Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593 - 1653) was an early Baroque Italian painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation influenced by Caravaggio. When women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community, she was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Designo in Florence. She was also one of the first female artists to paint historical and religious paintings, often including mythic-heroic women, at a time when such themes were considered beyond a woman's reach. Her depiction of traditional stories of rape and vengeance marked a new trend in the history of art. Her own life experience is suggested as a source for the dynamic images she painted.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, on July 8, 1593, the first child of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, one of the primary representatives of the school of Caravaggio. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her.
Her style, like that of her father, took inspiration from the chiaroscuro style of Caravaggio during that period. However, her approach to subject matter was different from her father's. While he favored the elegant style of classical painting in France, she embraced the Baroque idioms of drama and expressiveness.
The first reported work of the 18 year old Artemisia was Susanna and the Elders, 1610. The picture shows how Artemisia assimilated the realism of Caravaggio and included the language of the Bologna school. Some critics feel that this earliest painting, with its unique approach to this biblical theme, suggests a subtle protest against the sexual exploitation of women. She also painted The Lute Player (with a female subject) in 1610. It was at this time that she also learned to write.
In 1612, despite her obvious talent, Artemisia was denied access to the all-male professional academies for art. At the time, her father was working with the Tuscan painter Agostino Tassi to decorate the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome. To compensate for his daughter's exclusion from these academies, Orazio hired Tassi to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Artemisia. Tassi initially promised to marry Artemisia in order to restore her reputation, but he later reneged on his promise and Orazio reported Tassi to the authorities.
In the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, whom he had also raped and then married, that he had committed incest with his sister-in-law, and that he was also planning to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. Supposedly to ensure she was telling the truth, Artemisia was required to have a gynecological examination and was tortured using a device made of thongs wrapped around the fingers and tightened by degrees. This was a particularly cruel torture to a painter. At the end of the trial, Tassi was imprisoned for one year.
The painting, Judith beheading Holofernes (1612-1613), is impressive in its graphically portrayed violence, and has been interpreted as a wish for psychological revenge for the violence Artemisia had suffered due to her rape and torture during the humiliating public trial.
One month after the trial, in order to restore her honor, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a artist of modest means from Florence. Shortly after this, the couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti and became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and later Charles Iof England. During this period Artemisia probably also painted the The Virgin and Child.
While in Florence, Artemisia and Pierantonio had four sons and one daughter. Only the daughter, Prudenzia, survived to adulthood.
In Florence, Artemisia enjoyed huge success. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design) in 1616, where then she and her husband both worked. This was a remarkable honor for a woman at that time. She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her day, and was able to win the protection of influential people, starting with Granduke Cosimo II de' Medici and especially the Granduchess Cristina. She had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei, with whom she exchanged letters for a long time and was particularly esteemed by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, nephew of the great Michelangelo.
Busy with construction of Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative, the younger Buonarroti asked Artemisia to produce a painting to decorate the ceiling of the building's art gallery. The painting depicts an Allegory of the Inclination, often supposed to be an angel, presented as a young nude woman who holds a compass. It is believed that the subject bears a resemblance to Artemisia. Indeed, in several of her paintings, Artemisia's energetic heroines have a similar appearance to her self-portraits.
Other notable works from this period include The Conversion of the Magdalene and Judith and her Maidservant. Artemisia also painted a second version of Judith Beheading Holofernes, this one larger than the earlier version.
Despite her success, she struggled due to an excess of expenses by both herself and her husband. Thus, the Florentine period was full of problems with creditors and in her marriage. Records show that Michaelangelo the younger paid her three times that of others for the panel in the series, perhaps due to her financial problems or due to her advanced pregnancy. He also loaned her small amounts of money from time to time. Her fame, gender, and financial affairs fueled many rumors about her private life during this time. These problems led to her return to Rome, in 1621, without her husband.
Artemisia arrived in Rome the same year her father Orazio departed for Genoa at the invitation of a Genovese nobleman. She painted her first Lucretia in 1621, and her first Cleopatra, 1621-22.
In addition to Prudenzia (born from the marriage with Pierantonio Stiattesi), she had another natural daughter, Francesca, probably born in 1627. Artemisia tried, with almost no success, to teach them the art of painting.
In the same period she became friends with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist, collector, and lover of arts. However, despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality and her numerous good relationships, Rome was not as lucrative as she hoped. Patrons appreciated only a narrow range of her art: Portraits and biblical heroines. She received none of the lucrative commissions for altarpieces. Between 1627 and as late as 1630, she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions. The French painter, Pierre Dumoustier le Neveu made a drawing of her hand holding a paintbrush, dedicating it to "the excellent and wise noble woman of Rome, Artemisis." A commemorative medal bearing her portrait was presented to her. During this time Jerome David painted her portrait as well.
