Dear Blog Readers — I don’t know about any of you, but sometimes when I need a little inspiration to get through a tough time I dig back in history trying to come up with people who I admire. For some time now, one woman has been among those at the top of my list, Artemisia Gentileschi.
When I rush across the cobblestones of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo some days on the way to work, I wonder if her feet touched the same stones nearly four hundred years ago. When I traipse down Via Babuino to Piazza di Spagna I wonder if she passed by the same corner on her way to buy pigments for her father, or in later years when she was already a painter.
Artemisia had so many exceptional qualities. She was extraordinarily determined, strong-willed, courageous, confident, independent, self-assured, beautiful and above all, talented. These qualities helped her become the most famous Italian woman painter of her time.
Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593, daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a well-respected artist who supported his family of four children on his regular contracts with the Vatican, Cardinals and noble families in Rome.
Her mother died when Artemisia was just a teenager, leaving her to help her father raise her three younger brothers. From an early age Artemisia worked assisting her father in his studio, preparing the canvases and colors. She learned quickly by working side by side with her father.
Her first signed and dated painting is “Susanna and the Elders” in 1610 when she was 17 (there is some debate about the date). The painting evokes the biblical story in which a beautiful young woman named Susanna is bathing in her garden when she is accosted by two older men who tell her they will say they caught her with a lover unless she agrees to have sex with them. Susanna refuses. In this painting Artemisa may have been telling her own story.
Orazio Gentileschi arranged for his colleague and friend, Antonio Tassi, an expert in painting perspective with geometrical precision to give lessons to his daughter. Over a period of nine months Tassi repeatedly raped Artemisia. She kept quiet about it in the hopes that he would eventually marry her. In those days, a woman who had been deflowered had little chance of ever finding a husband.
The figure of Susanna in “Susanna and the Elders” bears a strong resemblance to the young Artemisia and the man with the dark curls resembles her rapist, Antonio Tassi. Interestingly she is nude, exposed and she is holding her hands up in defense against the two men who are leaning over the wall intruding on her privacy.
When Orazio discovered the situation and learned that Tassi would not marry his daughter he went to the highest authority at the time, writing a letter directly to Pope Paolo V Borghese demanding justice. The Pope moved quickly to set an example. In 1612 Artemisia had to face a brutal, public, seven month rape trial during which — in some sick concept of justice at the time — she had to go through a public form of torture during which her fingers were tied with ropes that were progressively tightened as she was repeatedly ask to confirm her version of the story. As the ropes cut into her fingers, her hands swelling painfully, she stuck to her story.
She also had to face a humiliating physical examination in the courtroom behind a curtain to confirm that she was no longer a virgin. Eventually her rapist was convicted to 8 months of prison. At the time of the rape trial, Artemisia could paint but she could not read or write.
It was during this period that Artemisia painted one of her most powerful works of art “Judith Beheading Holofernes”. The painting tells the biblical story of Judith who delivers the Israelites from the Assyrian General Holofernes by slipping into his tent, seducing him, getting him drunk and then cutting off his head once he has fallen asleep. Again the figure of Judith shows a certain resemblance to the young Artemisia and the decapitated head, a resemblance to Agostino Tassi, her rapist. But unlike the “Susanna and her Elders” painting, here the woman was not naked, cowering in fear, she was confidently dominating her enemy, getting her revenge.
The figure of Judith is almost smiling as she slices off the head of her enemy, her maidservant Abra is holding him down as he fruitlessly struggles and blood streams down the white mattress.
Following the trial, her father arranged a marriage for Artemisia to a Florentine painter and she left Rome to live in Florence with a letter of recommendation from her father to the Medici family. In Florence, Artemisia finally came into her own, flourishing in the Renaissance city and producing some of her best works. Her style became quite distinctive — much more dramatic and energetic than her father’s precise painting, demanding comparison to the most renowned Baroque painter of the time, Caravaggio.
Artemisia painted women heroines often in dramatic scenes of violence. She did not hesitate to paint women nudes often proving to be much more capable than her male counterparts.
While in Florence, Artemisia learned to read and write, she gave birth to five children, but only one, her daughter Prudentia, survived. Working Mamma that she was she became the first woman accepted into the prestigious “Accademia del Disegno.”
In Florence she again took up the story of Judith and Holofernes painting a moment of their escape when the two women seem to have heard something and stopped, frozen, staring off into the darkness, looking to see if someone is out there who might have seen them. Artemisia did this work for Cosimo II de Medici and made a nod in this work to the most beloved piece of art in Florence, Michelangelo’s David. The profile of Judith is similar to that of David, and she holds her sword over her shoulder the way David holds his slingshot. There is a sense of female solidarity as they stare off into the darkness and some unseen threat. The maidservant holds the decapitated head in the basket, Judith in one hand the sword and the other she places almost protectively on her servant’s shoulder.
The women’s clothing shows an elegant Florentine style and the maidservant’s gold dress is a color that became known as “Artemisia Gold”. Artemisia was not just an exceptional painter, she had learned the basics of mixing colors and pigments as a child and apparently had a talent for it. The “Artemisa Gold” appeared in many of her paintings.
It is not entirely clear why, but in 1620, Artemisia left her husband and moved back to Rome with her daughter.
According to the history books, Artemisia had a both collaborative and competitive relationship with her father. While his art tends to show more precision and idealistic beauty, Artemisia’s work have drama, passion, pain and anguish. They catapult the viewer into the painting.
In her later years Artemisia spent periods in Venice, and Naples.
in 1638 she went to London to help her ailing father complete the ceiling at the Queen’s House in Greenwich for King Charles I.
It was in England that she is believed to have done her “Self-Portrait as Allegory for Painting.” The painting seems very realistic, she is working, not posing. Her bright green sleeves are pushed up, she is wearing a brown apron, her hair is tied back with a few strands of hair falling out of the bun. Around her neck hangs a gold chain with a mask.
I have been meaning since August to visit Florence and Naples and check out some of Artemisia’s best works but unfortunately I have not had the time. Instead this week I visited her only two works in Rome “Saint Cecilia” and “Madonna Nursing the Infant Jesus” at the Galleria Spada. The Galleria Spada is a lovely building in the center of Rome with a hidden garden filled with lemon trees. The Gallery houses the famed Borromini corridor which is a fantastic optical illusion. But I have to be brutally honest, when I finally stood before the two Artemisia works, I was disappointed. They were beautiful paintings, but the women depicted didn’t show the passion and power that I was expecting. After thinking about it for a while, I have concluded that Artemisia Gentileschi was a working Mamma. She supported herself and her daughter through her entire adult life with her art. As a working Mamma, I should be aware of how difficult that can be. Certainly not every news story I do for AP Television is brilliant. I cannot expect that Artemisia churned out spectacular masterpieces every day. Perhaps not all her works were spectacular, but Artemisia’s life was spectacular and she remains a heroine for me.
Mary G. Garrard, the American scholar who re-discovered Artemisia and brought her to the attention of the art world in the 20th century, found a letter that Artemisia wrote to Don Antonio Ruffo in Sicily dated August 1649 saying, “And I will show Your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do….”
Not only did Artemisia show Don Antonio Ruffo what she could do, she showed the world what she could do against all odds.
Blog Readers: A quick footnote of some of the sources I had and books I read on Artemisia:
“Artemisia” by Alexandra Lapierre
“Life on the Edge: Artemisia Gentileschi, Famous Woman Painter” by Elizabeth Cropper
“Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.” By Mary D. Garrard
“Artemisia in her Father’s House” by Patrizia Cavazzini
“The Passion of Artemisia” by Susan Vreeland