Artemisia Gentileschi: the sinister story of the first known female artist

Thu 15 Dec 2016

Caravaggio was an inspiration for many talented artists, but perhaps none so talented as Artemisia Gentileschi. Standing in front of her striking interpretation of Judith Slaying Holofernes in the Uffizi Gallery you’ll be struck by Gentileschi’s unique talent. She would have been remarkable regardless of her sex, but the fact that she was a successful female artist in seventeenth century Italy makes her even more fascinating. Her life and art were closely intertwined, and to fully appreciate her paintings, we need to know something of her dramatic and sometimes difficult life.

Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593, and her artistic talents were nurtured at an early age by her father, a painter from Tuscany. At the age of only seventeen she produced her first great work, a disturbing depiction of Susanna and the Elders. This is a rare portrayal of the story as something traumatic. Rather than flirting or encouraging the elders, as she does in other paintings, Gentileschi’s Susanna turns away in fear and disgust. The viewer instinctively sympathises with the vulnerable young woman, as the whispering men above her are shown as a leering, threatening presence.

This theme of male threat and sexual harassment was tragically repeated in Gentileschi’s life the following year. She was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist who had been hired as her tutor. He initially promised to marry her, which would have been a way to “restore her dignity”. Yet Tassi was already married (and involved in a plot to murder his wife), so the planned marriage never went ahead. Gentileschi’s father pressed charges against Tassi, which led to an agonising seven month trial, where Gentileschi was subjected to intrusive examinations and even torture. Tassi was finally convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, but for reasons that are still unclear, he never served his time. One month after the trial, Gentileschi was quickly married off to an artist from Florence, presumably to save her reputation.

A few years later, Gentileschi produced her masterpiece, the graphic Judith Slaying Holofernes. In this famous biblical scene, the heroine Judith, assisted by her maidservant, brutally decapitates Holofernes. Blood spurts everywhere, staining the sheets. As Judith cuts into his neck she shows no emotion but grim determination, holding on to Holofernes’ head to steady her grip.The gory nature of the painting means that it retains its power to shock even today, but it must have been even more shocking for contemporary viewers, especially those who were aware of the famous rape trial.

Throughout the centuries, many people have interpreted the painting as an expression of Gentileschi’s anger and disgust, a kind of artistic revenge. Gentileschi’s biographer describes it as “a cathartic expression of the artist’s private, and perhaps repressed, rage”. Knowing the facts of Gentileschi’s life, it is impossible to look at the painting without seeing Gentileschi as Judith, violently ending the life of her rapist.

The subject of Judith and Holofernes has been painted by many famous artists, but Gentileschi’s most direct inspiration would have been Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s interpretation, painted nearly two decades before, has a similar sense of drama and violence, and his use of chiaroscuro clearly influenced Gentileschi. The main, striking difference between the two paintings is in the portrayal of Judith. Caravaggio’s Judith carries out the act almost effortlessly, with an expression of mild disgust, or even detachment. In comparison, Gentileschi’s Judith takes a strong and active role in the murder, holding down her victim. There are two versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes. One can be seen at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, while the other version is a highlight of the Uffizi tour in Florence.

Gentileschi returned to violent subjects in other paintings, such as Judith and her Maidservant and Jael and Sisera. This could be interpreted as Gentileschi expressing her urge for revenge or, perhaps more interestingly, as a clever way of taking advantage of her fame and attracting male patrons who were drawn towards violent, sexually charged art. Although it’s tempting to read Gentileschi’s dominant female protagonists as a simple expression of feminist power, it might be more complicated than that. Over the following decades Gentileschi established a successful career in Florence, Rome and Naples, and this was at least in part due to her unique style and unconventional portrayals of women.

For the rest of her life Gentileschi continued to paint, decorating cathedrals in Italy and working alongside her father at the court of King Charles I in England. The exact date and circumstances of her death are unknown, but she may have died during the terrible plague of Naples in 1656.

While her later life is shrouded in mystery, thankfully Gentileschi’s talent and originality have not been forgotten. She has been a source of inspiration to many artists, and those who discover her paintings in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence are always astonished by the dramatic energy of her art.

It was highly unconventional for a woman to work as an artist in early seventeenth century Italy; a woman having a successful career and earning the admiration of her contemporaries was virtually unprecedented. When you’re standing in front of Judith Slaying Holofernes in the Uffizi, look at the determined face of Judith and remember the story of the inspirational woman behind the painting.

~by Alexandra Turney~

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