. Many artists painted women either as youthful beauties or wrinkled crones. We are nothing else. Artemisia was dashing stereotypes in more ways than one with her heroines (Garrard, 67).
By the 1630s, Artemisia had moved her family to Naples. She didn’t like it. The city was dirty, dangerous, and expensive. But it was three times the size of Rome and it had more commissions. As a single mother, Artemisia carried the double burden of supporting and nurturing her daughter, and she was painting like mad to provide a dowry (Garrard, 110). It wasn’t cheap.
Artists, including Artemisia, complained constantly about their low pay, but poverty is always a matter of comparison. We know, for example, that Philip IV of Spain paid her 147 scudi for a painting of Hercules and Queen Omphale. By comparison a skilled construction worker got 50-60 scudi per year. And we know Artemisia turned out quite a bit more than one painting a year (Christiansen, 340). So by some standards, she was doing pretty well. That painting of Hercules is lost, unfortunately, or we might have seen whether a male nude model was available to Artemisia after all.
In the English Court
By 1638, Artemisia could add another royal to her list of patrons. She was in England in the court of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria. Charles I was an enthusiastic art collector, and he had also been collecting Italian artists. Among them was Orazio Gentileschi who had been given the task of decorating the ceiling of the new Queen’s House at Greenwich. The project was huge: nine canvases covering forty square feet. Orazio was 75 years old, grumpy, and hated England. The exact details of Artemisia coming are obscure, but it’s not hard to imagine that Charles realized a little help might ensure the project actually got done (Garrard, 112).
So there they were, father and daughter working together for the first time in years. As per usual in such collaborations, Orazio took the credit and art historians have had to tease out which parts Artemisia did by arguing over stylistic differences. They’ve concluded that she did some of the muses, but they disagree about which ones. I myself don’t have the technical expertise to even see the differences they are arguing about.
It was also about this time that she painted my personal favorite, her self-portrait, which I read in some sources is not really a self-portrait (Bissell; Locker, 132), but in the view of others it is (Garrard, Christiansen), and it’s generally got Self-Portrait in the title, so it works for me.
It certainly shows a woman painting in profile, which is tricky if she was her own model. She’d have needed a double mirror setup to do it (Garrard, 361). But the interesting part is not the graceful simplicity of the woman but the blankness of the canvas in front of her. There is no second-rate creation to distract us from the creator. It is the moment of conception when the painting (or the woman) can still be anything she wants it to be. Yep, I definitely like it as a self-portrait.
Charles I was well past the point at which he could be anything he wanted to be. In fact, he might have done better to focus on being a listener and a negotiator, rather than a builder of palaces for the Queen and an art collector. The English Civil War was brewing. The ceiling project was barely done when Orazio died and the Queen left for Holland. Her house was closed up and the paintings gathered dust for 80 years (Garrard, 120). After a few more eventuallys, Charles I would lose his head.
The Waning Years
Artemisia had long since sailed back to Naples. She spent the last decade of her life there, still painting.
Her work still featured women, but it wasn’t Judith or Susanna or Esther anymore. Nope, now we get a lot of Bathshebas. Bathsheba is the woman who King David wanted, only she was married, so he committed both adultery and murder to get her, but he felt real sorry for it afterwards. At no point in the story does Bathsheba seize the narrative at sword point. She’s not really a heroine. She’s just a passive female object.
The judgment of some art historians is that by this point Artemisia was tired (Bissell, 99). It had been a good fight, and it was taking a toll. Another theory is that Artemisia had to paint submissively naked women because that was what her male patrons would pay for (Garrard, 136).
Back in high school, my world history teacher, Mrs. Firstenburg, was very clear on the difference between nude and naked, the one being a cultured, intellectual, and high-class celebration of the glorious God-created human body, and the other being nothing more than lowbrow titillation.
Whether the rich men of Naples understood that fine distinction is openly questioned in my sources (Bissell, 51). That maybe doesn’t make Artemisia exemplary, pandering to the lecherous men of the world instead of upholding the feminist principles we assume she had because of all the earlier Judiths.
I think it’s unlikely that Artemisia would pass muster as a modern feminist. There’s a lot of cultural baggage included in that term that just didn’t exist in her time. But in the sense of thinking that a woman could be in control of her own life and produce art at the same level as men, then yes, I think she thought that right to the end. Her surviving business letters show her to be a strong-willed, pragmatic businesswoman who refused to accept less than her asking price, insisted on a deposit, will not give a quote on an unknown project.
It is true that surrounding all of that iron resolution are a lot of obsequious statements about ardent devotion, carrying out your every command, and imminent abject poverty. But it was an obsequious age and that language was expected from artist to patron. It was not just because she was a woman (Garrard, 395-398).
And yet she was aware of her status as a woman. In 1649, she wrote “A woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen… But I hope to God that after seeing [the painting], you will agree that [my price) was not totally out of line” (Garrard, 390).
In the same year and on another occasion she says “You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman” (Garrard, 397). She doesn’t sound particularly tired to me. And her contemporaries did not think so either. The modern world prefers her earlier work: the dramatic women holding a bloody sword. But her contemporaries gave her much more critical acclaim for her later work: softer, graceful, and idealized (Locker, 12).
But the end comes to us all. Artemisia’s end came in 1656 when she was 64 years old. We know not because of any great public mourning or a tombstone but because of one satiric verse published mocking her for being an immoral woman who also happened to paint.
Since we have absolutely no record of a Naples love affair of any kind, you have to wonder if the author was still banging on about that Roman rape trial decades earlier? Or is there something we don’t know? Or if the idea of a single woman supporting herself in a man’s world was suspect enough? Art historians have bemoaned this as yet another character assassination. More recently, one of them panned out to see the entire book in which those verses appear. The guy talks about all women that way. All of them. It says more about him than it does about her.
What we do know is that Artemisia successfully provided for herself and her daughter with nothing to rely on but her wits and her skill and her paints. She created some of the greatest masterpieces of her time and some would say that she was the first in all of art history to portray women as realistic protagonists in their own story. Hundreds of years later, new Artemisia paintings continue to crop up. Recent interest in her has meant that more and more keep getting trotted out so that art historians can argue over attribution. Her works are now displayed in the finest art galleries across Europe and North America, which means there may well be a genuine Artemisia Gentileschi near you. You should take a look, if you can.
Bissell, R Ward. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné. University Park, Pa., Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Christiansen, Keith. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. New York, Metropolitan Museum Of Art ; New Haven ; London, 2001.
Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Locker, Jesse. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2021.
I saw the photos on your blog after I listened to this episode– I don’t usually like this type/period of art, but I LOVE these.
I love that none of these women are skinny. They all have healthy bodies. And I’m intrigued. Thanks for teaching such a cool subject, friend.
I’m so glad I made a convert! Yes, I noticed the lack of stick-thin beauties too. Artemisia was great.