Artemisia Gentileschi – An Italian Heroine

Artemisia Gentileschi: Self-Portait as the Allegory of Painting

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.

Susanna and the Elders. Artemisia Gentileschi

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.

Judith Beheading Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi

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.”

Judith and Her Maidservant. Artemsia Gentileschi

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

30 thoughts on “Artemisia Gentileschi – An Italian Heroine”

  1. Wow! I am completely overcome. I knew nothing of this woman. What a full and fascinating, though at times tragic, life. Thank you so much for writing this article. Thanks too for the bibliography.

    1. Adri, I am glad you liked it. I would highly recommend Alexandra Lapierre’s book “Artemisia”. I was amazed at the incredible amount or original research she did in preparing the book. She is French and she learned both Italian and Latin and got documents from the Vatican archives, the Italian state archives and archives in Genoa, Naples and Venice. Very impressive.

  2. I am familiar with the painting of Judith and Her Maidservant – I’m not sure why though. I so enjoyed reading this piece this morning – a heroine indeed – thank you.

    1. Thank you Rachel, I am glad you liked it. That is one of the paintings that is in Florence and I am eager to get up there to see it.

  3. Vicki Kondelik

    Wonderful post! I have admired Artemisia for a long time. As I think I mentioned in a comment on your post on Beatrice Cenci, I’m working on a novel about Beatrice, where Artemisia and her father make an appearance. Did you know that Artemisia’s father made her witness Beatrice Cenci’s execution, when Artemisia was only six years old? Imagine what that would have done to a child.

    By the way, did you ever get to go to Petrella Salto?

    1. Vicki — wonderful to hear from you again! How is your novel on Beatrice Cenci coming along? I did read in Alexandra Lapierre’s books that Artemisia Gentileschi had witnessed Beatrice Cenci’s execution perched on the shoulders of her father, and yes, I can imagine that might have made a significant impression on a young child’s mind. I still have not made it to Petrella Salto, it is on my blog to-do list. I also mentioned in the Artemisia post that I want to see her works in Naples and Florence, and I will add her gravestone in Naples as well. I also am going to try to get to the Casino delle Muse at the Pallavicini Palazzo in Rome where there is a ceiling painted by Orazio Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi and Orazio painted a woman who is apparently Artemisia. I am curious to see that. Oddly enough my daughter was in nursery school with one of the Pallavicini descendants and they had a lavish birthday party for the little girl in the Casino Delle Muse. It was one of those spectacular Roman birthday parties where I felt out of place (see my post on Italian Mini Divas) Italian Mini Divas Now I am kicking myself that instead of sitting in the corner feeling awkward, I didn’t spend my time staring up at the ceiling looking at Orazio Gentileschi’s depiction of his daughter.

      1. My novel about Beatrice Cenci is going very well. Thanks for asking! I have the prologue up on my website now; I’ll send you the link if you’d like to see it.

        There’s a Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia at the Detroit Institute of Arts, not far from where I live. They also have a Young Woman with a Violin (Saint Cecilia) by Orazio Gentileschi.

        1. Vicki – I would love to see the prologue, do send the link to your website, but do it on the comment section for the Beatrice Cenci post, so it will be there for others to see.
          And if you see both the Artemisia and Orazio paintings in Detroit, do tell me what you think their differences are. Is it true that his paintings are more idealistic and precise and hers are full of passion and drama and more realistic?

          1. OK, I posted the prologue to my novel on the comment section of the Beatrice Cenci post.

            I think, in general, you’re right about Orazio’s paintings: his figures are more idealized, and Artemisia’s are more realistic and full of passion.

    1. Thank you NJ! I hope with time to dig even deeper into the life of Artemisia, visiting the places where she lived and painted and going to visit her artworks. I find her to be a true inspiration.

    1. Thank you Penny! Indeed Artemisia was a fabulous woman….not so sure about myself, but Artemisia gives one inspiration to strive for fabulousness!!

    1. Yes, she did go to London to bail out her father who was old and having trouble finishing the ceiling of the Queen Henrietta Maria’s house in Greenwich. The frescoes on the ceiling were called “Triumph of Peace and the Arts” and were commissioned by King Charles I. They are now at the Marlborough House in London. Charles I also obtained Artemisia’s “Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting” which is now in the Royal Collection.
      Next time I am in London those will be 2 stops I want to make.

  4. Ciao Chow Linda

    What a beautiful and informative post. She has long been one of my favorite artists and I hope more people learn about her through your blog. I remember going through the Galleria Spada when I lived in Rome and one of the guards took me through the rooms and gave me some info on some of the paintings. I was so impressed by his knowledge. I’ve read one of the books on your list but would love to read some of the others. Next week i’ll be in NYC close by the Met museum, so will pop in to get my art fix and see the painting there of Esther by Artemisia. But my favorite is the Judith/ Holofernes, which I believe is at the uffizi, no?

