Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 and died in Naples in 1653. She was the first woman to produce large scale religious and historical paintings as well as the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia dell’ Arte del Disegno in Florence. There were other firsts as well. Artemisia was the first woman to earn her living from art, and the first woman to adopt Caravaggism. She was, significantly, one of the greatest Italian Baroque artists.
Artemisia learned painting in her father’s workshop, where she showed greater talent than her brothers. She learned to mix colour, how to draw and how to paint. Her father’s style took inspiration from Caravaggio and this style was also followed by Artemisia. She approached subjects boldly and her works are very naturalistic. While her father encouraged and supported her during an age when women were considered lacking intelligence, he was also jealous of her talent.
Unlike the genteel subject matter of domestic scenes and still life, which were common to the female painters of the time, Artemisia threw herself into large figure paintings of historical note from the very young age of seventeen years. She was fearless when it came to criticism and her departure from conventional subject matter and chose to paint in the Baroque style depicting historic stories capturing a moment on the subject’s faces as they struggled with decisions or faced drama and tension. Some of her work follows in the Caravaggio style of tenebroso using strong contrast of light and dark.
One advantage Artemisia had over male painters was that she was able to paint women using nude models. This practice was not allowed at the Accademia so her paintings of the nude Cleopatra and Susanna were rare; her heroic female models Lucretia and Judith expressed strong feminist views which decried the images of women as meek creatures. The strength of these images also questioned the necessity as was common at the time of suicide after suffering humiliation or rape. Her talent was such that she could adapt her style to suit changing tastes and regional requirements.
Artemisia had a life of teenage tragedy from which she emerged as an independent character although she never fully recovered emotionally. In 1612, Agostino Tassi, Artemisia’s father’s painting companion was brought to trial for Artemisia’s rape. A dubious character, Tassi had already been to prison for incest and arranging his wife’s murder. He was also believed to have raped his wife. The trial was humiliating for Artemisia as she was examined for virginity by midwives in front of the court.
After the trial she was forced into marriage with another painter Pietro Stiattesi and moved to Naples where she struggled to come to terms with marriage, motherhood and the rape trial. Her lifetime seemed to be spent fighting for respect as a woman. Her own emotions seem to come alive in the depiction of historic events and one of her famous works portrays Judith beheading Holofernes. Judith is depicted as a powerful adversary using her strength and emotion to behead her victim. No doubt Artemisia’s life experience surged through the brushes as the biblical heroine powerfully used her sword. By contrast Caravaggio’s depiction of Judith shows a less aggressive more passive Judith.
In 1638 Artemisia visited London in fact joining her father at the court of Charles I where he was the court painter. He painted an allegorical ceiling painting (Triumph of the Peace and the Arts) in the Casa delle Delizie of Queen Henrietta Maria of France at Greenwich. Artemisia worked with her father and her invitation to court could not be refused whether she wanted to be there or not. Charles I was an avid art collector and Artemisia’s work plus her being a woman are likely to be the reasons she was brought to the English court.
Artemisia knew Galileo and they were both connected to the Grand Ducal Court in Florence, and members of the Accademia del Disegno. Artemisia used Galileo’s discovery of the parabolic path of projectiles to depict such authentic spray from blood in the painting of Judith. “Judith Slaying Holofernes“, painted around 1620, was likely commissioned for Cosimo II de Medici, who actually hid the painting as he believed it was too horrific to gaze upon.
Artemisia Gentileschi did not have an exhibition of her own until 1991 in Florence. Undiscovered until the latter part of the 20th century, Artemisia’s work was often attributed to her father or ignored by art historians and critics.