Italia • 1593−1653

Biography and information

Artemisia Gentileschi (it. Artemisia Gentileschi, Artemisia Lomi, July 8, 1593, Rome — June 14, 1653, Naples) was an Italian artist of the Baroque era, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, the first woman elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.

Peculiar features of Artemisia Gentileschi's art. The pictorial manner of Artemisia was influenced not so much by her father Orazio Gentileschi, but by the all-encompassing influence of Caravaggio, manifested both stylistically and thematically. Her painting combines vivid dramatic effects, expressive light, shade contrasts, and rich palette. Due to her personal circumstances (Artemisia experienced a shameful trial related to sexual violence), the main theme of Gentileschi’s work is the female ability to defend her own dignity. The famous Italian art critic of the twentieth century, Roberto Longhi, called her “the only Italian woman who knew anything about painting”. Longhi claimed that of the 57 famous paintings by Gentileschi, at least 49 depict women similar or even equal to men.

Famous paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi: "Judith Beheading Holofernes", "Susanna and the Elders", "Self-portrait or Allegory of Painting", "Lucretia","Cleopatra"

Why did the 17th century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi become an icon of contemporary feminists? What norms of female behaviour, prevailing in the late Renaissance, did she violate? How did Artemisia manage to become the first woman admitted to the Florentine Academy of Arts? And why is there so much violence in her paintings? Her real biography is more dramatic than any novel.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born into the family of the famous 30-year-old Roman artist Orazio Gentileschi and his 18-year-old wife Prudentia. They also had sons: two of them died in infancy, two others grew up and tried to paint, but they were far from Artemisia’s giftedness. The girl turned 12 when her mother died without having another birth. Orazio soon found another wife, and began to teach Artemisia the basics of the artist’s skill: there was little hope for the sons, but the daughter was distinguished by irrepressible hard work and a firm hand beyond her years, her drawing was simply excellent in accuracy.

Obviously, Orazio could not teach Artemisia everything, even what he himself knew. Opportunities for women were limited in those days: they had almost no access to studio practice, and the Church categorically forbade them to portray naked male bodies — it could be a quite serious reason to end up in prison. Orazio could not give his daughter sufficient knowledge for a very simple reason. It never crossed his mind to prepare Artemisia for an independent artist’s career, he just raised himself an assistant to work on large commissions.

Orazio knew Caravaggio Caravaggio. And he well understood how important it was to adhere to fashion in order to receive commissions. But the most he could teach Artemisia was the caravaggesque chiaroscuro. The rough realism of Caravaggio was already too much: Orazio Gentileschi gravitated towards images that were more idyllic and relaxed. However, young Artemisia, this bunch of mind and energy, understood that she needed more. For example, she needed knowledge about the laws of space depiction, about perspective. And she needed someone who could teach her all this.

She found such a person. The Florentine artist Agostino Tassi who had “connections” with Scipione Borghese and even Pope Paul V, came to work in Rome. The “eternal city” was going through one of its growth periods, the papacy attracted gigantic funds for the construction of new palaces and church complexes. Orazio Gentileschi understood that he himself would never have received such lucrative commissions, so he quickly got along with Tassi and agreed to work with him on the paintings of the Rospigliosi Palace “on the sidelines”.

What followed afterwards is widely known, albeit misinterpreted. The beautiful and talented Artemisia became a student of Tassi, who raped her. There was a trial. The trial lasted seven months. Artemisia was subjected to humiliation such as a gynaecological examination and even physical torture: the justice of the time accepted the testimony given under torture as an indisputable truth. Many feminists who defend the equality of women are sure that it was Artemisia who won the court by punishing the rapist (Agostino was sentenced to a year in prison, he never saw Artemisia again).

But in fact, this story is far from unambiguous. Yes, Artemisia Gentileschi was abused. But then she shared her bed with her rapist for a whole year and admitted in court that she felt sympathy for him. And, of course, Artemisia could not initiate the trial: firstly, she did not have such rights, and secondly, it was her interest to hide her shame and, believing Tassi’s promises, she continued to hope that he would marry her.
It was her father, Orazio Gentileschi, who filed the lawsuit. In those days, the rape of a virgin was considered as an abuse of the family’s honour. All Romans gossiped about the relationship between Artemisia and Agostino. It was the shame of the entire Gentileschi family — with such advertisement, Orazio simply could not have continued his successful career. But, according to the Italian laws of the 17th century, everything could be corrected by forcing the rapist to marry his victim. During the long and dirty proceedings, it turned out that Tassi, firstly, was already married, and secondly, he was repeatedly accused of rape, so he could not become the husband of Artemisia Gentileschi, even if he was eager to.

For Artemisia, it was a double betrayal: firstly, her father put his career above her happiness. Secondly, Tassi not only forced her into cohabitation, but also vilely fooled her. In 1612, in the intervals between court sessions, she painted her iconic Judith Beheading Holofernes. It was an imitation of the eponymous painting by Caravaggio, but it was executed with much greater expression and almost with great skill. Judith cut off the head like a chunk of a loaf of bread — Gentileschi painted her from herself. Whereas Holofernes was painted from her lover Agostino Tassi.

