Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–c. 1654)

views updated Jun 08 2018


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

Gentileschi, Artemisia

views updated May 23 2018

Artemisia Gentileschi

July 8, 1593
Rome, Italy
Naples, Italy


"The works will speak for themselves."

Artemisia Gentileschi as quoted in Artemisia Gentileschi and The Age of Baroque. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

The Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (pronounced jahntee-LES-kee) is regarded as one of the important women painters of the Renaissance. (The Renaissance was a cultural movement that began in Italy in the mid-1300s and was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome.) She achieved international stature for her progressive style, ambitious range of themes, and strong feminist expression. Influenced by the innovative Italian painter Caravaggio (see box below), she adopted a dramatic, realistic style and a chiaroscuro technique (use of stark contrasts between light and dark). According to some accounts, Gentileschi was Caravaggio's student. Nevertheless, she departed from Caravaggio's, as well as other painters, models to develop her own themes. Her works feature biblical and historical women, whom she humanized and raised to heroic status. Gentileschi remained relatively unknown and unappreciated after her death. Then, in the twentieth century, art historians began identifying and collecting her work. Along with this belated recognition came a reassessment of her place in the history of European painting. Scholars note her role in transforming the image of females in art from passive, anonymous onlookers to active participants in the world.

The modern perception of Gentileschi is often colored by the legend surrounding her. She was born in Rome and trained by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, a moderately successful painter. When she was seventeen she was allegedly raped (forced to have sexual intercourse) by Orazio's colleague, the painter Agostino Tassi. In 1611 Orazio brought legal action against Tassi. During a seven-month trial Artemisia was pressured by prosecutors to withdraw the rape charges. Tassi was finally convicted, but given only light punishment. Artemesia's family quickly arranged her marriage to a Florentine artist in 1612 and she moved to Florence. She had a daughter with her husband, but eventually she separated from him and led an unusually independent life for a woman of her time. As a result of these events she was portrayed as a sexual libertine (one who freely engages in sexual relations) in the eighteenth century, though there is no firm evidence to support this view.

Becomes accomplished artist

Artemisia Gentileschi spent eight years in Florence. During that time she received commissions from Michelangelo the Younger, grand-nephew of the Italian painter Michelangelo (1475–1564; see entry). Gentileschi contributed The Allegory of Inclination (1617) to a gallery honoring the elder Michelangelo. She also received commissions from Cosimo II de' Medici (1590–1621), duke of Florence, for whom she painted Judith (1620), a replica of a work she had done in Naples. Among the other paintings she produced for the duke was Penitent Magdalene (1620). By the time of her marriage she had already become an accomplished artist. Nearly all of her pictures have female leads. Gentileschi's characterizations are emotional without being sentimental, concentrating on psychology and action. Her earliest surviving work may be Madonna and Child (1609). A clearer idea of her early style can be seen in two other pictures, both dated 1610. The first, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, is based on the biblical story of the Jewish heroine Judith. The Jews had been attacked by an army under the command of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar's general Holofernes. The city of Bethulia is about to surrender when Judith, a beautiful widow, enters the enemy camp and gains the favor of Holofernes. As he lies in a drunken stupor, she and her servants cut off his head. Judith returns to Bethulia with the head and inspired by Judith's action, the Jews drive out the enemy. Gentileschi's picture captures the moment Judith beheads Holofernes. The second painting, Susanna and the Elders, is based the story of Susanna in the Book of Daniel in the Bible (the Christian holy book). Two elders (church officials) attempt to seduce Susanna, but she refuses them. As revenge for being scorned, they then accuse her of having sexual relations with a young man. She is saved from punishment by Daniel, who proves that the elders are lying. Gentileschi's painting shows the elders leaning over a seated Susanna at the moment they are trying to seduce her. These works feature attractive figures and rich-colored costumes painted in a crisp style. Scholars note that Gentileschi's father may have contributed to the paintings, which also reflect the influence of Caravaggio in the use of chiaroscuro. Nevertheless, the pictures show some distinctive traits of Gentileschi's own style, such as the depiction of authentic emotions. Examples are the alert stare of Judith as she beheads Holofernes and the startled expression of Susanna as she turns away from the elders.

Works in Rome and Naples

In 1616 Gentileschi entered the Accademia del Disegno, becoming the first female member of the prestigious Florentine academy. She befriended the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642; see entry), who was the court mathematician to Duke Cosimo II. Gentileschi returned to Rome around 1620. By 1624 she was presumably separated from her husband and was head of a household that included her daughter and two servants. Lacking access to large church commissions, Gentileschi found important private patrons. Her paintings Cleopatra and Lucretia (c. 1621) were purchased or commissioned by the Genoese nobleman Pietro Gentile. The Roman collector Vincenzo Giustiani owned her David (now lost), and in 1622 she painted her only surviving portrait for a sitter named Gonfalionere. After returning to Rome, Gentileschi abandoned the refined style that characterized her work in Florence and began to adopt a realistic technique that utilized chiaroscuro. Among her masterpieces from this period are The Penitent Magdalen (c. 1617–20) and another version of Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1625). This is a large, grand painting with a theatrical lighting effect that isolates the dramatic moment when Judith and her maidservants murder Holofernes. It may be connected with the popularity of the Judith theme in Roman theater at the time. Another majestic painting is Esther and Abasuersus.

