Italian Baroque painter, 1593-1652.

Even during the supposedly "enlightened" times of the Renaissance, artistic expression was seen overwhelmingly as a male ability. Although talented women of course existed, they had a very difficult time getting any formal training in the system of apprenticeships with established artists. Born to Prudentia and Orazio Gentileschi in Rome, Artemisia was able to receive training from her father, who was a talented painter. His circle of associates, including the famous Caravaggio, exposed Artemisia to the cutting-edge techniques and trends of the day. Her talent developed rapidly, and by the time she was 17, she had produced one of her most famous paintings, "Susanna and the Elders".

Unfortunately, not all of her tutors' influences were positive ones. In 1612, at the age of 19, she accused the artist Agostino Tassi of rape, and was subjected to a lengthy and arduous trial. The trial record has survived, and includes Artemisia's testimony that she wounded Tassi with a knife while defending herself, and one of Tassi's friends reporting that he had boasted about the crime in a tavern. Although Tassi was undoubtably guilty, he was acquitted (possibly due to his claims that his victim was an "insatiable whore"). During and after the trial, Artemisia painted the vivid and gory "Judith Slaying Holofernes", based on the Biblical story of the heroine who seduces and decapitates an enemy general. This work is seen by some modern interpreters as her psychological vengeance on Tassi, and indeed it is hard not to imagine its cathartic potential for its artist.

After the unsuccessful trial, Artemisia married the Florentine artist Pietro Stiattesi and moved to Florence, where both she and her husband were made members of the Academy of Design. This was highly unusual for a woman at the time and may have been due to the influence of her powerful Medici patron, Duke Cosimo II. Between 1621 and c.1626 she travelled to Genoa, Venice and Rome, producing many works and meeting contemporaries such as Anthony Van Dyck. During this period she permanently separated from her husband, and lived with her two daughters and several servants. Moving to Naples between 1626 and 1630, she produced several important works, including "Judith and her Maidservant" and "Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting".

In 1638 she travelled (along with her father, who had a royal commission to paint the Queen's house) to England, where she resided at the court of the art afficionado King Charles I. She returned to Naples in 1641 where she remained until her death.

Artemisia Gentileschi's work is undeniably distinct, both in subject choices and painting style. Her paintings often feature the dramatic contrast of light and shadow ("chiaroscuro") mastered by Caravaggio and used to convey depth and drama and center the viewer's attention of the action of the subject (owners of the undergraduate university text "History of Art" by Janson can compare her "Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes" with Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew"). Her technical grasp of drapery and the play of light on flesh and clothing, along with her lush use of colour and dynamic posing of figures, give her paintings the sense of epic drama and interrupted action that patrons of the day no doubt eagerly awaited. Her choice of subjects tended heavily towards famous women, including "Cleopatra", "The Penitent Mary Magdalen", "Lucretia", the aforementioned "Susanna and the Elders", and interestingly, numerous renderings of "Judith".

(Further reading: perhaps the most comprehensive scholarly work on Artemisia Gentileschi is the eponymously titled book by art historian Mary D. Garrard)


Further investigations have revealed that Gentileschi was rather of a feminist cause celebre during the 1970's, part of the fight against the overwhelming number of DWM's studied by academics. The theory that her "Judiths" are a sort of catharsis of her rape by Tassi varies in popularity, with some claiming it reduces her drive and talent to an expression of pathologized female sexuality. Maybe so, but if I were her, I'd have wanted to cut Tassi's head off too.

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