Artemisia Gentileschi holds a unique place in art history as a successful female Baroque artist. Yet, despite scholars ranking her as Caravaggio’s equal, she, like many significant female figures throughout history, has been overshadowed by male counterparts, who receive higher international recognition and acclaim. In an attempt to readdress the balance and in celebration of International Women’s Day, we take a closer look at the Italian painter through eight of her most crucial paintings.
As the daughter of the celebrated Tuscan painter, Orazio Lomi Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1653) cut her teeth as an artist in her father’s workshop. But this doesn’t mean her experience as a 17th-century woman was an easy one. Her mother died when she was 12 and as a young, unmarried woman, she would have been unable to leave the confines of the home and would only have only been minimally educated, unlike her brothers. So assisting in her father’s studio no doubt provided welcome comfort and distraction from her normal mundane routine. And she showed exceptional artistic skill, also unlike her brothers.
Unfortunately, her trials as a woman in a man’s world were further tested when she was raped in 1611 by the painting tutor her father had employed to mentor her. During the lengthy court case in Rome, Artemisia was subjected to horrendous acts of torture and gynaecological examination to determine her innocence. It could be said it was these hideous events that were the making of Artemisia, as after the trial her father married her off to a Florentine painter and the couple moved to Florence, where she would become the first woman to go to Accademia delle Arte del Disegno. She subsequently enjoyed a successful career as a painter, with notable patrons including the House of Medici and Charles I.
For a woman who overcame so many obstacles, it comes as no surprise Artemisia chose to depict the oppression of woman from myths and the Bible, and to present female protagonists as strong and wilful and not the possession of man. She really championed the right and importance of a female voice within art and became a symbol of the women’s movement of the 1970s. She’s subsequently become the subject of fictional novels and films, while American artist Judy Chicago pays homage to the painter in her iconic installation The Dinner Party (1974–1979) (now on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum). Here are just a few of her works everyone should know about.
Susanna and the Elders (1610) at the Schloss Weissenstein Collection
Artemisia’s father was exceptionally proud of his daughter’s first painting, completed when she was only 17. The biblical subject of Susanna being propositioned by two older men, who will accuse her of adultery unless she has sex with them, has been tackled by many male artists, including Tintoretto and Rubens (before Artemisia) and later Rembrandt. Although Artemisia would not have been able to attend a life drawing class, she demonstrates an understanding of the female anatomy and even a proficiency for compelling composition, unlike her father whose deftness was more in rendering fabrics than figures.
Interesting fact: It can be argued Artemisia not only chose this subject for her first painting so as to challenge her male peers in their ability of depicting the female nude, but that she also identified with her heroine and was able as a woman to empathetically represent the distress of such a situation – one she unfortunately encountered about a year later.
You can see this work in the Schloss Weissenstein Collection in Pommersfelden.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638–1639) at the Royal Collection
Possibly made during Artemisia’s time in England, this is one of only a few of her self-portraits that exist. Originally in the collection of Charles I, the painting was returned to the Royal Collection after the restoration in 1660 and remains there today. Demonstrating her adeptness at complicated composition and foreshortening, Artemisia boldly portrays herself as the personification of painting, a controversial yet empowering stance to have taken at the time when women were normally depicted as objects.
Esther before Ahasuerus (1628–1635) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Here, the Jewish heroine Esther faints in the presence of the Persian king, Ahasuerus, after she’s pleaded with him to save her people from his decree to massacre all Jews in Persia. Risking death, as you weren’t allowed to be in the presence of the king without being summoned, Esther, just as Artemisia, shows defiance of customary protocol. The painting’s composition has been likened to that of Venetian painter Veronese’s version (housed in the Louvre) – Artemisia would have been aware of Veronese’s work during her sojourn in Venice between 1626 and 1630.
Interesting fact: The painting originally had an African boy restraining a dog at the feet of the king, much like in Veronese’s painting. The faint outline of the figure is still visible. The reason Artemisia removed this pairing is unknown, but compositionally she focuses the viewer’s attention on the two key protagonists by its absence, making the painting’s activities far more intense.
You can see the work in Gallery 601 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1614–1620) at the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Without doubt Artemisia’s most famous and violently graphic painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612–1621) follows a common theme in early Renaissance art, often termed the ‘Power of Women’, in which female biblical subjects overpowered men, inverting the male hierarchy. Artemisia actually painted two version of the subject, one now in Naples, the other in Florence. Here, Artemisia also represents the importance of camaraderie between women as Judith’s maid helps her to kill the Assyrian general Holofernes.
You can see this work in Room 90 at the Uffizi in Florence.
Conversion of the Magdalene (1615–1616) at the Palazzo Pitti
Mary Magdalene was a subject adored by both artists and public alike as she represented repentant virtue. Artemisia painted a number of versions of Magdalene, one of which is in the permanent collection at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico. Here, Artemisia approaches the subject far less provocatively, shall we say, as Titian’s rendering of the saint. Instead, Artemisia presents her in elegant attire, composing her hands and feet so as to symbolise the renunciation of worldly sin.
Interesting fact: In many of Artemisia’s paintings she depicted her female protagonists wearing yellow dresses, which has become known as the ‘Gentileschi wardrobe’. The importance of this colour choice is not lost on a contemporary audience, who recognise that it symbolises purity, righteousness and a connection to the spiritual world.
Jael and Sisera (1620) at the Szépművészeti Museum
As with many of her paintings that drew on biblical subject matter, Artemisia portrays the moment from the Book of Judges when Jael kills the defeated Sisera. Unlike the gore of Judith Beheading Holofernes, this is a calm, controlled and calculated depiction of a woman’s power over man.
You can see this work at the Szépművészeti Museum, Budapest from autumn 2018, when the museum reopens after renovation.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1616–1617) at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Painted when she was 25 years old, Artemisia depicts herself playing the lute, a common compositional subject of the period, wearing a blue dress embellished with gold embroidery. This rare self-portrait is now part of the Baroque collection of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, but it started life over 400 years ago in Florence where it was probably commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici.
Interesting fact: Artemisia learnt to play the lute while she was enrolled at the Accademia delle Arti de Disegno in Florence.
You can see this work at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.
Venus and Cupid (1625–1630) at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Returning to the female nude some 15 years after her first successful painting, Artemisia represents the Goddess of Love in a reclining pose, lying on a bed of resplendent fabrics with an Italian landscape in the background and cupid fanning her with peacock feathers. The Baroque painter praises not only the philosophical beauty of femininity but also uses expensive pigments like ultramarine that was made from grinding down lapis lazuli, which was once more expensive than gold, so as to reflect the importance of positive female figures.
You can see this work in the Southern Baroque Gallery of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.