Around 1628 Gentileschi moved to Naples. It was here that she began hiring assistants to paint architectural and landscape backgrounds in her works. In 1630 Gentileschi painted a self-portrait for the Roman collector-scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo. It was probably identical to her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630s). This picture is rendered in a strong chiaroscuro style, depicting Gentileschi in the act of painting against a dark background with light flooding onto her face and arms. The self-portrait is now famous as a celebration of the female artist. Other patrons in the 1630s included Francesco I d'Este (1610–1658), duke of Modena; Cardinals Francesco (1597–1679) and Antonio Barberini (1607–1671); and Ferdinando II de' Medici (1610–1670). From 1638 until 1641 she worked in England with her aging father at the court of King Charles I (1600–1649; ruled 1625–49) and Queen Henrietta (1600–1669). The Gentileschis decorated the ceiling of the Great Hall of the Queen's House


The Italian painter Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi; 1573–1610) was among the most innovative artists of the Renaissance. He often portrayed figures as if they were emerging out of darkness, with part of their faces and bodies illuminated by a bright light. Caravaggio revolted against both mannerism and classicism, the dominant artistic styles of the time. For instance, he rejected the elongated figures and curvilinear shapes of the mannerists. He also ridiculed the concept of the classicists that the subject of a painting should be idealized and carry a moral message. In Bacchus with a Wine Glass (c. 1595) Caravaggio showed not a Roman god but instead a pudgy, half-naked boy draped in a bedsheet, who is identified as Bacchus only by the vine leaves in his hair. Sometimes the subject was a scene from everyday life. For example, The Fortune Teller (c. 1595) shows an elegant young dandy with a sword at his side having his palm read by a Gypsy girl. He looks away with almost haughty boredom as she slips a ring off his finger. Caravaggio also liked to isolate a single instant in time. An example is Boy Bitten by a Lizard (c. 1593), which portrays a young man with a small girlish mouth and a rose behind one ear. He squeals with fright as a lizard comes out from behind a flower and bites him on the finger. One of Caravaggio's most famous religious works is Crucifixion of St. Peter. The saint is depicted at the moment when the executioners are beginning to raise up the cross to which he has been nailed upside down. His bare feet are thrust toward the viewer and the aged but powerful apostle lifts his head up from the cross in defiance.

Though Caravaggio was never truly famous in his own lifetime, many who knew his work realized they were seeing something amazingly new in his paintings. His style spread rapidly throughout Europe and influenced Artemisia Gentileschi, among others. Historians note that without Caravaggio, it is not possible to understand the works of the countless artists who followed in the seventeenth century.

at Greenwich. Gentileschi spent her final years in Naples. In the 1640s Gentileschi painted Bathsheba, a second Susanna, and Lot and His Daughters.

"I am Bankrupt"

Gentileschi wrote many letters, some of which have been published. Of particular interest is a letter she sent in 1637 from Naples to one of her patrons, Don Antonio Ruffo, in Messina. Written on the day of her daughter's wedding, it provides a glimpse into Gentileschi's life as a successful but struggling artist. She indicates that her daughter was also a painter.

My Most Illustrious Sir,

I wish to inform you that I received your letter of 21st February, so full of that kindness which Your Most Illustrious Lordship habitually conveys to your servant Artemisia, and with the enclosed note of exchange for one hundred ducats [an amount of Italian money]. I acknowledge also your commission for a work that I am to do for you. I hope with God's help to make something greatly to your liking, and Your Most Illustrious Lordship will see how much I value kindness in a noble heart.

I am very sorry that the Galatea [one of her paintings] was damaged at sea. This would not have happened if I had been permitted to carry out your orders myself, as I would have taken care of it with my own hands. But this will not happen again with the other work, as I will take it upon myself to follow your instructions.

As soon as possible I will send my portrait, along with some small works done by my daughter, whom I have married off today to a knight of the Order of St. James. This marriage has broken me. For that reason, if there should be any opportunity for work in your city, I ask Your Most Illustrious Lordship to assist me with your usual benevolence and to keep me informed, because I need work very badly and I assure Your Most Illustrious Lordship that I am Bankrupt.

Furthermore, I want Your Most Illustrious Lordship to promise me that as long as I live you will protect me as if I were a lowly slave born into your household. I have never seen Your Most Illustrious Lordship, but my love and my desire to serve you are beyond imagination. I shall not bore you any longer with this womanly chatter. The works will speak for themselves. And with this I end with a most humble bow.

Naples, today the 13th of March, 1649.

The most humble servant of your Most Illustrious Lordship,

Artemisia Gentileschi

Please send any letters you write to me in the name of Signor Tommaso Guaragna.

Artemisia's Letter. [Online] Available April 5, 2002.

