Blog 67 25/04/2017 Artemisia Gentileschi: Libertine and Painter of the Italian Baroque.
Artemisia Gentileschi: Libertine and Painter of the Italian Baroque.
In 1916 the Italian art critic, Roberto Longhi, described Artemisia Gentileschi as “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, colouring, drawing, and other fundamentals” and an ealier 19th century critic commented on Artemisia’s Magdalene stating, “no one would have imagined that it was the work of a woman. The brush work was bold and certain, and there was no sign of timidness”. Whilst the 19th century view encapsulates the prevailing viewpoint at the time, that a women painting powerful images is a rarity in the domain of men, it does go to show the esteem that Artemisia held in the art world.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/53) was born in Naples, daughter of the painter, Orazio Gentileschi and his wife, Prudentia Montone, who died when Artemisia was young. She was the eldest of four children and the only girl. Like most women painters of that era, they were excluded from apprenticeships in the ateliers of successful artists and as such, developed their skills due to the fact that they were the daughters of successful artists. Artemisia and her three brothers grew up in an artistic environment. Her father, Orazio was a highly successful painter who was influenced by the Mannerist decorations of the Sistine rooms in the Vatican Library and the naturalistic style of Caravaggio and the two became friends. Orazio encouraged his daughter’s talents just as much as any other of his pupils and Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro style (contrast of light and shadow) greatly influenced her work. Artemisia had little schooling and did not learn to read and write until she was an adult but this did not appear to hinder her success. Indeed, by the time she was seventeen, she had already produced one of the works for which she is best known, her own interpretation of Susanna and the Elders (1610). Ironically, the story would come to represent an important incident in her life. The story is from the Book of Daniel and depicts two elders who threaten to testify that Susanna was alone with a young man in her garden, which she was not, unless she has sex with them.
Among those with whom her father worked, was the Florentine fresco artist, Agostino Tassi, and Orazio asked him to teach her daughter perspective. What followed would become one of the most well-known stories of the time, particularly in the art world, Artemisia was thrust into the middle of a celebrated rape case which received considerable publicity, yet in no way diminished her brilliance. In 1612, during one of these lessons, Artemisia accused Tassi of raping her. She was nineteen. Her father immediately filed suit against the painter for injury and damage. The transcripts of the seven-month-long trial are still available today
At the time, Artemis was of marriageable age and in order to protect his daughter’s honour, Orazio hired the next door neighbour, Tuzia, as a companion and chaperone. But Tassi was a sweet-talker and manipulative and waited until Tuzio was out of the room. According to Artemisia, Tassi, with the help of family friends, attempted to be alone with her repeatedly, and raped her when he finally succeeded in cornering her in her bedroom. After the rape, he tried to placate her by promising to marry her, and gained access to her bedroom on the strength of that promise. But he always avoided following through with the actual marriage. A court case of any description could destroy social allegiances, professional reputations and family honour, particularly a rape case, and Artemis suffered terrible indignation to prove her honesty. She was accused of not having been a virgin at the time of the rape and of having many lovers, and she was examined by midwives to determine whether she had been “deflowered” recently or a long time ago. Adding insult to injury, Tassi testified that her skills were “so pitiful that he had to teach her the rules of perspective”, and was doing so the day she claimed he raped her. What that had to do with the rape, shows his arrogance. However, he vehemently denied the accusations and brought many witnesses to testify that she was “an insatiable whore.” Orazio, who was like a dog with a bone, refuted this and brought a countersuit for perjury. In Artemisia’s defence, a former friend of hers corroborated her statement recounting Tassi’s boasting about his sexual exploits at Artemisia’s expense. Unfortunately, Tassi had a history of violence against women having been imprisoned earlier for incest with his sister-in-law and was charged with arranging the murder of his wife. He was ultimately convicted of Artemisia’s rape and served a year in prison. Oddly, Orazio later invited again into the Gentileschi household, presumably knowing he would never dare try such a thing again.
After the trial Artemisia married a Florentine, Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and in 1616 she joined Florence’s Academy of Design, the first woman to do so. It was in Florence that she began to develop her own distinct style. Unlike many other women artists of the 17th century who specialized in portraiture and still life, she specialized in historical imagery. In Florence she associated with the Medicis and painted an Allegory of Inclination (1616) for the series of frescoes honouring the life of Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti.
Sometime around 1630 she moved to Naples, and eight years later went to London with her father, where they worked together for King Charles I. The ceiling paintings of the Great Hall in the Queen’s House in Greenwich are a result of their collaboration. After her father’s death in 1639, Artemisia stayed on in London for several more years where she painted many portraits and surpassed her father’s fame. In 16040/41 she returned to Naples, where she painted several versions of the story of David and Bathsheba.
Contrary to popular sexist theories about her life being destroyed, which seemed to have been the prevailing thought throughout the following centuries, most of which came from articles that concentrated on her “lasciviousness” and which speaks more about the writers of the time than it does about her, the rape case did not seem to cause her permanent damage in her lifetime. If anything, she came out of it as somewhat of a libertine and a respected professional. Her subject matter alone shows her to be an independent thinker and woman capable of taking herself seriously, against the constraints of a patriarchal society. Her works were bold and defiant, and her colours became stronger as she continued to employ tenebrism, or chiaroscuro, a dramatic, dark and mysterious style of painting developed by Caravaggio and other 17th-century Spanish and Italian artists which is characterized by predominantly dark tones and shadows with dramatically contrasting effects of light.
Artemisia Gentileschi is an inspiration, not only for her powerful artwork, but because, as a woman, she managed to thrive in a male-dominated field and overcome the limits and prejudices of her time: such a contrast to the fortunate life of her predecessor, the painter Sofonisba Anguissola.