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Bold & Baroque

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1653)

Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artmesia Gentileschi c. 1616 Oil

(The National Gallery in London purchased the painting for $4.5 million in 2018.)

Often referred to as the boldest female painter of her time. Movies, books and off-broadway plays have been made about her. Since her life has a lot of elements that entice audiences today…. including violence and turmoil. We can't pass up Baroque painter Artmesia Gentileschi in this female artist series.

A warning... Her Art does reflect her life, therefore some of her Art depicting violence can be disturbing for sensitive souls. I’ll be keeping the violent depictions to a minimum, and toward the end of the post so we can get 'warmed up' ;-) since I consider myself in that 'sensitive soul' category! But her life does hold a very important place in Art History, so let’s dive in…

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome July 8, 1593, the only daughter of celebrated painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. At first her father had no artistic ambitions for his only daughter, envisioning a life as a nun.

Orazio was supporting his wife and 4 children with his Art - rather bland commissions for various altarpieces and chapels in Rome. When he was 37 and Artemisia was just 7, he saw a younger artist’s work come on the Rome art scene… Carvaggio with his dynamic plays of light and shadow and those energetic compositions were extremely inspiring to Orazio. He proceeded to strike up a friendship with the younger artist and take in some of the lessons he garnered from seeing his work.

Orazio introduced Artemisia to Carvaggio and numerous other artists of Rome. Artemisia’s ambitions and talents soon asserted themselves and he could see that she may be more set up to be an artist than a nun! So at a very young age she began an apprenticeship with her father.

Unlike many other women artists of this era who were excluded from apprenticeships in the studios of artists, she was lucky enough to be the daughter of a painter. She could be taught the artistic skills she needed at home. She soaked in the influences all around her - and quickly! Those early influences of Carvaggio heightened by her fathers admiration for his strong lighting and compositions, found a way into her work very early. Some may say, even showing throughout her career.

Then, when Artemisia was just 12 years old, her mother, Prudentia, died in childbirth. She was now the only female in the Gentileschi household.

She had little or no schooling, and didn’t learn to read and write until she was an adult. However, she was showing incredible artistic promise. She began assimilating Carvaggio’s methods and by the time she was 15 it showed. Her earliest known work, Susanna and the Elders from 1610 - completed when she was just 17 years old! - is a scene from a biblical story and one of the works she is best known for.

Some art historians consider it all too prophetic of what's to come...

Susanna And The Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1610 Oil

Re-telling chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel — a popular theme in Renaissance and Baroque painting. In the story, a Hebrew girl Susanna is spied on while bathing by 'lecherous elders'. They then attempt to blackmail her for sex, and when she refuses she's put on trial for their false claims. Susanna is eventually vindicated and the elders executed for their crime.

Orazio had kept his daughter confined to his house, according to the custom among respectable Romans of the time. However, the Gentileschi home also functioned as Orazio's studio with its traffic of models, colleagues and patrons. The proximity to men fueled rumors that marred young Artemsia’s reputation.

Recognizing that his daughter's art skills had advanced so quickly, beyond his training, Orzio hired fellow painter Agostino Tassi to further her painting skills. On May 6, 1611 Orazio was away and left a friend in charge of the household. When Agostino Tassi entered the home that day, he raped Artemisia.

At the time, rape was viewed more as a crime against the family’s honor than as a violation of a woman. Charges were brought against him, that began a lengthy 8 month trial - a nearly complete 300 page transcript from the trial remains today. Tassi was convicted.

After the ordeal, to get Artemisia away from Rome, Orazio arranged for her to marry a minor painter from Florence, Pierantonio Stiattesi. They were married on November 29, 1612.

In Florence, Artemisia went on to see further progression in her work, as well as learning to read and write. Here, she created Conversion of the Magdalene which many historians also believe carries a deeper meaning.

Conversion of the Magdalene by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1615-1616 Oil

Mary Magdalen was a much-loved subject both by painters and the public because she represented the ideal model of the search of virtue and the renunciation of worldly pleasures. Artemisia Gentileschi wished to recount the story of this difficult path in her portrayal of a young woman with wild hair wrapped in a magnificent yellow silk gown. The beam of intense light illuminates the figure from the right, a demonstration of the technique Artemisia would have learned by studying Caravaggio's works in Rome, and conveys the sense of drama that envelopes the subject.

Mary Magdalen's inner turmoil is also a reflection of the painter’s own difficult life, who only a few years previously had been raped and endured the shame of a trial. Artemisia Gentileschi, an extraordinary artist and a spirited woman, is seen as a forerunner of female talent, gifted with a unique character and strength of will. It was this talent that enabled her, on her arrival in Florence from Rome at a very young age, to enter into the Florence Academy of Fine Art; to learn to read, to write, to play the lute and to become a part of the cultural world in every sense. Her strength of will helped her to overcome domestic violence and financial difficulties; moreover, it enabled her to claim her own freedom to write passionate letters to her lover Francesco Maria Maringhi, a nobleman who was as cultured as he was tender and who remained a faithful companion throughout her life.

In 1616, Artemisia was the first woman to be accepted into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. During this period, she was held in high esteem by both the royal court and scholars and eventually established a relationship with the astronomer, philosopher and physicist, Galileo.

In Florence, she painted at least seven works for the influential Grand Duke Cosimo II de’Medici and his family. During which time, she had lost three children and weathered her husband’s infidelity and extravagant spending. And… she was just in her late 20’s!

