Artemisia Gentileschi: The Most Celebrated Female Painter of the 17th Century | History Hit

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Most Celebrated Female Painter of the 17th Century

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615–1617 (left); Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (right)
Image Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656) is the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. Known for her paintings that feature women from myths, allegories and the Bible in often violent or emotionally-charged scenes, of the fifty-seven confirmed works by the artist, a remarkable 94% feature women as protagonists or equal to men. Indeed, some of her best known subjects are Judith Slaying Holofernes, Susanna and the Elders and Judith and Her Maidservant.

Gentileschi’s paintings were particularly notable for their ability to depict the female figure with great naturalism, and for their bright, vivid colours. As a result, she worked in Rome, Florence, Venice, London and Naples for figures such as Charles I of England, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Philip IV of Spain.

However, in spite of her prolific talent and widespread acclaim, Artemisia’s achievements were long overshadowed by the story of artist Agostino Tassi raping her as a young woman, and her subsequent participation in the trial.

Who was Artemisia Gentileschi?

She painted from a young age

The eldest child in her family, Artemisia had three younger brothers, and aged 12 became their principal caregiver when her mother, Prudentia di Montone, died in childbirth. She had a sheltered life, received no academic education and was functionally illiterate until her twenties, when she was given the opportunity to read and write.

‘Judith and her Maidservant’, 1625 (left); ‘Susanna and the Elders’, 1610, earliest of her surviving works (right)

Image Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The daughter of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia quickly became a highly skilled painter, to the extent that her father was jealous, writing in 1612 to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany that his daughter was so skilled that she was peerless. Artemisia’s style was influenced by her father’s Caravaggio-influenced work.

Her earliest surviving painting, completed when Artemisia was aged seventeen, is ‘Susanna and the Elders’ (1610), a work which was long attributed to her father. She also painted two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes between c.1612-13 and 1620.

She testified against her rapist in court

Artemisia’s father was working with fellow artist Agostino Tassi in 1611, who, when alone with Artemisia in her house, raped her. Another man, Cosimo Quorli, took part in the rape, while Artemisia’s friend nearby said she overheard but didn’t think it necessary to intervene. Artemisia’s father publicly accused Tassi of rape, since he sought to force Tassi to marry her.

A trial followed, which hinged on Artemisia’s father attempting to demonstrate that her bartering value had significantly lessened. Artemisia’s vivid account of both the rape and the trial is still in existence today. Alleged victims were forced to submit to a form of torture, where cords were wrapped around their hands and tightened like thumbscrews. Artemisia reportedly repeated ‘It is true. It is true. It is true’ during the torture.

What can a global history tell us about sexual violence?
Listen Now

Tassi was found guilty, but was only sentenced to a brief period of exile, which he ignored. He also didn’t marry Artemisia, since it emerged that he was already married. Artemisia’s father arranged for her to marry Florentine artist Pierantonio Stiattesi, which offered her the liberating opportunity to establish herself as an independent artist.

Many of Artemisia’s paintings depict women engaged in situations of violence, such as ‘Judith and Holofernes’. A repressed-vengeance theory is often postulated, while others have suggested that Artemisia was capitalising on her fame from the trial in order to cater to a sexually-charged, female-body centred artistic style that was enjoyed by male patrons.

She was the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing

Artemisia soon gained a very favourable reputation in Florence. Unlike many other women artists of the 17th century, she specialised in history painting rather than portraiture or still life.

‘Jael and Sisera’, c. 1620

Image Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She was the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing), and earned the patronage of individuals such as Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Grand Duchess, Christina of Lorraine. For the Medici court, she is best known for painting an Allegory of Inclination (c. 1616) for a series of frescoes honouring Michelangelo’s life.

She had five children

Artemisia and her husband had five children, three of whom didn’t survive for more than a year, one who died aged five and one, Prudentia, who survived into adulthood. Prudentia was trained by Artemisia as a painter, though nothing is known of her work.

In 2011, thirty-six letters by Artemisia dating between 1616-20 were discovered. They show that Artemisia had a passionate love affair with a wealthy Florentine nobleman called Francesco Maria Maringhi. Artemisia’s husband was well aware of the affair and even maintained a correspondence with Maringhi on the back of Artemisia’s letters, likely because he recognised that he was a powerfully ally who provided the family with financial support.

Nonetheless, by 1620, rumours of the affair had reached the Florentine court, and combined with legal and financial problems, the couple were forced to move to Rome.

She became famous in Rome

Pursued by creditors and rumours, Artemisia and her husband returned to Rome in 1620. It is known that Artemisia remained there for 10 years; however, any mention of her husband disappears from surviving documentation from 1623 onwards.

Artemisia’s work became hugely popular, and patrons such as Fernando Afan de Ribera, the 3rd Duke of Alcala, added her paintings to their collections. In spite of her growing popularity, she was excluded from major papal commissions: the long papacy of Urban VIII demonstrated that there was a preference for large-scale decorative works and altarpieces, and Artemisia’s specialism in easel painting, as well as a suspicion that women artists weren’t physically robust enough to carry out the work, meant that she was overlooked.

‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy’, 1623

Image Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She moved to Naples in search of career opportunities

In 1630, Artemisia moved to Naples, possibly invited by Duke of Alcalá, Fernando Enriquez Afan de Ribera, and it is said that she already had a positive reputation and following there before arriving.

While there, Artemisia painted in cathedrals for the first time, and also met and collaborated with other major artists such as Codazzi and Gargiulo. Artemisia remained in Naples until her death, which was possibly as a result of the devastating plague that spread through Naples in 1656 and claimed half the population.

She was invited to London by Charles I

In 1638, Artemisia briefly visited the court of Charles I of England, where she joined her father in decorating a a ceiling allegory of ‘Triumph of Peace and the Arts’ in the Queen’s House, Greenwich. It is possible that she went there to assist her ailing father, who died suddenly a year later. She was also likely personally invited by Charles I, who purchased works such as ‘Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting’ for his collection.

Artemisia spent the rest of her time in England fulfilling various commissions, though none of her work from this time survives. It is known that she had left England by 1642, when the English Civil War was starting. During her last years of activity, she painted works that follow a traditional representation of the feminine in her works.

Lucy Davidson