Artemisia Gentileschi wrote many letters that also reveal her determination to excel in the male-dominated art world. Her success in achieving that goal is seen in her influence on other European artists working in the late Renaissance. Among them were the Simon Vouet (1590–1649) in France, Giovanni Barbieri (called Il Guercino; 1591–1666) in Italy, Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz; 1606–1669) in Holland, and possibly Diego Velázquez (1465–1524) in Spain. Many of Gentileschi's works were attributed to her father until the twentieth century, when art historians were able to identify her paintings.

For More Information


Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Lapierre, Alexandra. Artemisia: A Novel. Translated by Liz Heron. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Vreeland, Susan. The Passion of Artemesia. New York: Viking, 2002.

Video Recordings

Artemisia. Miramax Home Entertainment, 2001.

Web Sites

Artemisia Gentileschi and The Age of Baroque. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

"Gentileschi, Artemisia." Web Galleries. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

Pioch, Nicolas. "Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio." Webmuseum. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

Artemisia Gentileschi

views updated May 18 2018

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, andSusanna 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. □

Gentileschi, Artemisia

views updated May 14 2018

Artemisia Gentileschi

1592–c. 1652


An Artistic Background.

The young Artemisia Gentileschi, perhaps the first woman in Western history to exercise an influence as an artist over men in her field, grew up in Rome, where her precocious artistic development was to be shaped by her father, Orazio. The elder Gentileschi was also an artist, and who, although he was of an older generation, came to bear the characteristic imprint of Caravaggio in the first decades of the seventeenth century. His daughter was recognized as a prodigy early in her life, and she received most of her training in his studio. The great figure of Caravaggio, who dominated the artistic scene in Rome during the early seventeenth century, had worked by painting directly from live models, rather than through the painstaking process of preparatory studies that had flourished during the Italian Renaissance. The Gentileschi, too, adopted these techniques and their works show that they roughly sketched out the contours of the models they painted before rather quickly beginning to paint them. Such a method had inherent pitfalls, as seen in some of the works of Artemisia's father, where the rendering of arms and hands sometimes appears clumsy. But artists in the early Baroque were frequently concerned with capturing the immediacy of the moment, and the works of both Orazio and his daughter, though lacking sometimes in the finesse of High Renaissance masters, were more dramatic and realistic than those of sixteenth-century painters. In her youth Artemisia painted in her father's studio, and by the time she was nineteen she and her father were collaborating on the completion of commissions. Around this time her father hired the painter Agostino Tassi to refine her techniques in the painting of perspective. The artist, however, took advantage of his position and raped the young Artemisia. Incensed, her father sued in the Roman courts, an ordeal that subjected his daughter to the thumbscrews to ensure the veracity of her account of what had transpired. Because of the dubious notoriety the case achieved, Orazio soon arranged for the marriage of his daughter to a Florentine, Pietro Stiattesi, and the young couple headed off to Florence, where Artemisia continued to develop her skills as an artist.

Artistic Success.

In the years after her rape, Artemisia Gentileschi frequently painted the subject of Judith and Holofernes, an incident recorded in the Old Testament apocrypha. In this story, Judith saved the Jewish people by first seducing and then murdering the Assyrian general Holofernes. Gentileschi's treatment of the theme relied on the techniques of Caravaggian realism, and in her most vivid paintings of the subject, the anger that she directed at Holofernes is palpably real. It is still difficult today, even in an age that is relatively immune to the presentation of violence, for many to view Gentileschi's works on this subject. As a young married woman in Florence, Artemisia experienced a number of successes. She was the first woman ever to be admitted to the Florentine Academy of Design, the premier artistic association in a city that had long distinguished itself in the arts. In these years her art acquired a surer mastery, but her marriage seems eventually to have foundered. She left Florence and set up her studio in Naples, a city then ruled by the Spanish and which was falling under the sway of an intensely pious Catholicism. There Gentileschi changed her style, abandoning the daring spirit she had evidenced in her early years to satisfy a more conservative taste.

Travels to England.

Despite the more conservative bent that her artistic compositions took in Italy, Artemisia continued to be a successful artist in Naples. Her brother, Francesco, who was also an artist, came to take examples of her art with him as he traveled in Europe's courts. In 1638, Artemisia traveled to England to visit her father, now a court painter to King Charles I. There she found him in ailing health, and she assisted him in the completion of a number of works for the English crown. Although Orazio Gentileschi was to die a year after her arrival in London, Artemisia stayed in England for another two years, probably completing works that Orazio had begun. Her last years are shrouded in some mystery, but the evidence shows that she did return to Naples, where she continued to paint until her death sometime around 1652 or 1653. Despite the many trials and problems that she experienced throughout her career, her own painted works suggest that she was a major influence in the Italian art world of the early seventeenth century. When she arrived in Florence after 1610, artists began to imitate the Caravaggian style she had absorbed in Rome during her youth. Elsewhere her paintings were responsible for stirring a more thorough understanding of the great early seventeenth-century master, particularly in Genoa and Naples. By virtue of her gender, Gentileschi experienced numerous trials, but at the same time she was able to surmount these to exercise a major formative influence on the art of her generation.


R. Ward Bissell, Artemisia Gentileschi (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).

Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Susanna Stolzenwold, Artemisia Gentileschi (Stuttgart, Germany: Belser, 1991).

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652)

views updated May 14 2018

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