Monday, March 26, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Artemisia Gentileschi

Possible self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi became the first woman ever admitted into the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence. She is now recognized as one of the most accomplished painters of her generation, but her work as an artist has long been overshadowed by the high profile rape case that mostly defined her life for centuries.

Artemisia, born in 1593, was the eldest daughter of Orazio Gentileschi. He encouraged his daughter to learn to paint at a young age. She showed great promise so her father hired Agostino Tassi to tutor his daughter. Agostino raped Artemisia when she was 19.

Her father did not let the matter go, and brought Agostino up on charges. The court case was brutal and lasted seven months. Artemisia faced in-court medical examinations to confirm her story. When she testified against her attacker, she was tortured to make sure she was telling the truth. Agostino was convicted but never served his sentence. Orazio married his daughter to one of his debtors after the trial, and they moved to Florence.

Artemisia's work is known for its accurate depiction of the nude female form. Male painters of this era were prohibited from using fully nude female models, but Artemisia did not face this restriction. She also broke barriers in her time by painting narrative scenes. Most female painters only did portrait and still life work. Artemisia's oldest surviving painting, Susanna and the Elders, was completed when she was only 17. It featured the contorted nude body of Susanna and proved Artemisia would be a powerful force in the art world.

For many years, Artemisia's works were either overlooked or attributed to her father. However, interest in her work and rediscovery of some of her paintings and techniques has corrected these mistakes over the past century. Initially, her work was mostly viewed through the lens of her rape. Much of what she did was seen as a commentary on the rape, and she was perceived primarily as a victim.

However, as her work continues to gain prominence, critics have come to see more beyond that single story. What was often seen as women carrying out revenge on men in Artemisia's work, is not viewed by some as Artemisia's way of glorifying story female figures. This female artist, while still very young, broke barriers for women painters, pursued prosecution of her rapist, sought out powerful women as the centerpieces for her paintings and didn't let any of the sexism or sexual assault stop her from creating a vast body of work up until her death sometime in the 1650s.

Learn more:

  • See a list of Artemisia's works on Wikipedia
  • Listen to NPR's coverage of a 2017 showcase of Artemisia's work
  • Read Susan Vreeland's novel, The Passion of Artemisia, based on Artemisia's life and work.
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