Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter working in the early 17th century. Artemisia was only seventeen when she painted Susanna and the Elders (1610), an arresting painting that shows a nude Susanna twisting from the grip of her rapists. Artemisia herself was raped as a young woman. Her depictions of brutal historical and biblical events throb with rage and reverberate with trauma. Painted in glorious chiarascuro, it is these paintings that made Artemisia one of Europe's most sought-after artists.
Artemisia was born on the 8th of July, 1593 to Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. As a child, Artemisia received no schooling and her parents confined her to the home. This was custom for Roman girls of the time but when Artemisia’s mother, Prudentia died when she was 12-years-old, the loss must have been monumental. Orazio, who was an artist, began to teach Artemisia to paint. A distraction, perhaps from the terrible grief hanging over the Gentileschi house.
Unlike young male artists of the day, Artemisia could not apprentice with a successful artist to learn her trade. Instead, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to have lessons with his friend, Florentine artist Agostino Tassi. During one such lesson in 1612, Agostino raped Artemisia. When Orazio found out about Agnostino’s attack on his daughter he had him arrested and filed suit for injury. A seven-month trial ensued. The trial was traumatic for Artemisia and caused irreversible damage to her reputation. Agostino had promised to marry Artemisia after the rape, a promise Artemisia reminded him of as she was interrogated under oath in court.
The judge in Artemisia’s case allowed the use of a sibille, a thumbscrew torture device. But it was not Agnostini who the judge interrogated with a sibille but Artemisia. AS she was tortured, Artemisia screamed at Agnostini, “This is the ring you gave me and these are your promises!” Agnostini accused Artemisia of being an “insatiable whore” and denied raping her. Had Artemisa not been a virgin at the time of her rape, under Roman law, what Agnostini did to her was not rape. It was only when a Gentileschi family friend testified that Agnostini had boasted about the rape that the judge convicted him. Agnostini served one year in prison.Transcripts of his trial survive today.
During Agnostini’s trial, Artemisia painted her most famous work, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-1613). This disturbing painting shows two women holding a man down on a bed. While one woman uses her weight to pin down the man's torso, another woman pins down his head and draws a sword across his throat. This painting has been described as Artemisia's imaginary self-portrait, her attempt to fight back against the male violence she was surrounded by.
Shortly after Agnostini’s trial, Artemisia married a Florentine artist, Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi. The newlyweds relocated to Florence where Artemisia gave birth to a daughter around 1613. Historians have speculated that Artemisia's first daughter was the child of her rapist.
It was in Florence that Artemisia started on a path towards the greatest revenge - success. Michelangelo the Younger, nephew of Michelangelo took Artemisia on as his protege. Artemisia worked alongside her husband at the Florentine Academy of Design. Impressed by her work, The Grand Duke Cosimo II of the Medici family became Artemisia’s patron. Artemisia also became an official member of the Academy, the very first woman to do so. With the Duke’s patronage, Artemisia painted an Allegory of Inclination (c1616). This series of panels depicts the life of Michelangelo and adorns the walls of the Casa Buonarotti.
When the Duke died in 1621, Artemisia returned to Rome before relocating to Genoa where she again worked alongside her father, Orazio. By now Artemisia’s talent far outstripped Orazios. Artemisia continued to paint in the tradition of the day, depicting famous historical persons. Yet Artemisia’s paintings had a viscerality other paintings of the era lacked. Her subjects were strong women who suffered or were punished for their strength.
Artemisia painted Lucretia (1621) and Cleopatra (1621-1622) in Genoa then returned to Rome. Artemisia and her husband may have become estranged at this point. Pietro was a spendthrift and his excessive spending decimated the family's wealth. Whatever the state of her marriage, Artemisia returned to Rome with her daughter but without her husband.
Artemisia was associated with the Academy of Desiosi in Rome and honored with a portrait. She was also the subject of a commemorative medal, the inscription on which called her a “celebrated woman painter”. Even so, Artemisia often traveled to Venice to seek better opportunities and in 1630 decided to relocate again to Naples.
Here, Artemisia was listed as the head of her household, proving that she and her husband remained estranged. During these early Naples years, Artemisia worked on paintings in a cathedral in Pozzuoli. It was the first time Artemisia had worked on a lucrative church commission which meant the art establishment was taking real note of her talent. The work was dedicated to Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli. Artemisia also painted Allegory of Painting (1630), The Annunciation (1630), the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, Corsica and the Satyr and other paintings during this period.
In 1638, Artemisia was personally invited to London by King Charles I. Charles I was a noted patron of the arts and wanted Artemisia to work alongside his father as his court painter. Here, Artemisia painted one of the most important works of her career, Self Portrait as the Allegory as Painting (1638). In this painting Artemisia depicts herself like the women in her historical works. Strong and dynamic she stretches her muscular arms, using a paintbrush instead of a sword, to strike down her enemies. At a time when women were the subjects but rarely the creators of art, Artemisia made her own image.
When Orazio died in 1639, Artemisia remained in London to finish her own commissions. The quality and number of portraits Artemisia painted in London earned her a fame that surpassed that of her father. Artemisia returned to Italy around 1642 but little is known of her life and work past this date. Around 1640 or 1641, Artemisia painted several versions of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba. Documentation from 1650 shows that Artemisia was still active and collaborating with a new mentor, Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily. Artemisia died around 1652 of unknown causes.
Today Artemisia Gentileschi is considered one of the most important female painters of Early Modern Europe. Until recently, many of Artemisia's paintings were attributed to male artists, only some of whom she collaborated with. Previously neglected, art historians have reclaimed Artemisia as a genius whose talent overcame the sexism of her day.