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More than Muses: Artemisia Gentileschi

By Beth Dawson ·

Ask someone to name famous artists and you’ll be likely to hear names such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh or Claude Monet. They're all undoubtedly great artists and also all men. Ironically, a great deal of the art history canon has painted female creatives out of the picture. Our series ‘More than Muses’ aims to provide balance to our lop-sided view of the arts by exploring the dramatic, inspirational and sometimes tragic lives of women artists. We start with Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

CW: rape and violence

A talented artist, who made waves in a male dominated industry, yet also suffered sexual abuse from a man in power: Gentileschi’s story sounds like it could be straight from a recent #metoo report. But you’d have to travel back to 1610 for evidence of when she first appeared on the art scene with her striking work Susanna and the Elders which she painted when she was just seventeen. Appropriately enough, considering the trauma she went through, this early work features two old men harassing a young vulnerable girl.

Susannah and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610-11

From a young age, Gentileschi’s father, who was also a painter, trained her and boasted that “she had no peer” (Garrard, 1989). He arranged for her to study under seascape and landscape painter Agostino Tassi. During this training period, Gentileschi was raped by this very tutor while friends closest to her turned a blind eye. As Gentileschi was a virgin, her family could press charges according to the law of the time, but if this hadn’t have been the case she may never have been able to take her rapist to court.

What followed was a drawn-out seven month trial, in which Gentileschi – who was only a teenager – was tortured by thumbscrews as a way of validating her testimony. This arduous process would have resulted in Tassi been exiled from Rome. However, in a move that might ring true to more than a few contemporary cases, the punishment was actually never enforced.

Nevertheless, Gentileschi persisted in her artistic career and was commissioned by the likes of King Philip IV of Spain, English King Charles I and Cosimo de’ Medici, as well as becoming the first female member of the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts of Florence. Her works became famed for depicting female Biblical and mythical characters, in realistic, strong and striking ways.

It’s hard not to notice the strength given to women’s arms, toughness of grip and furrowed brows in Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-20) or the direct, somewhat accusatory gaze of her portrayal of Mary Magdalene (c.1619). Despite her achievements and her work having been housed in world-renowned galleries, Gentileschi was regarded as somewhat of a minor curiosity of art history, and was not seen as belonging to the ‘greats’ of her time. However, with the dawn of feminist research in the 20th century, more and more people began to hear about, research and become aware of Gentileschi as a technical, impactful and dramatic painter.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614-20

Looking to learn more about Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminist art history in general? I recommend giving Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971) a read. Although it’s definitely not a light read, it was influential in introducing a whole new generation of thinkers to Gentileschi’s work.

Citation: Garrard, Mary (1989). Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 13.

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