During these years she also painted Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Portrait of Gonfaloniere (a rare example of her capacity as portrait painter), and another Judith and her Maidservant, today housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit painting is notable for her mastery of chiaroscuro and tenebrism (the effect of extreme lights and darks). Her The Sleeping Venus, today at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, and Esther and Ahasuerus, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are testimony of her assimilation of the lessons of Venetian luminism.
In 1630, Artemisia moved to Naples, a city rich with workshops and art lovers. Many other artists, including Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and Simon Vouet had stayed in Naples; and at that time, Jusepe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione, and Domenichino were working there. The Neapolitan debut of Artemisia is represented by the Annunciation, today in the Capodimonte Museum. She remained in Naples for the remainder of her career with the exception of brief trips to London and other cities.
Naples was for Artemisia a second homeland where she took care of her family (both her daughters were married in Naples). She received letters of appreciation, being in good relations with the viceroy, the Duke of Alcalá (rumored to be the father of her second daughter, Francesca) and started relations with many renowned artists, among them Massimo Stanzione, with whom she started a professional collaboration.
In Naples, Artemisia started working for the first time on paintings in a cathedral. She painted Birth of Saint John the Baptist (1635) and Corisca and the Satyr. In these paintings, she departed from her usual subjects and demonstrated an ability to renew herself with the innovations of the period.
In 1638, she joined her father in London, at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio had received the important job of decorating a ceiling in the house of Queen Henrietta Maria of France in Greenwich with an allegory of Triumph of the Peace and the Arts. Father and daughter were once again working together, although helping her father was probably not her only reason for traveling to London. King Charles I had called her to his court, and it was not possible to refuse. The King was a fanatical collector, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included the painting: Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Orazio suddenly died in 1639. It is known that Artemisia had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting.
She returned to Naples and was active painting five variations of Bathsheba, and perhaps another Judith. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Her last known letter is dated 1650 and makes clear that she was still fully active. Artemisia was once thought to have died in 1653. Recent evidence, however, has shown that she was still accepting commissions in 1654, although increasingly dependent on her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo. It has been speculated that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656, which virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
Italian critic Roberto Longhi in 1916, described Artemisia as "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals." Longhi also wrote of Judith Slaying Holofernes:
A woman painted all this?… there's nothing sadistic here, instead what strikes the most is the impassibility of the painter, who was even able to notice how the blood, spurting with violence, can decorate with two drops the central spurt! Incredible I tell you!
Feminist studies have increased interest in Artemisia's artistic work and life. Such studies underlined her suffering of rape and subsequent mistreatment, as well as the expressive strength of her paintings of biblical heroines, in which the women are interpreted as willing to manifest a rebellious strength against their condition.
Due to the fact that Artemisia returned again and again to violent subject matter, such as Judith and Holofernes, a repressed-vengeance theory is tempting. However, some art historians suggest that she was shrewdly playing on her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market in a sexually-charged, female-dominant art for male patrons.
The most recent critic, Judith Mann, starting from the difficult reconstruction of the entire catalog of Artemisia's art, tried to give a less reductive reading of the career of Artemisia, placing it more accurately in the context of the artistic environments in which the painter actively participated. This reading restores Artemisia primarily as an artist rather than a symbol of feminism per se. She indeed fought with determination against the prejudices against women painters and able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, and embracing a varied array pictorial genres.
Although there were other female painters in the Baroque period, there is something in the art and the biography of Artemisia Gentileschi that makes her especially fascinating, which explains the continued interest in her life and work. She was the first female to paint images of strong and struggling women. Her early rejection by the art schools and her rape have been examined by many as a resource for her passionate and vivid portrayals of women.
The first writer to produced a novel about the figure of Artemisia was Anna Banti, wife of art critic Roberto Longhi. She started the book in 1947, to be called Artemisia. It is written in an "open diary" form, in which she maintains a dialog with Artemisia, trying to understand why she finds her so fascinating.
Artemisia, and more specifically her painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, are referred to in Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 play, The Heidi Chronicles, where the main character lectures about the painting as part of her art history course on female painters.
Canadian playwright Sally Clark wrote several stage plays based on the events leading up to and following the rape of Artemisia. Her Life Without Instruction was commissioned by Nightwood Theatre in 1988, and premiered at Theatre Plus Toronto on August 2, 1991.
The 1997 film, Artemisia, directed by Agnès Merlet and starring Valentina Cervi, was loosely based on this painter's life, but portrayed the relationship between Tassi and Artemisia as a passionate affair rather than as rape.
The Passion of Artemisia, an historical novel translated into 20 languages, was published in Italy by Susan Vreeland; it positions itself in the wave of the popularity of the feminist account of Artemisia Gentileschi.
In 1999, the French writer Alexandra Lapierre became fascinated by Artemisia and wrote a novel about her, derived from scrupulous study of the painter and the historical context of her work. The novel seeks to understand the relation between Artemisia the woman and Artemisia the painter, and ends with the relationship with her father, composed of both love insufficiently expressed, and a latent professional rivalry.
All links retrieved November 23, 2016.
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