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Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi

The 16th and 17th centuries in Italy saw the emergence of an increasing number of accomplished female artists, who were often members of artistic families. The outstanding talent among them was Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652).

Gentileschi was born on July 8, 1593 in Rome. She was the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi and was trained by him. Our perception of Gentileschi has been colored by the legend surrounding her. Her alleged rape by her father's colleague, the "quadratura" painter Agostino Tassi, when she was 17, was the subject of a protracted legal action brought by Orazio in 1611. Although she was subsequently "married off" to Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi in 1612 and gave birth to at least one daughter, she soon separated from her husband and led a strikingly independent life for a woman of her time—even if there is no firm evidence for the reputation she enjoyed in the 18th century as a sexual libertine. After her marriage, Gentileschi lived in Florence until about 1620. She then worked in Genoa and settled in Naples in 1630. Gentileschi traveled to England in 1638-40, where she collaborated with her father on a series of canvasses for the Queen's House, Greenwich (now Marlborough House, London). Gentileschi died in Naples in 1652.

It is tempting to adduce the established biographical data in partial explanation of the context of her art: the sympathy and vigor with which she evokes her heroines and their predicaments, and her obsession with that tale of female triumph, Judith and Holofernes. But such possibilities should not distract attention from the high professional standards that Gentileschi brought to her art. In a letter, dated July 3, 1612, to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Orazio claimed that "Artemisia, having turned herself to the profession of painting, has in three years so reached the point that I can venture to say that today she has no peer." Despite the obvious exaggeration, one can agree that Gentileschi's art was of a consistently high quality virtually from the beginning.

Early Works

Her earliest surviving work may be a tender Madonna and Child of c. 1609 in the Spada Gallery, Rome. But two other pictures give a clearer idea of her consummate early style. They are Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes in the Pitti Palace, which could be a picture referred to in the transcript of the Tassi rape trial, and Susanna and the Elders, dated 1610. Both pictures owe a good deal (in their crisp compositions, attractive physiognomies, and sparkling costumes) to Orazio, who might have contributed to both their design and execution. They are also, in their focussed realism, obviously works of the Caravaggist school—especially the former, with its bold chiaroscuro. But they introduce us to some distinctive traits of Gentileschi's own: in the Judith a greater freedom of brushwork than that of her father (at this stage not yet an altogether positive quality) and in both cases a certain authenticity of emotion (in the alert stare of Judith, for example; or the brilliantly evoked sense of violation conveyed by the defensive gesture and startled gaze of Susanna).

While Gentileschi's style during her Florentine and Roman years (1610s and 1620s) was a development of the idiom adumbrated by her father, her own vigorous sense of drama (more akin to that of Caravaggio than Orazio) lends most of the works a distinctive, cutting edge. The characterizations of her heroines (and nearly all of her pictures have female leads) are emotional without being sentimental. She is highly observant of both psychology and action and has a keen eye too for the natural disposition of flesh. Her sustained achievement can be seen in a series of masterpieces which includes the two versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes; The Penitent Magdalen, Florence, Pitti Palace, c. 1617-20; the powerful Lucretia of c. 1621 from the Palazzo Cattaneo-Adorno, Genoa; and Judith and Her Maidservant with the head of Holofernes (Detroit, c. 1625). These works are also distinguished by an opulent drapery style, with spirited highlights, that must have gone down well at the sartorially conscious Medicean court, where Gentileschi enjoyed the high patronage of Duke Cosimo II.

Explored Effects of Light

The Detroit Judith and her Maidservant, which is a candlelit night scene, also breaks new ground for Gentileschi in its thorough exploration of the effects of light radiating from an internal source. It was probably influenced by the fashionable candle-lit scenes of Honthorst executed in Rome in the late 1610s and well-known in Florence. But her employment of the flickering illumination is, as Spear has noted, predictably bolder than Honthorst's. Indeed this picture, like another of the very few of her works which ha ve survived from the 1620s is redolent of the spirit of the emergent High Baroque. Painterly and sensuous handling, flow of action, theatrical deployment of light and gesture, and judicious selection of dramatic moment combine to effect a riveting illusion. In such pictures Gentileschi may be said to have played her part in the formulation of the new idiom, rather than merely imitating what others had initiated. The Burghley House Susanna, in particular, reveals her empathetic originality, since it parallels without, in any way being dependent upon, the early style of Guercino.

If the 1620s represent the high watermark of Gentileschi's achievement, her subsequent career, spent mostly in Naples, succumbed to a fragmentation of purpose. While retaining, on occasions, much of the vigor of her mature style (Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, London, Kensington Palace), she grew increasingly attracted to the idealizations both of the Bolognese and, after her visit to England, of her father's late style. The former can be discerned in the poses and figure types of such works as the Capodimonte Annunciation of 1630; while the powerful impact of the latter is evident in the wholesale translation of the elongated, mannered figures of Orazio's Castle Howard Finding of Moses (c. 1633) into her own elegantly artificial Bathsheba (late 1640s, Potsdam, Neues Palast).