Artemisia would repeat this subject many times (1, 2) trying to get rid of her painful experience. Violence against a woman would become the theme of her other paintings (Susanna and the Elders — 1, 2). 1, 2). And the inevitable continuation of this theme was reciprocal violence —bloody and terrible female revenge (Jael and Sisera).

Just a month after the end of the trial, Artemisia married a man named Pierantoni Stiattesi — some call him an artist, others an assistant lawyer in court. The fact is that Artemisia broke up with her family and immediately left for Florence to start her life from scratch together with her husband.

Florence was a centre of arts and sciences: even Rome seemed a province if compared to Florence. Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the smartest women of her time, understood that there she could learn a lot and achieve a lot. By 1617, she already had a fairly strong position: she was patronized by the omnipotent Cosimo Medici, she made friends with the most influential Christina of Lorraine, took part in social life, made friends and corresponded with Galileo and, of course, worked. She worked a lot.

It was almost impossible for women artists to make their name in the 17th century. They were treated with prejudice. Suffice it to say that Artemisia had no right not only to sign work contracts on her own, but even to buy paints. All this was done for her by her husband, who became her manager. Women also did not receive large commissions for painting socially significant objects: they had to be content with private offers, paint portraits and still lifes.

However, Artemisia was initially aware of herself as a historical painter. Her talent has never been a female chamber one. It was truly epic, powerful and confident. Such a strong person as Artemisia Gentileschi certainly suffered from the restrictions imposed by her gender. It was both creative and financial constraint. She was entitled to claim more. And she won: when Artemisia officially became a member of the Florentine Academy of Painting, she was legally equal in rights with men.

Her life was very busy. Artemisia was interested in literature, science, theatre. Apparently, she played music — in one of the self-portraits she is depicted with a lute. Gentileschi painted day and night, besides, she was constantly pregnant: soon she and her husband already had four children. But debts were also growing. Private commissions were all the same all the time, but that was exhausting and did not bring satisfaction and sufficient funds.

In 1619, the patron of Artemisia, Cosimo Medici, died. Over the next few years, she lost two children and realized that she no longer saw the point in staying in Florence. Artemisia Gentileschi returned to Rome. Her father and brothers received her coldly. But that did not matter much anymore. Artemisia did not return as a disgraced fugitive. She returned as a celebrated artist. And Rome put glory at her feet. She was recognized, and they reckoned with her. She had a rich and beautiful home. She won!

The marriage of Artemisia soon cracked: her husband could no longer remain in her shadow. Artemisia was too busy to devote time to him, and he began to seek solace on the side. They parted quite amicably. Thus Artemisia Gentileschi was able to afford something that none of the women before her could — count on public recognition while being not married, earn her living by her own labour.

Her clients were European princes and princes, King Louis XIII and Queen Maria Medici, the Duke of Bavaria promised to shower her with gold if Artemisia came to Munich, and the English king Charles I called her to London.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted mostly women. Her own body often served as their nature. They were always very strong and dominant women who controlled their own destiny. Such as Cleopatra (1, 2), or a the Roman heroine Lucretia. Or Artemesia herself.

In 1629, 36-year-old Artemisia abruptly changed her life again. As soon as something ceased to satisfy her, she decided to change that with enviable courage. This time she travelled to Naples with its most dynamic art market. Naples at that time was a Spanish colony, and the Spanish king was the greatest collector in Europe. His Neapolitan governors bought up everything more or less valuable. Artemisia came to the city like a star, like a maître. She founded her own art school here, not afraid of the wild Neapolitan mores. The artists of Naples did not recognize fair competition: they could poison their rival or add acid to paints. Artemisia even turned to the nuncio for permission so that her servant could always carry a weapon. In fact, she was the first female artist to have a bodyguard.

In Naples, Artemisia married out her eldest daughter. But her youngest daughter was also growing up, while her father was unknown. It was clear that the girl was illegitimate. In the 17th century, it was customary to give such children to an orphanage, but Artemisia Gentileschi brought her up herself, once again throwing down a challenge to society and with any fear of condemnation.

The society paid her by stubbornly refusing to admit that Artemisia Gentileschi was no less a great artist than her male contemporaries. She still had little finances, and she dreamt of saving a sufficient dowry for her youngest girl. Tired of struggling with circumstances, Artemisia accepted a job offer in Britain.

There, at the court of Charles I, she met her father many years later. Orazio Gentileschi, who moved to London, was commissioned to paint the ceiling in the palace of Queen Henrietta Maria in Greenwich. But he was too decrepit to cope with such a colossal amount of work, and his daughter, having forgotten past grievances, came to his aid. Their works, where the share of Artemisia’s participation was incomparably greater, are signed “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi”. And this is not only the the sign of the daughter’s gratitude, but also the evidence of her ability to forgive — something that only strong personalities are capable of.

After two years, her father died suddenly, and Artemisia returned to Naples. Her last decade has been full of hardship and relentless work. Artemisia did not have the recognition she deserved, therefore we even do not know the date and cause of her death. It is assumed that she died during a plague epidemic in 1653, but this data are inaccurate. Her real fame came to her in the twentieth century. Now the name of Artemisia Gentileschi is used to name feminist organizations and women’s hotels, they write novels and make films about her. Artemisia inspires women not only with her creativity, but also with her very life.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya