Historical Heroines: Artemisia Gentileschi, Catharsis through Chiaroscuro

In a darkened room where golden light casts dramatic shadows, a scene of horrific violence is unfolding. A man is tangled in his bedclothes, struggling vainly as a determined woman forces him down with all her might. To her left, her companion–a powerfully built woman with a sword–has made the first chop into their victim’s neck, blood spurting from the wound like an angry, red geyser. This is Artemisia Gentileschi’s masterpiece, Judith Slaying Holofernes, a startlingly graphic oil painting depicting an Old Testament story of female courage. Behind this image of the Jewish heroine who saved her people from invaders is the story of a talented artist who overcame the sexism of her time, rejected victimhood, and created stunning art that is celebrated today.

Artemisia Gentileschi began painting in her teens, under the tutelage of her father Orazio. Working out of a studio in Rome, Orazio introduced his daughter to the drama and passion of Baroque art. With its use of chiaroscuro (dynamic juxtapositions of light and dark) and theatrical depictions of historical, mythical, and biblical subjects, Baroque art dominated the Italian aesthetic in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. Women artists were not unheard of in Europe at the time, but they were excluded from art academies and their subjects tended towards domestic scenes, still lifes, and portraiture. Artemisia took to painting naturally and had an unusual degree of support from her father, their closeness perhaps influenced by the death of Artemisia’s mother when she was an adolescent. Her first painting, Susanna and the Elders, was completed in 1610 when she was 17 years old. The image of a horrified young woman batting away two leering, gossiping men would prove tragically prophetic.

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In an effort to enrich Artemisia’s blossoming talent for naturalism, Orazio hired a colleague of his to instruct his daughter in perspective. This painter, Agostino Tassi, would take horrific advantage of the private lessons, repeatedly raping his student and exploiting her naivete by suggesting he might take her as a wife in order to repair the damage to her reputation. After nine months of abuse, it became clear to Artemisia that there would be no marriage, and she and her father brought Agostino to court.

Over the course of the seven month trial, it was revealed that Agostino was a dyed-in-the-wool villain, and what might today be dubbed a sociopath. He had hatched a scheme to steal Orazio’s paintings and had a history of violence against women, having been accused of raping his sister-in-law and planning to murder his wife. The trial would prove to be an ordeal for Artemisia–in addition to submitting to medical tests to prove the validity of the claim against her assailant, she was tortured with thumbscrews during her questioning to prove that she wasn’t lying. She persevered under these humiliating circumstances, however, leading to the conviction of her rapist.

In the months following the trial, Artemisia returned to the studio with fresh artistic fervor. Experiencing feelings of betrayal and rage, she began painting what would be her defining work. Judith Slaying Holofernes (completed in 1614, and painted again a handful of years later) starkly depicts female triumph over exploitive masculinity. In a beautiful example of artistic revenge, Artemisia’s Judith bears a striking resemblance to the painter while Holofernes, in all of his agonies, wears the likeness of her rapist.

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Of the existing canvases attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, almost all of them feature women. These are not the anonymous shepherdesses or courtesans popularized in academic art, but rather fully-formed humans in positions of strength and dignity. In keeping with the Baroque period’s focus on allegories, Artemisia painted a number of motifs from a series known as the Power of Women. These subjects allowed artists to explore ideas about the place of women in the world. While many artists during the medieval era used motifs from the Power of Women for satirical and even misogynistic purposes, by Artemisia’s time, these portrayals had taken on an epic quality. Artemisia’s Power of Women paintings show these subjects at their heroic pinnacle, with dominant, physically imposing women at the center of the composition, commanding the viewer’s attention.

Though it’s tempting to view Artemisia as a rebel and an outsider due to her determination to depict headstrong women in her artwork, she in fact had numerous patrons throughout her career. She traveled through the major cities in Italy seeking commissions and was affiliated with multiple prestigious art academies, an honor not typically afforded to women at the time. Though her later works did begin to exhibit a more distinctly feminine, romantic atmosphere, this may be due more to changing tastes than to any capitulation on the part of the artist. Artemisia painted up until her death in Naples in the mid-1650s, perhaps due to plague.

The story of the boundary-breaking female painter who refused to be victimized and struck back has inspired generations of artists. She is regularly discussed in art history courses, her life has been reimagined as a historical romance in novels and on film, and she has a seat at Judy Chicago’s feminist installation The Dinner Party. More than a symbolic heroine, Artemisia Gentileschi lived fully and successfully as a painter in her own time and the quality of her work continues to demonstrate the power of a woman as talented as she was determined.

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