Although professionally rewarding, it had been a tumultuous time for her personally, and she became eager for a fresh start. She moved to Rome with her husband and her daughter Prudentia, the only one of her four children to survive. However, financial distress and her husband’s jealousy and violent outbursts continued to erode her marriage, and not long after, her husband left Artemisia and Prudentia.

She became the head of her own household, with a freedom and independence known to few of her female contemporaries. She moved with her daughter around Italy to accommodate her work and patrons.

But as a single mother she found commissions harder to come by. In 1627, with hope for finding some new patrons, they moved to Venice. Here, she received a commission from Philip IV of Spain to paint a companion piece to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck’s Discovery of Achilles.

Fleeing the plaque in 1630, which wiped out one-third of Venice’s population, Artemisia moved to Naples (then under Spanish rule). There she completed the first altarpiece of her career and a public commission for a major church - an honor still quite hard to acquire because of her gender.

Over the years, Artemsia would often comment on the hurdles of being a female artist…

"a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen”…

“If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way”, she declared.

Historian’s disagree on the idea that many of Artemisia’s paintings held reflections of her early trauma. Debating works like Judith And Her Maidservant and Judith Beheading Holofernes - Are they ‘revenge paintings’? Back then, wealthy patrons had a taste for violence and Judith was a popular subject matter for male artists also. Although, she did complete seven versions of this Old Testament tale during her career.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, ca.1623-1625

in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemsia c. 1620 Oi

“I have seen myself honored by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works, not only with great gifts but also with most favored letters, which I keep with me,” Artemisia wrote to her friend the astronomer Galileo in 1635.

In 1638, Artemisia made her way to London to join her father, who had been in London now for quite sometime painting for the royalty - mostly King Charles I. Recently, he had undertaken a massive commission to decorate the ceilings of the Queen's house in Greenwich England.

Artemisia had exhausted attempts to secure work with her connections in Italy and she was needing money. Her father was doing well for himself in England and she had been invited to join him. At this point, it was probably 17 years since father and daughter had seen each other, but unfortunately there are no details of her reunion with her father.

In 1639 Orazio Gentileschi died at the age of 75, after 13 years of service to the court of Charles I, who honored him with a lavish funeral. Artemisia stayed and continued the painting commission of the ceilings.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi c.1638-1639 oil

It was probably during her brief English sojourn (1638-c.1641) that Artemisia Gentileschi produced this painting. On one level the work depicts an allegorical figure of Painting, and was described as such in Charles I's inventory. With clothes of evanescently colored drapery, she holds a brush in one hand and a palette in the other. The work is also a self-portrait: as a woman artist, Artemisia identifies herself as the female personification of Painting.

Artemisia wears a brown apron over her green dress and seems to be leaning on a stone slab used for grinding pigments in which the reflection of her left arm is visible. Underdrawing along her left arm may indicate where she marked out a position for her arm: quick, expert brushwork can be seen in the way in which she has depicted this arm as barely suggested. The area of brown behind her has been interpreted as background, or as a blank canvas on which she is about to paint. The position of the fingers of her right hand are different in infra-red reflectography and x-radiography, suggesting that the artist was resolving this area as she worked, eventually lengthening the index finger.

As a self-portrait the painting is particularly sophisticated and accomplished. The position in which Artemisia has portrayed herself would have been extremely difficult for the artist to capture. In order to view her own image she may have arranged two mirrors on either side of herself, facing each other. Depicting herself in the act of painting in this challenging pose, the angle and position of her head would have been the hardest to accurately render, requiring skillful visualization.

In 1641, after Civil War broke out in England (a war that would result in the death of Charles I) Artemisia returned to Naples with the assurance of work there. She lived in Naples and completed many more paintings while running a thriving workshop - in which her sole surviving child, her daughter Prudenzia, presumably trained.

She died in Naples. Although, there is some controversy over the details of her death. Most likely she died from the plague around 1656.

After her death, a great deal of her work fell into obscurity and was often attributed to other male followers of Carvaggio or to her father. Art Historian Mary Garrard noted that Artemisia “suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her caliber”.

No longer ignored, in November 2019, Artemisia’s forgotten painting of Lucretia sold for over $6 million at auction. A newly discovered Artemisia depicting David and Goliath (c.1639) was probably also done in London towards the end of her career.

David & Goliath by Artemsia Gentileschi c. 1639 Oil

Artemsia has become recognized in more recent times for retelling of biblical stories from the perspective of a woman. Now, her work is seen to take a very relevant and important place in Art History.

The National Gallery in London was mounting their first UK Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit for April – July 2020; unfortunately effected by the Covid-19 pandemic. But it does have some advantages for us to be able to see an 'on line version'.

So for you serious 'art geeks', here is the rabbit hole: The restoration work done at the National Gallery in London on Artemisia's "Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria":

And if you really want to go deeper, and are looking for a Covid-friendly art fix, you can 'book an online tour' of an Artemisia exhibit through the National Gallery in London... Enjoy!


Peggy Olliff
Peggy Olliff
Apr 01, 2021

Wow! Thank you for this wonderful post. I saved it until I had time to enjoy reading. What a pleasure.

Shirl Ireland
Shirl Ireland
Apr 01, 2021
Replying to

Thanks for your nice comment! Glad you enjoyed it. :-)

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