Artemisia Gentileschi: The Most Bad-A** Renaissance Artist You’ve Never Heard Of
Fierce, beautiful, unrelenting, unsettling.
Those words can be used to describe both Artemisia and her art. And indeed, it seems impossible to separate the two.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a focused and passionate artist who was trained and encouraged by her artist father (one of few ways a women could receive professional training at the time) and as a teenager was known to spend most of her time devoted to painting. While her father’s support enabled her artistic education, it was her own passion and drive that lead to several unbelievable masterpieces before she even turned twenty.
Artemisia brought strength, boldness, and realism to the women in her paintings-while also bringing to light the darker realities that male artists often ignored.
One of her first well-known pieces shows “Susanna and the Elders”. Other artists portrayed the Elders as far-off and subtle peeping-toms and Susanna as an unaware beauty that they, and the artist/audience, could gaze at without consequences. Artemisia on the other hand portrayed the men shamelessly ogling Susanna, with Susanna aware, uncomfortable, and afraid. Artemisia likely drew upon her own experiences at the time of the unwanted advances and leering gazes of her painting tutor Tassi and his friend to reveal how disgusting the story, and intrusion of privacy, really was.
That unwanted attention from her painting tutor sadly didn’t stop. Tassi eventually raped Artemisia and was sued by her father. The 7-month long public court case resulted in Artemisia being literally tortured to see if her testimony was true (Tassi was unharmed), Tassi being revealed to be a serial rapist and possibly a murderer, Tassi being found guilty, and then his release after less than a year. Despite his crime Tassi was a man and a well-regarded artist and thus was immune to any serious punishment.
That shameful display of corruption and sexism marked a turning point in Artemisia’s career. Soon after, at the age of 19, Artemisia moved to Florence and painted one of her most powerful works. Artemisia took the semi-biblical story of Judith deceiving and slaying Holofernes, an enemy army commander, and made it her own story, her own victory. And the victory of women everywhere.
Other artists, and Artemisia’s earlier works, had shown Judith shyly averting her eyes from what she was doing or, more often, merely carrying the already removed head and refusing to look at it. Artemisia showed Judith and her maidservant working together, focused, unrelenting, and fully aware and immersed in holding down their enemy and slaying him.
It’s hard to express how revolutionary Artemisia’s portrayal of women was! She may have been using the same characters as other artists, but by changing their actions and expressions, she changed the entire story. Artemisia made her women powerful and created the justice that she, and too many other women, were denied in life and court.
Artemisia continued painting throughout her life-attracting wealthy patrons and supporters from around Italy, and even far-off London. (As well as plenty of haters.) She had a short-lived marriage, but mainly lived as “head of household” for herself and her two daughters and continued to pursue her passion and fight for women in her unique way. It is painfully unsurprising tragedy that much of her life has been forgotten and work mis-credited to her male peers.
Despite the disapproval of society, complete dismissal by the legal system, and personal attacks and suffering-Artemisia continued to create art infused with her personal story and portray the strength and resilience of women throughout time.
She is a huge inspiration to me, and I can think of no better way to describe her than with the beautiful expression:
“Nonetheless, she persisted.”