March 26, 2022

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)

Was a female Italian Baroque painter in a time when women were not accepted as artists, and most were certainly not allowed to paint unless they lived in an Abbey. Today she is considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation of artists who came after Caravaggio and is well known for painting courageous or strong-minded women from mythology.

(Gentileschi, Artemisia. Self Portrait. c. 1638. oil on canvas. Royal Collection, Windsor.)

Gentileschi was born in Rome. Her mother passed away when she was twelve. Her grieving father unexpectedly took her on as his apprentice and taught her how to paint like a master. She was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, an accomplished painter, and talented artist. He introduced her to the famous artists of Rome of the time, including the infamous Caravaggio with whom he was close friends. Caravaggio casually stopped by their home to borrow props and perhaps even encouraged her to paint.

(Gentileschi, Artemisia. Judith and her Maidservant. c. 1612-1613. oil on canvas. Galleria Palatina, Florence.)

Artemisia's style is characterized by "tenebrism," from the Italian word "tenebroso" (dark or gloomy), which describes a painting style where dark colors dominate over the light ones or the extreme contrasts of light and dark areas have dramatic illumination.

(Gentileschi, Artemisia. Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. c. 1625. oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts.)

In 1611 when Artemisia was 18 years old, Agostino Tassi, an artist who worked with her father, unfortunately, secluded and raped her. When her father found out, he demanded justice and filed formal charges against Tassi for the injury and damage to his daughter's honor.

The trial was horrendous and lasted over seventeen months. Artemisia was physically tortured publicly in the courtroom to recant her statement and test the truth of her accusations. Tassi also presented painful counter-accusations that she was not a virgin, a whore, and a talentless painter.

(Gentileschi, Artemisia. Penitent Magdalene. c. 1630. oil on canvas.)

During the trial and after, Gentileschi began to design and paint the story of Judith slaying Holofernes from the Bible. Judith was already a popular subject matter of the time, but Gentileschi's portrayal is both original and presents a unique perspective. Tassi was finally convicted and sentenced to prison for the rape but he only served less than one year. He was freed because he had connections with the pope.

(Gentileschi, Artemisia. Yael and Sisara. c. 1620. oil on canvas. Budapest, Szepmuveszeti Museum.)

In 1614, Gentileschi became the first official female member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, only made possible by her most famous patron, the Grand Duke Cosimo II of the Medici family. Artemisia's unusual liberties combined with her traumatic experience allowed her to create some of the best chiaroscuro paintings of her time.