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Gentileschi, Artemisia 1593–1652

Gentileschi, Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome on July 18, was the most accomplished Italian woman painter of the modern era. As Mary Garrard has stated, Artemisia "suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber" (Garrard 1989). She died in Naples in 1652.


Artemisia, whose father, Orazio Gentileschi, was a renowned painter, was attracted to the art of painting from an early age and was encouraged by Orazio, who introduced her to the works of Caravaggio. His mastery of the chiaroscuro style influenced Artemisia's art. Some scholars believe that she introduced Caravaggism to Florence. At age six she handled her father's colors and posed for him.

In 1609, at age sixteen, Artemisia painted her friend Tuzia, who posed for the artist with her child for the painting Madonna and Child. In 1610 Artemisia depicted Susanna and the Elders; she painted two other renditions of the theme in 1622 and 1649. Hers is an extraordinary interpretation of the biblical story because of its anatomical drawing, the mixture and modulation of light and shadows, the chromatic range and sensuous representation, and the markedly "human" hands. Artemisia's women have human hands that function as signs of female agency, whereas Orazio's women have feminine hands that signify female passivity (Garrard 1989).


Artemisia's life and fame were marked by the events of the period 1611–1612. Her father took legal action against Agostino Tassi, accusing him of raping Artemisia repeatedly over a period of nine months. Tassi previously had been accused of raping his own wife and impregnating his sister-in-law. During the trial Artemisia accused Agostino of raping her repeatedly while promising to marry her. The transcript of the seven-month trial contains Artemisia's direct testimony: "And I scratched his face and pulled off his hair and before he put his member in me I squeezed it and tore off a piece" (author's translation).

Artemisia was subjected to humiliating accusations during the trial: She was not a virgin at the time of the sexual assault, she was a whore, and she had had an incestuous relationship with her father. She had to undergo an examination by a midwife to determine whether she had been raped recently. She was questioned under torture, and her thumbs were crushed, a torture that could have hindered her artistic production. It is noteworthy that the artist Pierre Dumonstier painted a work titled Artemisia's Hand (1625). Artemisia ultimately was vindicated when Tassi was found guilty and condemned to prison. The scandalous episode and the defaming publicity of the trial forced her to leave Rome for Florence in 1614, having contracted an arranged marriage with Pietro Antonio Stiattesi.

During the trial Artemisia worked on Judith and Holofernes (1612–1613), which clearly depicts her rage at the violence to which she was subjected. Judith's decapitation of Holofernes is an outstanding technical expression of the artist's sentiments. A gendered gaze and mode of representation can be seen in her work if this painting is compared with Caravaggio's rendition (1598–1599), or if Anton Van Dyck's Susanna and the Elders (1625) is compared with Artemisia's Susanna.


Artemisia continued painting until her death and produced many masterpieces, the last of which, Il Trionfo di Galatea (1645–1650), was commissioned by Don Antonio Ruffo and executed in cooperation with Cavallino. Her admission to the prestigious Academy of Design under the sponsorship of Duke Leopold II gave her recognition as an artist. During her sojourn in Florence (1614–1620) she produced Judith and the Maid and Judith Decapitating Holofernes, among other works.

During her stay in Genoa (1621), having joined her father, Artemisia met Van Dyck and worked on a Lucrezia and a Cleopatra; the latter is an extraordinarily sensuous portrait of the queen of Egypt. Both works were attributed to Orazio for a long time although they clearly bear the mark of Artemisia's hand. During the Roman period (1622–1630) Artemisia was associated with Caravaggio's followers and painted another Judith and the Maid with Holoferne's Head (1625). In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples and completed the Autoritratto come Allegoria della Pittura [Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting], in which she portrays herself as a painter, an unusual practice among female painters of her time. In Naples she began an Annunciation and worked on the Cycle of the Pozzuoli Cathedral. In 1637 she joined her father again to work in London at the Royal Court on the paintings that make up the Allegory of Peace and the Arts. In 1641 Artemisia returned to Naples, where she died at age fifty-nine. Artemisia painted only one male portrait during her life, the Ritratto di Gonfaloniere [Portrait of a Papal Knight], executed in Rome in 1622.

The first critical recognition of Artemisia's artistry appeared in 1916 in an article by Roberto Longhi in which that critic affirmed that she was the only female painter in Italy who truly knew the art of painting and color, going far beyond the work of female colleagues such as Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Galizia Fede. However, it was only in the 1970s that Artemisia received recognition as a great artist in books by Germaine Greer (1979), Susan Brownmiller (1975), and Mary D. Garrard (1989). The 2005–2006 exhibit "Caravaggio and His Followers in Milan" included four of Artemisia's paintings. Her life and work have inspired novels by Anna Banti (1988), the wife of the critic Roberto Longhi (1988), Alexandra Lapierre (1998), and Susan Vreeland (2002).

see also Art; Artists, Women; Cellini, Benvenuto; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Michelangelo.


Bal, Mieke, ed. 2005. The Artemisia Files. Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Banti, Anna. 1988. Artemisia, trans. Shirley D'Ardia Caracciolo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Bissel, R. Ward. 1999. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Brownmiller, Susan. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Caravaggio e l'Europa. Da Caravaggio a Mattia Preti. 2005. Exhibition catalogue. Palazzo Reale, Milan. Geneva and Milan: SKIRA.

Christiansen, Keith, and Judith W. Mann, eds. 2001. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Exhibition catalogue. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Contini, Roberto, and Papi Gianni. 1991. Artemisia: Catalogo della Mostra, Roma 1991. Casa Buonarroti, Florence. Rome: Leonardo-De Luca Editori.

Garrard, Mary D. 1989. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Greer, Germaine. 1979. The Obstacle Race: The Fortune of Women Painters and Their Work. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Lapierre, Alexandra. 1998. Artemisia: Un Duel pour L'Iimmortalité. Paris: Editions R. Lafont. Translated by Liz Heron as The Story of a Battle for Greatness. 2000. London: Chatto and Windus.

Longhi, Roberto. 1916. "Gentileschi Padre e Figlia." L'Arte XIX: 245-314; reprinted in Edizione delle Opere complete di Roberto Longhi. Vol. 1: Scritti Giovanili, 1912–1919. 1961. Florence.

Vreeland Susan. 2000. The Passion of Artemisia. New York: Viking.

                                            Giuseppe Di Scipio

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