Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 1)

“I have made a solemn vow never to send my drawings because people have cheated me. In particular, just today I found
that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gata, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi (from a letter to patron Don Antonio Ruffo, November 13, 1649.)

From what I have gleaned in my research and seen with my own eyes of her paintings; Artemisia Gentileschi was a strong, spirited, determined, talented, fearless and voluptuous artist; who possessed bright, fierce eyes that communicate her emotions from her canvases. In pigment she exudes a powerful energy that is completely captivating. In real life she must have been a force of nature!

Artemisia Gentileschi (8th July 1583 – 1656)

Much of her work has been lost, sidelined and misattributed through the centuries, but has recently been restored, revered and rightly honoured.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. Thought to have been in the collection of Charles I.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1638-9, commissioned by Charles I in London. It is now housed in Hampton Court Palace.

If ever there was a body of work that deserved the mantle of ‘art imitating life’ it was hers.

She painted mostly biblical scenes and heroines – strong female protagonists from history and mythology, in a way that was natural and worthy of a Caravaggista.

She truly mastered the Baroque painting technique developed by Caravaggio, known as chiaroscuro, in which light and shadow are sharply contrasted. Only a heroine could have done that…

What she achieved as an artist of the post Renaissance era in a heavily male dominated field (only seven percent of the self-portraits by western art’s most revered masters hanging on the walls of the Vasari Corridor are by women), is just astounding. There were so many obstacles to her success and although she is one of history’s most accomplished female artists of the baroque period, she was never recognised as much as she deserved to be in her lifetime.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

Alas, the stories of many great painters, writers, poets, sculptors and composers share this unfair narrative arc of neglect, both male and female.

“Artemisia has suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her calibre.” ~ Art Historian Mary D Garrard

Artemisia Gentileschi’s childhood and teenage years

Born on 8th July 1593 in Rome to a well-known, established painter, Orazio Gentileschi and his wife, Prudentia Montone, Artemisia grew up being greatly influenced by her father’s trade. At that time in history it would have been impossible for a young girl to receive training in the arts, unless from a parent. She would have learnt to draw, mix paints and watch her father painting in his studio from a very early age.

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi - obviously a very good likeness of his beloved daughter - Artemisia Gentileschi!

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi – obviously a remarkable resemblance of his beloved daughter – Artemisia Gentileschi!

Her mother died in childbirth when Artemisia was just twelve years old, leaving her with her father and in the role of surrogate mother to her three younger brothers. No easy task at the same time as dealing with her own grief.

I love the fact that her father (who was a friend and follower of Caravaggio and Tenebrism), admired her talent regardless of her gender, with no regard for his ego, stating that he could teach her no longer when she turned 15. He then turned to another painter to continue her tutelage.

Rome, although home to the Pope and The Vatican was far from being pure and sin free. After the sun’s pink and orange hues faded from the sky above its historic spires, statues and domed rooftops, its illustrious streets witnessed many deeds of depravity, when parts of the city transformed into a cesspool of vice and crime.

Criminals were swiftly dealt with, (usually on the Piazza di Ponte), where public executions and beheadings were common.  The bodies of these unfortunate souls were left exposed to passers by on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. It was noted that on such occasions the waters of the Tiber ran red


Ponte Sant' Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’ Angelo, Rome

Orazio Gentileschi was understandably keen to protect his only daughter from such goings on; she was vulnerable until she could marry.  Seventeenth Century Italy was very much a patriarchal society where women were often either classed as virtuous or sinful. If a woman lost her virginity outside of marriage (and therefore her reputation), it frequently led to a life of prostitution.

It seems that despite his best intentions for his daughter, Artemisia’s father unwittingly played a hand in one of the most traumatic experiences of her life when she was eighteen years old.

Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi by Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644)

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

As Orazio had worked with a painter of frescoes, Agostino Tassi, at the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, he trusted him to further Artemisia’s training. At the time of the rape (in spring of 1611), with his wife missing, assumed dead, Tassi struck.

