Artemisia Gentileschi: Baroque Feminism

A Powerful Figure in a Patriarchal Era of Artwork

Judith and her Maidservant (1625) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith and her Maidservant (1625) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Born on July 8, 1593, Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi is now considered one of the most accomplished seventeenth-century artists. Gentileschi’s career as a painter began at age fifteen, in an age where women had few opportunities to pursue artistic training or professional courtesy as an artist. As the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, Italy she came to possess something that few other women could boast—an international base of clientele.

She initially worked in the style of Caravaggio, but soon her style was more representative of chiaroscuro, as is evidenced in her painting Judith and her Maidservant (1625—left) which is now a part of the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Some of the best-known works of art that Gentileschi produced were centered around women, their form, and their ability to overcome—featuring famous women from myths, allegories, and the Bible.

A Predecessor to the #MeToo Movement

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Often regarded as a curiosity, Artemisia Gentileschi’s achievements have far too often been overshadowed by the narrative of her being violently raped by Agostino Tassi; as well as her participation in the trial against her rapist. Only seventeen years of age when she underwent the rape, humiliation, and slander from Tassi and the courthouse itself, Gentileschi somehow overcame it all.

While under judicial torture—to ensure she was telling the truth, her fingers were bound with cords and then the cords were pulled tight—she never waivered in her testimony against the predatory Tassi; all the while, she asserted, “E vero, e vero, e vero,” It’s true, he raped me. It’s true I was a virgin. It’s true, all I say. The transcript of her trial still evidenced from 1612 that she would not be silenced or forced to recant her statement.

To add insult to injury, however, Tassi had been a friend and collaborator of her father’s and after having been caught lying about having any relations with her (consensual or not), he insinuated that she had asked for it—calling her a heartbreaker and an easy target.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Though it cannot be ignored that Tassi was already a convicted criminal with no end to his debauchery and heinous crimes against the women in his life, Gentileschi’s reputation was already sullied. It wasn’t long before she was married off to Pierantoni Stiattesi, a painter with little talent and even less money.

Although Tassi was finally convicted of the crime after a seven-month trial, his verdict was later annulled by Pope Paul V, who having patronized Tassi and his artwork, could not have his holy name sullied by such scandal. As a result of this, Gentileschi’s work took on a mission of blatant feminist expression and revenge against the patriarchal influence of the time she lived in. Gentileschi spent the next seven years with her husband in debt, nearly constantly pregnant, and angry—she took up a lover with whom she was wholly in love.

Left to care for her father, Orazio, and her three younger brothers as her mother died when Artemisia was only twelve, she was tasked with all of the housekeeping, cooking, mending—while her father spent his time and money with “loose women”. To Orazio’s credit, he did teach his daughter how to paint, which she could be found working on when she was not bogged down with menial “womanly” tasks. It all led to a fairly successful career in a time where it was near to unspeakable for her to be learned in the ways of artwork as it was, but even more so today her work and her story are something I am quite in awe of.

Her art, as well as the most dismal point in her young womanhood, continues to be reexamined by modern scholars, who have now determined her to be one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639)

by Artemisia Gentileschi
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi

This particularly confident and bold painting was created with oil on canvas, when Artemisia joined her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in London at the court of Charles I of England—it is now on display in the Royal Collection, London. At the time, Orazio had become the court painter and was in the process of decorating a ceiling allegory of Triumph of Peace and the Arts in the Queen’s House, Greenwich. This meant that once again, Artemisia and her father were working together at the behest of Charles I himself. While her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting was not necessarily commissioned by the King, it did become a part of his collection after its completion.

With the influence of royalty, it’s surprising that Gentileschi was not a better-known painter in her day, although it is believed that Gentileschi had more of an influence on the perspective of royalty than the other way around. As a female painter with such rage and reverence for the female form, she definitely turned their heads.

The Visual Element of Color as Symbol

In this painting, we see that Gentileschi has created a quite realistic portrait of a painter in an ongoing state of work—which speaks to the state that an artist is always in, because their work is never done. It is the neutral palette that once again that speaks so boldly in this piece, as if there is something unfinished in this highly polished piece of work and it is said that the brown color of the background is representative of the blank canvas that the painter is always attempting to put something upon. Browns and neutral colors are also the color of earth, wood, and stone—they evoke the symbolism of craftsmanship, which certainly includes the craftsmanship of an artist. It also speaks to the nature of being humble, with little ego, and as a reflection of hard work or manual labor.

The Visual Element of Tone as Form

The tone imparted through the strokes on this canvas was deliberate and thoughtful—we see depth and volume in Gentileschi’s portrait of herself, where she depicts herself as a hard, strong woman, who toils endlessly over her canvas.

