Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to Artemisia Gentileschi. She would have been 420 years old today. Gentileschi was born on July 8, 1593 and remains one of my favorite Baroque painters. She was heavily influenced by Caravaggio. It is not a big surprise that women were not accepted as legitimate artists during the Baroque period, which makes it that more impressive that our Gentileschi was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
Artemisia was the daughter of the well known artist, Orazio Gentileschi. Her father had commissioned Agostino Tassi to tutor Artemisia. The raping of women not being an uncommon practice, Agostino Tassi and Cosimo Quorlis raped Artemisia. A seven month trial ensued, basically raping Artemisia repeatedly by subjecting her to a gynecological examinations and the use of torture (thumbscrews) to corroborate the truth of her allegation. Eventually, Tassi was sentenced to one year in prison. I suspect that my favorite painting of Artemisia Gentileschi’s is Judith Slaying Holofernes; I always wonder if in someway she is telling her own story of being raped through Judith. The painting features in a fantastic Masterpiece Theatre movie called Painted Lady that one should see to learn more about our Artemisia. The movie was written for and stars our Helen Mirren.
Artemisia knew the low regard given women in the arts and started her career with bold images. As was customary for the time, many of her paintings depict biblical scenes and stories. She focused on depictions of women, especially strong women dealing with difficult circumstances. Her struggle to be taken seriously and her horrific experiences during the rape and trial helped to inform her work.
She is known as a master of both chiaroscuro and tenebrism, making expert use of light and shadow to create powerful images through contrast and dramatic illumination. While she is most associated with Florence, she lived and worked in Rome, Naples, and Venice, taking in the influences and styles of all the major art scenes of the day. In the 19th Century, her works were used to shock students — can you believe a woman did this?! — but her career was given new life in the 1970s as feminist art historians (both men and women) demanded she be given her proper due.
Artemisia Gentileschi is widely recognized as one of the most expressive and progressive painters of her time. Using her life circumstances and her amazing natural talent, she created an impressive body of work (at least 65 paintings) that demonstrate both mastery and beauty.