One afternoon during one of Artemisia’s lessons, Tassi’s lechery turned into a sexual assault when he accosted Artemisia in her father’s studio. She fled upstairs in an attempt to escape but he followed her, forced her into the bedroom and raped her.

Sadly, the only other woman in her life, a family friend Tuzia, who rented an apartment at the premises did not come to her aid.

Not only was this a traumatic physical and emotional experience (one that she initially kept from her father), but it spelled disaster for her reputation and marriage prospects. It is thought that Tassi promised he would marry her and she had no choice but to accept. Under that expectation and agreement they had sexual relations for a further year, until it emerged that Tassi’s wife was actually still alive (it was rumoured he had hired men to kill her).

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Orazio Gentileschi, who was outraged that his daughter’s purity (and therefore prospects) had been violated by a trusted friend without the promised restoration to his family’s honour. He duly launched court proceedings against the scoundrel Tassi in 1612.

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century currently held by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The case was unprecedented, and with his daughter’s character in tatters through no fault of her own, Orazio wrote to Pope Paul V (who unfortunately was a patron of Tassi’s), to claim reparation for such a wrongdoing to their family name.

He may have been a talented artist, but Agostino Tassi was no gentleman. He was a serial liar, a serial rapist (having also defiled his own sister-in-law) stolen a painting from Orazio’s studio, as well as planning the murder of his wife. The kind of person we might label today as a low-life scumbag!

There would have been no counselling and support for the victim of this sordid affair, Artemisia herself. It must have been a very confusing, frightening and terrible time for her under such an intense spotlight in court and as a subject of notoriety in the gossip circles of Rome.

What follows is a graphic extract recorded by a court notary during the trial in Rome, where Artemisia describes the moment of the rape. The ancient transcriptions of the case are held at the Rome State Archive:

“I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth, I couldn’t cry out. However, I tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair, and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. All this didn’t bother him at all, and he continued to do his business.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi.

Throughout the trial Artemisia was subjected to horrific examinations and torture with instruments such as the thumbscrew, which strongly shaped her psychological development and her future artwork.

Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia_Gentileschi - Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610)

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi circa 1610

Only a year earlier at the age of seventeen she had completed her version of Susanna and The Elders, circa 1610, one of the few paintings of this biblical subject that portrays Susanna with her head turned away from the advances of the men, with body language and an expression indicating their approach is unwelcome.  The female form (possibly based on her own), is more natural rather than idealised. Somehow, it seems to have been an inauspicious omen of the event that would take place on the Gentileschi premises in the spring of 1611.

Paintings of Susanna and the Elders (Book of Daniel) by Bernadino Luini, Jacob van Loo, Ottavio Leoni, Hendrick Goltzius, Antonio Bellucci, Bonaventura Lamberti, Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Alessandro Allori, Rembrandt van Rijn, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter Pietersz, Bartolomeo Chiari, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Massimo Stanzione, Claude Vignon, von Hagelstein, Sebastiano Ricci, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck, Sisto Badalocchio, Jean-Francois de Troy, Salomon Koninck, Frances Trevisiani, Lambert Sustris, Andrea Vaccaro, Hendrick de Clerk, Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri and Orazio Gentileschi have Susanna facing the men (fully or partially) and do not depict the same level of distress and unwillingness.

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Eventually Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison and exile, neither of which he fully served. Artemisia on the other hand, was viewed as damaged goods, but her father (with the help of a substantial dowry), found her a husband, a Florentine artist, the younger brother of the lawyer that had helped him during the lengthy court case against Agostino Tassi.

Despite these considerable challenges, Artemisia managed to pick herself up, ditch her victim mantle and find solace and cathartic expression in her work.

Artemisia Gentilschi quote

In part 2 we’ll look in more detail at her paintings – you’ll notice that many of them are shockingly violent for a female artist – even to our more exposed, desensitized eyes of the twenty first century!

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