The Visual Element of Tone as the Contrast of Light and Dark

The lighting in this piece is evident of tone being used for contrast between the light and dark elements—where her body blocks the light off from the rest of the room and where the fabric pools on her arms to create the depth within the satiny shimmers.

The Visual Element of Tone as Tranquility and Drama

One can’t help but be drawn to the passivity and calm that Gentileschi portrays within this confines of this canvas—perhaps speaking upon her passion for her artwork, but also the reality of hard work.

Final Thoughts…

I would proudly display Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting within my home—I feel as if it relates to myself and my own life, as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, but more importantly, as a creative who will go to any means to express the overwhelm of emotions that comes with having a story to tell. Her other works speak to me also, such as Susanna and the Elders (1610) which depicts Susanna being harassed by men and her turning and twisting as if to distance herself from the lewd and predatory men.

Gentileschi and Botticelli: Regard for the Feminine

It occurred to me that these two painters, while a little over a century apart, had some similar aspects of their work. There is something about both of these artists and their work, although they are of different genders and have different styles, both of them display a high regard for the female form. While Botticelli depicts a slender, elongated, and girlish form, Gentileschi depicts a hardy, and capable womanly form. It is clear, however, the admiration that both have in their works of the fairer sex.

Works Cited

“Artemisia Gentileschi: Five-Star Reviews for ‘the Beyoncé of Art History’.” BBC News, BBC, 29 Sept. 2020, http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-54338537.

Classe, Sylvie. “Artemisia Gentileschi 1593-1652.” HEGEL – HEpato-GastroEntérologie Libérale, no. 2, 2020, doi:10.4267/2042/70805.

“Gentileschi Artworks & Famous Paintings.” The Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/artist/gentileschi-artemisia/artworks/.

“‘I’ll show you what a woman can do’: The life of Artemisia Gentileschi is made for Netflix, says Laura Freeman, but it’s her art that really excites.” Spectator, vol. 342, no. 9998, 11 Apr. 2020, p. 44+. Gale Literature Resource Centerhttps://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A621475218/LitRC?u=fair43885&sid=LitRC&xid=f7001165. Accessed 13 Oct. 2020.

“More Savage than Caravaggio: the Woman Who Took Revenge in Oil.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Oct. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/05/artemisia-gentileshi-painter-beyond-caravaggio.

6 thoughts on “Artemisia Gentileschi: Baroque Feminism

  1. I agree with your statement that Artemisia’s works of art do have an element of feminism. With the artwork titled “Judith slaying Holofernes” take a look at the rolled up sleeves that both women have and how aggressive they look to be beheading someone for a cause. They are taking charge and making difficult decisions to change the way things were. Also, Artemisia overcoming the entire rape incident with Tassi definitely was a daunting task. She is an admirable artist, I think I would want to own her self portrait as well. It is a little more peaceful than her other works of art.

    1. Yes exactly! There are a LOT of blatantly aggressive scenes in her paintings and she definitely put her own internal turmoil to work, possibly even by using her artwork as a cathartic release for her anger.

  2. What a tragic backstory! I love that you spotlighted a woman during the Baroque period and I agree with you that she was influenced by royalty. In the painting “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting”, I really like how focused she appears to be on her work and I enjoy the earthy colors. Reading your blog made me wonder how many artists during the Baroque era were women. It seems there were very few other women painting during this time, I could only find about 7 others. For Artemisia to be so accomplished in a time dominated by men is pretty inspiring.

    1. I know, it was a terrible thing for her to have gone through; but at the same time, it feels as if that’s what drove her to be so passionate in representing her own truth. I think, along with another self-portrait she did of herself with a lute, her “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting” is possibly the most peaceful paintings she created. As if self-reflection brought out who she was to herself.

      I’m pretty sure you found all of the other women that were active artists at the time. There weren’t very many because they weren’t allowed to be taught in a formal capacity. Like Artemisia they would have had to be taught by a family member, or possibly a friend.

  3. I really like the angle you went with on this post! It was great to highlight a woman in a sea of male painters. I love all the paintings you chose. Judith Slaying Holofernes is one of my favorite paintings. I love the execution in her paintings and the depth and use of dark and light. It is interesting to hear the connection you made between this artist and her social climate, and today. I wonder what the specifics of the realities of women in the art world were at the time. I bet they had to work so much harder to achieve the same goal.

    1. Thank you! I love that painting as well, there is so much emotion in it and the anger is so controlled, yet still somehow palpable! I think, or at least I’d like to believe, that the pioneering spirit of these women who made their way in a man’s world was done with a barren field of “fucks.” Excuse the language.

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