Updated: Oct 7, 2020
by Ella Hackett
Choosing which woman artist to write about for this article was tough. I was torn between highlighting a lesser known artist, Lavinia Fontana - a Bolognese Renaissance painter who revelled in an artistic career, despite being a woman - or even skipping a few centuries, taking our attention to the Parisian suburbs where we come to find the personal painter of Marie Antoinette, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Instead, and perhaps rather predictably, I resisted the urge to visit both artists in order to discuss one of the most prolific, renowned and wholly triumphant artists: Artemisia Gentileschi.
Gentileschi was born in a sweltering midst of summer Roman heat, on the 8th July, 1593. Her mother, Prudenzia Montone, died when Artemisia was just twelve years old, leaving her in the care of her father, popular Pisan-born painter, Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia Gentileschi’s father was anything but a supportive, nurturing parental figure. Historian, Elizabeth Cropper, shines an unapologetic spotlight on Orazio, exposing his questionable fatherly morality, telling us that ‘her father didn’t want her to marry, he made her pose in the nude and liked for people to look at her.’ Under the twisted and perverted keep of her father, despite her success and fame, Artemisia was subject to heinous abuse most of her life. It’s known that almost every nude woman painted by Orazio throughout his career, uncannily resembled his daughter Artemisia. Naturally, we would assume that being the daughter of a painter, life would be beneficial and fruitful. In Artemisia’s case, this is true to a certain extent, but the young woman was hardly a child of nepotism. Her painterly father taught her many valuable practical and stylistic skills, which are indisputably helpful for any blossoming artist, but as we come to find out, the Gentileschi sword is a sharp double-edged one.
Not only did Artemisia’s father subject her to damaging sexual perversion from a young age, the young artist’s personal work was so reminiscent of her father’s to the point where her own paintings would, more often than not, be accredited to him. Artemisia’s first painting, Susanna and the Elders, 1610, was only ascribed to the young seventeen-year-old because of her signature in the right hand corner of the picture frame. Without this minor detail, the piece would most definitely been passed off as the work of her greedy father Orazio. And still, to this day, there are scholars that side with argument of believing that the piece was painted by her father. Susanna and the Elders is a self-portrait. Artemisia - young, exposed, and repulsed - is Susanna, shying away
from the peering and deviant men that she knows as her fathers colleagues and friends. In the story of Susanna and the Elders, Susanna is blackmailed by two elderly men who demand she must sleep with them, or else they will spread tales like wildfire, proclaiming that she is engaging in an affair with a young man. Goodness prevails, however, and the two men are caught in their lies and are both sentenced to death.
Ha! Susanna and the Elder is seminal - fascinating even. If we truly do see Artemisia in Susanna - the characteristics of Susanna were in fact very reminiscent of Artemisia, and it was certain that the only nude model the artist had access to at Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi the time was herself - Susanna and the Elders is then the first fully-nude self-portrait by a female artist, of the female artist. When we take into consideration the story of Artemisia and her exploitation, this painting becomes politically, emotionally and psychologically charged. The skill Artemisia had was sensational, fact. But the intelligence, poise and intricate realism we see in this first painting is the reason her legacy has been carried from century to century. It could also be said that Artemisia roused tempestuous whirlpools of envy in not only her father, but other male artists. As a young woman she was already capable of creating work that was authentic, intense, and arcane. Her paintings were known and sought after to the point where if an art collection had the work of Artemisia Gentileschi within in it, the value of the whole collection would significantly rise. Yet, woefully, like with much remarkable talent and other-worldly skill of the period and other, success, as we know, often is hidden in the shadows of jealously and, therefore, disaster.
Artemisia’s skill did not protect her from the cruel, androcentric Renaissance society, if anything, it exacerbated it. The year Susanna and the Elders was painted, at just seventeen-yearsold, Artemisia was raped and abused by her father’s close friends; her own personal tutors, Agostino Tassi and Cosimo Quarli. Susanna and the Elders promptly appears even more astonishing: a painting that foreshadowed the reality of life. During the 16th-century, deflowering of a woman meant her “value” decreased, she was no longer considered pure nor attractive to other men. During the Renaissance period, women could not report a rape, and it was their father who was to do so, but the reasoning behind Orazio’s whistleblowing is far more sinister than one would like to imagine. Around the time of the rape, the painting, Judith, by Artemisia, was sent to the household of Tassi: the reasoning behind this is ambiguous, was it blackmail, or a gift? The painting was reminiscent of Artemisia’s later painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612-13. The painting is brutal, bloody and merciless. It tells the tale of Judith slaying Holofernes, an Arryian troublemaker set out to destroy the city in which Judith lived. Judith blasts us with female strength and power; but this narrative, depicted with not a smidgen of censor, was dangerous for its maker. Perhaps Artemisia sent the painting as a warning? Or sheer defiance? Much like Susanna and the Elders, this painting is indisputably another self-portrait. The uncomfortable Susanna has morphed into the wrathful Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612-13, Artemisia Gentileschi Judith. It’d be hard to not see the furious Artemisia in Judith, and the deceitful Tassi as the helpless Holofernes. It’s uncertain how Orazio heard of the rape, but when he was aware of his loss of a profitable painting, Judith, he demanded Tassi to marry his daughter, as no one else would want her now her purity had been spoiled. To heighten the likely hood of the two being wed, Artemisia, under the pressure of her father, continued to engage in sexual activity with her rapist. Unsurprisingly, Tassi was dishonourable, and refused to marry Artemisia. The artist claimed he had in fact raped the young woman, but he was by no means the first, and therefore, he had done no wrong. Furious at his “damaged property” Orazio charged Tassi for rape and a court hearing came on 18th March, 1612, lasting seven gruelling months. Artemisia was publicly exposed and humiliated - she underwent a pelvic examination in front of a judge before she had even hit the age of eighteen and even more frustratingly, Tassi had been previously accused of raping both his sister-in-law and one of his wives - this same wife also went “missing” and whispers echoed in the streets of Rome that either Tassi had killed her, or hired bandits to do so. Astonishingly, Orazio orchestrated the rape trial, knowing how destructive it would be for Artemisia, her reputation as a woman, and artist. But Orazio was concerned with his losses, not his daughter’s. Once the trial came to a close, Tassi was charged and banished from Rome for a measly year, but he continued to paint regardless, his life unscathed by the horrific events. Artemisia was forced to flee to Florence, with everything but her paint, skill, and determination destroyed.
Flourishing in Florence, Artemisia became the first female artist to be accepted into the Academia Delle Arti del Disengo in 1615, before eventually returning to Rome years later. Her successes, now and then, are so widely celebrated and memorialised that, at times, it’s often possible for us forget the artist was a victim of rape and sexual abuse. The strength, dedication and and determination Artemisia presents all-throughout her life is phenomenal. Being a woman was never going to stop Artemisia achieving her artistic goals. The young artist, no doubt, has transformed into a contemporary feminist icon fit for the 21st century. Because of Artemisia Gentileschi, we, as women, can learn that success and achievement is possible no matter what the circumstances. Without Artemisia, perhaps women artists would have had to stay secondary to men, struggling far longer than they deserved to.