The Art of Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Self Portrait
Artemisia Self Portrait

The Story of Artemisia is a tale of genius and heroism. It is a story of a personal triumph of a woman of talent and fortitude succeeding despite or maybe even because of prejudice, injustice and peer jealousy. She was driven not just to do well but to exceed in painting. She had a need to prove and vindicate herself as well as survive financially in a world dominated by male sexism and exclusivity. Her legacy is not simply the handful of 34 paintings that have survived the centuries but her unacknowledged influence ,until recently, on the Baroque movement and women’s abilities in the top level of the art world. Her success ,despite serious personal obstacles that no other contemporary male artist had to contend with ,elevates her to heroine status and demands that historians rethink their male bias on the contribution of women to the arts through the ages.
Her story begins in Rome in 1593 where she was born to the Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi. She was the oldest of four children and the only female. Her mother died when she was a child and was trained in painting by her father and her genius was evident early on. Because she was female ,she did not have access to the traditional course of study and apprenticeship that was standard for her male contemporaries. However, she was surrounded by great artists that would be friends of her father and the explosion of art projects occurring in Rome at this time as part of the revitalization of Rome. This was the time of Moderno, Caravaggio, Carracci. Quido Reni, and Bernini. She was strongly influenced by Caravaggio who was an acquaintance of her father and visited his studio to borrow props. She was also influenced by living amongst the sculptures and frescos of Michelangelo Buonarroti whose treatment of the male nude she translated to the female form. She was surrounded by genius as the status quo and could not help but assume that she too must work to their level to become an acceptable artist.

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Figure 1 Susanna and the Elders, 1610 Artemisia Gentileschi,

In her early works, Artemisia was working from her fathers model of painting which is common for the student to emulate the teacher. “Susanna and the Elders”, figure 1, is an example of this early influence.  The composition is based directly on her father’s supervision. Her genius is seen in her assimilation of not only her father’s work but the color scheme ,differing from her father’s standard scheme, that resembled Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescos. What makes this painting uniquely Artemisia’s is her expressive treatment of the theme. Susanna is shown in a defensive and fearful position, her arms extended to ward off the elders and their insidious lustful gazes. Artemisia brings an insider’s expertise to the female character. She is more familiar to the nuances and body language of her gender and she can better empathize with the female characters. In general, her fellow male artists focus on physical characteristic only , the psychological factors that are communicated in the nuances of gesture, posture and facial expression are not addressed.

Figure 2 Susanna and the Elders, 1616 Ludovico Carracci,
Figure 2
Susanna and the Elders, 1616
Ludovico Carracci,

Figure 2 is Carracci’s version of Susanna and the Elders. Note the lack of distress conveyed on the features of Susanna even though in the story she is threatened with denouncement as an adulterer which would lead to her death if she doesn’t submit to rape. It’s as if this Susanna doesn’t really mind being ogled. The image is more about ideal beauty the than the emotion of the moment.
Artemisia understood sexual harassment from first hand experience. She also understood the powerless and vulnerable position of women in a male dominated society and profession. It was soon after the painting of Susanna that Artemisia found herself raped and denounced as a slut in a seven month public trial. The rapist, Agostino Tassi, her father’s friend and her tutor on perspective, was found guilty but served very little time and was later reconciled to her father as a friend. She was violated, abused and betrayed. Even the woman who had become her surrogate mother turned on her. It would seem that such a personal tragedy would destroy a persons ability to go on and cope with life but Artemisia survives, marries, moves on and succeeds. Her talent and success soon eclipsing her fathers. Her experiences link her closely to the heroines of her paintings. She imprints on her characters the intimate psychological understanding of the female heroine: that sense of endurance and determination.

Figure 3 Judith and Her Maidservant, 1613 Artemisia Gentileschi,
Figure 3
Judith and Her Maidservant, 1613
Artemisia Gentileschi,

Judith and her Maidservant, Figure 3, was completed in Florence after the rape trial of 1612. If we compare it with her father’s later treatment of the same theme, figure 4, we can illustrate her ability to take a common, much painted theme and inject that sense of the moment and communicate the instantaneous emotional experience of the characters.

Figure 4 Judith and Her Maidservant,ca1616 Orazio Gentileschi,
Figure 4
Judith and Her Maidservant,ca1616
Orazio Gentileschi,

Though the positions are similar, the proximity of the two figures is altered enough to communicate different body language. The lighting, a style of tenebrism, is different in the angle at which it shines on the characters. Orazio’s lighting is more frontal and thus illuminates more flatly and without leading the eye. Artemisia’s lighting is consistent with the directed gaze of the two startled characters. Their closer proximity expresses the intimacy of the shared act and the shared comfort of an anxious moment by staying close to each other. This body language alone expresses the communal fear of the participants and thus heightens the amount of courage that was needed to carry through the heroic and repugnant act. Orazio has the characters at a slightly more separated which is enough to emotionally dissect the women and distinguish the delegation of roles between them. They remain mistress and servant. His treatment of Judith’s profile does little to reveal what she is experiencing in that moment, whereas Artemisia’s Judith has her mouth slightly open as she is startled in midsentence. It communicates an interrupted intimate moment between the two fearful and conspiring women. Their speech, movement and physical danger are all in suspension at the moment of this painting. Artemisia goes beyond realism and the dramatic action/reaction to include important details that express the internal effects and personal emotions of the situation. The major difference is that we, the viewers, experience the scene as if we were with the characters instead of observing them from our external reference point.
Her attributed works tend to stay with female characters such as Susanna, Judith, Mary Magdalen, Cleopatra and Lucretia to name a few. She portrays these woman as strong, enduring and courageous not as weak or submissive. She injects a new perspective into these heroines and saints. They personified women coping with and surviving male injustice, sexism and brutality.

 

Barbara Rzesutock, 2003

Bibliography

Bissell, R. Ward., Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999

Corbell, Rebecca ;and Samantha Guy, Artemisia Gentileschi and the Age of Baroque, URL: http://rubens.anu.edu.au/student.projects/artemisia/Artemisia.html (18 May 2003)

Garrard, Mary, Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity, California, University of California Press., 2001

Garrard, Mary, Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, New Jersey, Princeton University Press., 1989

McBride, Kari Boyd, Artemisia Gentileschi , URL: http://www.u.arizona.edu/ic/mcbride/ws200/gentil.htm (18 May 2003)