    1. Hi Linda – Yes, there is a Judith and Holofernes at the Uffizi in Florence, but the one I put in this post is apparently in the National Gallery of Capodimonte in Naples. Also, I just realized there is another Judith and her Maidservant escaping with the head in the Vatican Museums. I must get over to see that one. I also think that I was perhaps too negative about one of the paintings at the Galleria Spasa “Madonna Nursing the Infant Jesus.” I think the lighting was not good there and it was hung rather low and in a corner and I couldn’t fully appreciate the colors of her pink dress, the tenderness with which she holds the baby and the very realistic gestures of the Mother and Child. Also I didn’t like the fact that the Madonna’s eyes were closed, but most nursing mothers would probably say that they are so tired that they nurse with their eyes closed, so perhaps Artemisia was being very realistic.

  5. Trisha, I am catching up on your wonderful blog posts. I was so excited to see this as my first entry to read! I became ill when I was last in Italy in October and then because of the hurricane back home the last few days were very chaotic, back and forth with the airport, not sure if we had our hotel still booked because of the weather issues and cancelled flights, etc. So I missed swinging by your office to say hello! I was very disappointed! We are planning to return in the autumn I hope. (Right now we are day three, snowbound in Boston)!

    Anyway, I love, love, love this entry on Artemisia! I don’t know if you recall but I have been obsessed with and fascinated by her work since my first visit to Italy in 1998. A few months ago I stayed in Naples and was able to see four of her paintings at the Capidimonte. It was heaven. I then went to Spada Gallery to see her only works in Rome! As you may remember back in March there was a wonderful “Caravaggio” school of exhibit in Rome and they showed a few incredible Artemisia paintings from other cities/museums, including one I may never have been able to see in person… Susannah and the Elders, from a remote villa museum in Germany! I finally was able to lay my eyes upon one of her best paintings in person! I visited this exhibit several times and spent hours in front of the painting. In Florence one can find a wealth of her work in a few locations – definitely worth the trip! I love how you weave her life and work into your article – you really make her footsteps across Italy and in the corners of Rome come to life!

    I was so sad when I found out about her major exhibit in Milan in January of last year (which later went to Paris) because it was not at a time I could go to Italy! However I was also thrilled about the exhibit itself – for it was getting her work out there!

    Thank you so much for highlighting a brilliant, powerful, renaissance artist. Great work!

    1. Rebecca — I am so glad you read this post and that you were not disappointed. You were the one who first pointed out Artemisia to me and got me reading about her, and you are the one who told me to go see her works in the Spada Gallery. You know much more about Artemisia than I do and I will post more on her when I have seen more of her paintings. I must say, the more I learn about Artemisia, the more I like her. Thanks to you for putting me on to her and sharing your wealth on information on this amazing, wonderful woman.

  6. Oh and her Florence Judith Slaying Holofornes is better than the Naples one only because some restoration at one point was bungled. They are both interesting to see and compare! I’ve never seen any of her work at the vatican and I’ve spent an immense amount of time pouring over the art and sculpture there – if this is true I am very intrigued and if you find it, can you possibly take a picture or point us in the right direction to find it too? Thank you!

    1. I will definitely hunt down her work in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican and take a picture of it (if the guards don’t stop me) and will let you now. Thanks so much with all your information and help– you are so knowledgeable!!

      1. Thank you! I am so excited about this!!!

        I would love to do a future post on my (new) blog retracing the steps of Artemisia with history, stories and photographs. I’ve had my photo/blog on Italy for awhile now but your writing inspired me to have a companion blog in a more traditional setting where I can put some of my travel writing on Italy. I’ve visited so many times and I want to put my experiences and impressions on paper finally!

        I am thrilled I inspired you to go after Artemisia and in turn, you wrote a wonderful piece on her! And thanks for your inspiration, too!

  7. What an extraordinary story! The art is breath-taking, thanks so much for giving us several of her paintings in this post, and large enough to see the fine work and shadings. She amazes in her ability to walk on from trauma without letting it define her, without hiding it, without living in shame because of it, and able to turn her emotions to other places, other people, other work (being a mamma) and other passions (reading and writing). I’m reading this on the morning when the Pope resigned, and thinking, it’s time for a woman Pope. . . . and it’s preposterous, but really, it’s time . . . .

    1. Yes, you are right, it is time for a woman Pope, and yes it is a preposterous idea. Definitely not happening any time in the near future. Still, some day it will. I think we will have a woman President of the United States long before a female Pope.

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