Today I want to tell you about a famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. But before I start, I wanted to warn you that my research today has involved reading through the details of a seventeenth century rape trial, which I will be mentioning. If it’s a subject you find distressing, and frankly, why wouldn’t you? Maybe give this one a miss.
July 8th is the birthday of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in 1593, in Rome. Her father, Orazio, was a painter, her mother, Prudentia, died when she was twelve. She showed much more artistic talent than any of her younger brothers and her father taught her drawing, how to prepare colours and how to paint. Orazio was much influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was his contemporary and both his work and that of Artemisia share his dramatic use of light and dark.
It couldn’t have been particularly easy for a young girl to make her way in a profession dominated by men. Her first signed painting, here on the left, is dated 1610, when she was only seventeen. It depicts the story of Susannah and the Elders. Susannah was a young married woman who was bathing alone in her garden. Two old and lecherous men were spying on her. As she returned to the house, they accosted her and said that they would tell everyone that she had been planning to meet a young man there, unless she promised to have sex with them. She refused, was arrested and was about to be put to death when Daniel, of Lion’s Den fame, came along and saved her. He questioned the two men separately and their stories did not match, so they were proved to be liars. It has been a popular subject in classical art, but Artemisia’s painting is one of the few that shows it as a traumatic event. Artemisia knew what it was like to be at the mercy of an older man.
In 1611, her father was working with another painter called Argostino Tassi. During that time, he employed Tassi to teach Artemisia about perspective. Tassi forced his attentions on Artemisia and he raped her. There’s no need to dwell too much on the details but she put up a fight. She scratched him, she threw a knife at him, but he was too strong for her. Tassi was fifteen years older than her. He promised Artemisia that they would be married and continued to visit her for the next nine months. Then, it turned out that he wasn’t going to marry her at all. Her father Orazio, accused Tassi of rape, and also of stealing a painting. In 1612, there was a huge and very public trial which lasted for seven months. Tassi at first claimed that he had never touched Artemisia, or even been alone with her. Then he changed his mind and said that he had visited her only to protect her honour. He produced witnesses who swore that the Gentileschi household was practically a brothel, slandered her dead mother and claimed her father had committed incest with her and then sold her for a loaf of bread. They were blatant lies and some of the witnesses were afterwards prosecuted for it. During the trial it transpired that Tassi had been aided by another man called Cosimo Quorlis, who had previously been rejected by Artemisia, and that a woman called Tuzia, who she had previously trusted, had allowed Tassi into the house through her apartment. It was also revealed that Tassi was married, had previously raped his sister-in-law and that his wife was missing and presumed murdered by him. Up until half way through the trial, Artemisia did not even know that he was married. Artemisia was subjected to a gynaecological examination and she was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison. He was forgiven and released after only eight months.
A month after the trial, Artemisia was married off to a friend of the family and moved to Florence. Either during or just after the trial she painted this picture of Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia herself is the model for Judith. It’s a very powerful painting by, I can’t help feeling, a very angry woman.
Again, the subject of Judith and Holofernes was a popular one. I mentioned it back in January when I wrote about Elisabetta Sirani. Most artists had previously shied away from depicting the beheading part of the story, choosing to show instead, Judith and her maidservant carrying the head away. Probably the closest earlier example is this one by Caravaggio, painted around 1598. Caravaggio’s Judith is filled with revulsion as she slices through the neck of Holofernes and her maidservant stands aside holding a bag. Artemisia’s Judith is very focused, devoid of emotion and her maidservant is helping to hold him down. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that her Holofernes was based on the likeness of Tassi.
Artemisia got on pretty well in Florence. She painted for the Medicis and for Michaelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, who was building a museum in honour of his famous great uncle. There she painted a second, larger and even more bloody version of Judith beheading Holofernes with an even bigger sword. There is another of Judith and her maidservant escaping with the head in a basket. Not all her paintings deal with such violent subjects, on the left is a painting from Casa Buonarroti. But around ninety percent of those that survive show a female protagonist, or one who is at least the equal of men. It’s not surprising that most of her paintings feature women. As a female artist, she would not have been allowed access to male models. Whilst in Florence, she also became friends with the astronomer Galileo Galilei and became the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Arts and Drawing. Her new husband did not fair so well. He got them into a horrible amount of debt and, in 1621, she left him and returned to Rome. After Rome, she moved to Venice, then to Naples, where her daughter was married in 1634. In 1638, she went to England, at the request of King Charles I, where her father was already working. She collaborated with him on a large commission at the Queen’s House at Greenwich.
It was probably at the court of Charles I that she painted the self portrait at the top of this post. She has painted herself as an allegory of painting. Abstract concepts like painting were often represented as female figures and, as a female artist, Artemisia was in the unusual position of being able to put herself in the picture. Her father died in England in 1639 and we don’t know much about what happened to her after that. She went to Naples and may have died during a plague there in 1656. What we do know is that the terrible rape case in her early life, and possibly deserting her husband, left her with a tarnished reputation. Artemisia Gentileschi worked as an artist her whole life, overcoming not only the difficulty of being a female in a male dominated profession, but also her reputation as a fallen woman. It seems as though her early experience with Tassi coloured the rest of her life. There is certainly a lot of power and a lot of rage in many of her paintings. I like to think that she might have turned this to her advantage and found herself a rather niche client base who really enjoyed paintings of powerful women.