Gentileschi's influence on her contemporaries is still in need of detailed assessment. But it is clear that she greatly stimulated the imagination of Guerrieri in Florence (so much so that some of their works have been confused) and of Vouet in Rome, and her contribution to the development of the Neapolitan school, particularly through her impact on Stanzione and Cavallino, was arguably profound.


Garrard, Mary D., Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, 1989.

Moir, Alfred, The Italian Followers of Caravaggio, 2 vols., 1967.


Art Bulletin, 1968.

Scritti giovanili 1912-1922, vol. 1, 1961. □

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Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–c. 1654)


GENTILESCHI, ARTEMISIA (1593c. 1654), Italian painter. Artemisia Gentileschi is known for her early dramatic biblical narratives presenting forceful female protagonists. Her less-known later paintings feature pensive heroines and classically composed groupings.

She was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a Tuscan painter who trained her to paint in his style combining the artificial contrivance of mannerism with a naturalism inspired by the revolutionary vision of Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi, 15731610). Although some scholars have dated her earliest work to 1609, based on Orazio's 1612 boast that she had achieved remarkable successes in only three years, she probably began painting in 1605, apprenticing at age twelve as did many male painters. In 1611 she was raped by Orazio's colleague Agostino Tassi. Testimony from the ensuing trial provides valuable information on Artemisia's early life, including her own account of the assault. She worked in Rome until late 1612 or early 1613, when she married a Florentine and moved to Florence. On returning to Rome in 1620, she entered one of her most successful periods. In 1627 she visited Venice, although the duration of her stay is unknown. She settled in Naples by August 1630, her home for the rest of her life except for a sojourn in London around 1639. Her patrons included major contemporary collectors such as Michaelangelo Buonarroti, nephew to the great Renaissance artist; the grand duke of Tuscany; the kings of England and Spain; the Roman scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo; and Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily.

Famous in her own day, she was generally ignored until the twentieth century when the reevaluation of Caravaggio and seventeenth-century naturalism extended to his followers, including Artemisia, his sole female disciple. Roberto Longhi, the great Caravaggio scholar, wrote the first serious account of both Gentileschis in 1916. Focus on Artemisia as caravaggista was later supplanted by attention to her role as feminist heroine, beginning with Anna Banti's 1946 novel Artemisia, a personal homage to Artemisia's life and art that highlighted the rape and subsequent trial. Later twentieth-century studies have championed Artemisia as a strong female artist who, having overcome violence, created paintings that asserted women's power over their own lives and expressed revenge against male domination.

Her first signed and dated painting, the 1610 Susanna and the Elders, has been interpreted as a statement of women's strength and courage in the face of male oppression. Among the most compelling images of the story ever painted, it reveals Artemisia as one of the most gifted practitioners of baroque exuberance and an astute interpreter of dramatic narrative. Although it has been disputed whether Artemisia painted the entire canvas or whether her father helped (some claim Orazio alone created it), most scholars accept it as primarily Artemisia's work. Several other early paintings from her Roman period have been attributed to Orazio. There is at present no clear scholarly consensus.

Evaluating Artemisia among Caravaggio's followers has highlighted pictures that emphasize bold lighting, surface texture, and aggressive naturalism (Judith Beheading Holofernes [Uffizi]; Lucretia [Milan]; Judith and Her Maidservant [Detroit]) and led to her being credited with bringing Caravaggio's style to Naples. However, this Caravaggiodominated paradigm no longer holds. From the trial records, we understand her early life to have been severely restricted, with little opportunity to explore Rome's treasures, resulting in limited knowledge of Caravaggio other than through his influence on her father. It is also now clear that Caravaggio's realist style had reached Naples earlier than Artemisia's arrival. In fact, recent discoveries have revealed Artemisia's work as far more varied and less stylistically coherent than the caravaggesque model implies. Although her earliest pictures (16091613) demonstrate a debt to Caravaggio, her Florentine paintings move beyond this influence in their freer use of paint and color. Furthermore, her later works, often subdued and poetic, exhibit widely disparate expressive forms. In spite of recent suggestions that Artemisia adopted the style in vogue in the city in which she worked, her surviving paintings reveal a broader and more varied visual response. Having been trained to paint in the style of her father, she continued to demonstrate a remarkable ability to draw from others as she fashioned pictures that ranged from the rich color and compositional power of early Guercino (born Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 15911666) to the restrained idealism of Guido Reni (15751642). Her assimilation of disparate styles may have been related to gender. Surviving letters, some thirty in number, reveal her awareness of her difficult position in a male-dominated profession. She may also have understood the impact of her gender on patrons who commissioned female nudes, her presumed specialty.

See also Caravaggio and Caravaggism ; Naples, Art in ; Women and Art .


