Step into the National Gallery in London and you’ll see the advert to an upcoming exhibition: Artemisia Gentileschi—the 21st female artist ever featured by the Gallery, whose story might exceed any masterpiece in the gallery in its extraordinariness: A symbol of resistance towards the misogyny and oppressive norms of her time.
Born in 1593, daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia grew up in her father’s workshop mixing paint and learning how to draw. Though she was more talented than her brothers, Artemisia had a hard time convincing Orazio to let her become a professional painter. At the time, women practised art only for pleasure and they were entirely dependent on their male relatives. Despite the lack of parental support, Artemisia continued painting. She separated from her father by choosing a more naturalistic approach while he stuck to idealized forms. (For all the fellow art muggles, naturalism manifested itself through depicting things as they were while idealism gravitated towards aesthetic sensibility over true representation). Her style was also heavily inspired by Caravaggio whom Orazio knew personally. Eventually, Orazio relented to his daughter’s will and even hired his co-worker, Agostino Tassi to train her.
When Artemisia was seventeen, Tassi raped her. It was witnessed by Artemisia’s close friend, Tuzia, who ignored her cry for help.
Rape trials today still place undue emphasis on prosecuting the victim’s narrative rather than the perpetrator, but it has come a long way from the way they were conducted in Artemisia’s time. 400 years ago, when women were treated as men’s property, a woman’s social status was ruined if she decided to bring up charges against her rapist. But Artemisia never particularly cared about acting in accordance with what society deemed appropriate.
She was betrayed by her teacher and her best friend and she demanded justice.
Thus, she decided to file a lawsuit against Tassi. As victim blaming was at its peak at that time, the main objective of the trial was to prove that Artemisia had been a virgin. Clearly, the judges did not perceive the act of rape as atrocious enough, so they decided to torture Artemisia with a thumbscrew during the hearings in order to check if she was telling the truth. While her fingers were twisted in front of the public, she relentlessly repeated: “it’s true, it’s true, it’s true”. Eventually, Tassi was convicted (but his punishment was never enforced).
Nevertheless, verdicts in favour of victims were extremely rare and Artemisia’s determination is truly admirable. Humans have a limited capacity to handle pain. Yet, this young female managed to handle the immense physical and mental strain, persistently defending the rights that many did not want to grant her.
Artemisia revolutionized the depiction of female characters in art. While portraying women was common at that time, she took a different approach than her male peers by presenting females as central subjects of her paintings rather than a background. For instance, in Susanna and the Elders, the core of the painting is the plight of the harassed women instead of the pleasure of the old men. One of the most famous paintings of Artemisia is Judith and Holofernes featuring a woman who decides to kill a warlord who besieged her town. The story from the Old Testament was quite a popular theme – Judith was portrayed tempting men or running away with Holofernes’ head. Caravaggio, Artemisia’s big inspiration, took a different approach – he captured the very moment of killing the warlord. Artemisia’s painting depicts the same scene; however, her killer has a different character. While in Caravaggio’s version, Judith seems nervous, in Artemisia’s painting she resolutely grabs Holofernes’ head and you can see the rage in her facial expression.
Here, it is important to discuss the dispute among scholars about the influence that rape exerted on Artemisia’s art. The painter is well known for her portraits of strong and formidable heroines which many art historians attribute to her experience of rape.
More recently, feminist academics started arguing that such interpretation is extremely harmful towards the artist.
Scholar Griselda Pollock argues that rape becoming “the axis of interpretation of the artist’s work” draws attention away from the actual value of Artemisia’s art.
According to her, the focus in Judith and Holofernes is not revenge on men but rather political courage and resistance of the female character. The stigma around rape victims is a problematic issue. People subjected to rape tend to be defined by the society through this experience and often, everything they do is being explained by this event. Rape victims deserve the chance to move on and such an approach prevents them from distancing themselves from their painful past. While Artemisia might not have been the victim of this phenomenon during her lifetime, she certainly is one now. Pollock argues that the focus on rape impedes audience’s ability to analyse Artemisia’s work on a deeper level.
The brassbound patriarchal character of the times Artemisia lived in impacts the amount of credit that the artist is given. Critical academics, like Camille Paglia, claim that Artemisia’s work has been glamorized by feminists and she “was simply a polished, competent painter in a Baroque style created by men”.
Many point out that the topics of her paintings were largely influenced by the preferences of her patrons. Indeed, at the end of the day in order to survive, Artemisia had to meet the expectations of her clients. However, while the patrons could impact the subject of the painting, it was entirely up to Artemisia how she would execute it. The value of her works does not lie in the themes but rather in the innovative presentation of female characters.
Artemisia was not a pleaser.
“You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman”
– Artemisia once wrote about herself in a letter to one of her patrons. She actively fought for equal wage and refused to be treated as worse than her male peers. It is therefore unfair to judge Artemisia by today’s standards because the independence she enjoyed was far beyond the line set for her female contemporaries. She did not rely financially on her husband, Pierantonio Statess, and after she was introduced to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, she began travelling alone. The admission was certainly a milestone in her personal and professional life. As the first woman ever admitted into the Academia, she gained the ability to sign the contracts and buy paints without male permission. She gained freedom through painting.
After Artemisia’s death, the world forgot about this fierce woman who refused to be controlled by men. As she could not fight for recognition anymore, the male-dominated narrative swept away memories about her. Throughout the past few years, scholars rediscovered the artist and the awareness about her is slowly growing.
As someone who grew up thumbing art history textbooks full of male artists and their masterpieces, I wish I was introduced to her earlier in my life. Artemisia should be perceived as a role model for modern women who refuse to accept the male-dominated status quo. Whether in personal or professional life, Artemisia’s persistence is inspiring and thought-provoking.
After all, if a woman managed to successfully challenge patriarchy in the 17th century, we can do it today too. Discovering women like Artemisia is important because school curriculums often fail to inform you about them. Society puts a lot of effort into showing us a world of art painted by men. Until the 20th century, the role of great women was reduced to insignificance and relative obscurity. This is however far from true and it is in our greatest interest to debunk such myths.
If you found this story of Artemisia Gentileschi interesting:
Read books like Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World.
Visit her exhibition in London’s National Gallery (launching in 2020).
Stand up to the patriarchy.