Primary Sources

Baldinucci, Filippo. Notizie de' professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua. 6 vols. Florence, 16811728. 5 vols., edited by F. Ranalli, Florence, 18451847. Edition by P. Barocchi, with annotations and 2 vols. of appendices, Florence, 19741975.

Bellori, Giovan Pietro. Le vite de' pittori, scultori e architetti moderni. Rome, 1672. Artemisia is discussed in the life of Orazio.

Menzio, Eva, ed. Artemisia Gentileschi/Agostino Tassi: Atti di un processo per stupro. Milan, 1981. Partial transcription of testimonies in Tassi's 1612 rape trial.

Secondary Sources

Bissell, R. Ward. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and catalogue raisonné. University Park, Pa., 1999.

Christiansen, Keith, and Judith W. Mann. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. New York, 2001.

Florence, Casa Buonarroti. Artemisia. Exh. cat., edited by Roberto Contini and Gianni Papi. Rome, 1991.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton, 1988. Includes most of Gentileschi's letters and an English translation of some of the trial testimony.

Lapierre, Alexandra. Artemisia: Un duel pour l'immortalité. Paris, 1998. Although a novel, the footnotes contain the results of important archival research.

Longhi, Roberto. "Gentileschi padre e figlia." L'arte XIX (1916): 245314.

Spear, Richard E. "Artemisia Gentileschi: Ten Years of Fact and Fiction." Art Bulletin 82 (2000): 568579.

Judith W. Mann

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Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652)

Gentileschi, Artemisia (15931652)

Painter of the Italian Baroque period whose masterful religious works reflected a turbulent life. Born in Rome as the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a leading artist of Rome, she may have collaborated with her father on his works from a young age. Her first picture to be signed is Susanna and the Elders, which she completed in 1610. About the time she was working on this painting, at age seventeen, she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter and colleague of her father, who had hired Tassi to tutor her. When Tassi refused to marry her despite his promises, Orazio Gentileschi brought him to court. During the trial, in which Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, Artemisia was forced to recount her assault while under torture.

In 1612 Gentileschi moved to Florence, where she became the first woman accepted into the prestigious Florentine Academy of Design. She had married the Florentine artist Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi in 1612 but separated from her husband after a short time and lived the rest of her life as an independent woman and painter. In Florence she enjoyed the patronage of Duke Cosimo II and gained a reputation as a woman artist unafraid of rendering powerful and violent scenes from biblical and classical traditions, subjects that many believed were beyond the abilities of a female artist. Michelangelo Buonarroti, the nephew of the Renaissance artist, commissioned her to paint the ceiling of a picture gallery in the Casa Buonarroti, his uncle's home.

Despite her growing fame in Florence, well-paying commissions were given to other artists, and with poverty threatening Gentileschi settled again in Rome in 1620. She received few commissions for major works, but found herself in greater demand as a portraitist, a genre thought more suitable for a woman. In about 1627 she moved to Venice, where she absorbed the Venetian painters' taste for subtle effects of light, shown in her paintings The Sleeping Venus and Esther and Ahasuerus. In about 1630 she moved to Naples, where she spent the rest of her life. In the late 1630s she also spent time in England, where she worked as a painter at the court of King Charles I and helped her father create ceiling paintings for the queen's royal palace in Greenwich.

Gentileschi's pictures express her fascination with the theme of women struggling and eventually triumphing over adversity. An early work, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holfernes, also shows the influence of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, who brought a stark realism and drama to religious paintings with his use of chiaroscuro, or contrasting light and shadow. Gentileschi transferred this sense of drama and her keen perception of human emotion to her other major works: Judith Slaying Holofernes, The Penitent Magdalen, and Lucretia. After moving to Naples, Gentileschi completed several late masterpieces, including Bathsheba, The Discovery of Moses, and The Annunciation. She had a strong influence on painters of Naples in the Baroque period, while in later centuries her life inspired plays, novels, and several historical works that painted her as one of the original feminist artists.

See Also: Caravaggio, Michelangelo da; Naples

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Gentileschi, Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi (är´tāmē´zhə jān´tēlĕs´kē), c.1597–c.1652, Tuscan painter, daughter and pupil of Orazio Gentileschi, b. Rome. She studied under Agostino Tassi, her father's collaborator, who was convicted of raping the teen-age Artemisia in 1612. Over the years, she has been portrayed as a strumpet, a feminist victim or heroine, and an independent woman of her era and her life has been fictionalized in several novels and plays. In purely artistic terms, she achieved renown for her spirited execution and admirable use of chiaroscuro in the style of Caravaggio, and during her life she achieved both success and fame. In 1616 she became the first woman admitted to the Academy of Design in Florence. About 1638 she visited England, where she was in great demand as a portraitist. Among her works are Judith and Holofernes (Uffizi); Mary Magdalen (Pitti Gall., Florence); Christ among the Doctors (N.Y. Historical Society); and a self-portrait (Hampton Court, England).

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