Essential Artemesia

The Artdog Images of Interest

I’m celebrating “Women’s ART History Month” this March, with a new “Image of Interest” post each week that features a small collection of images and a few biographical snippets about some of my favorite women artists.

These women made their mark in what has been for centuries a world that belonged mostly to men. Some are better known than others, but I hope you’ll enjoy the work of all.

Where else could I start, but with Artemesia Gentileschi?

Artemesia Gentilesci’s Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-39.

Artemesia is widely acknowledged as “the most important woman painter” of her time, the only woman admitted to the Academia dell’Arte del Disgeno in Florence. Typically of the male chauvinists who dominated the art history field for centuries, Artemesia’s paintings were not even recognized as her own until late into the 20th Century.

It’s crazy to realize, but as far as we know, Artemesia’s first-ever solo show didn’t happen till 1991 (this is really pushing the idea of “better late than never” to previously-unimagined lengths). It was held at Casa Buonarroti in Florence, the same place where Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger commissioned her to paint Allegory of Inclination in 1615.

Artemesia Gentileschi’s Allegory of Inclination, 1615, painted for Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger.

Taught to paint by her father Orazio Gentileschi (and unfortunately also by a lowlife slime named Agostino Tassi), Artemesia was influenced by both Orazio’s work, and that of his friend Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, as attested by her marvelous use of the chiaroscuro technique, and of tenebrism in her paintings.

Infamously, the story of how she was a rape victim always seems to get a lot of play in her biographies. Partly this may be because it is one of the best-documented aspects of her life. The horrifying transcripts of the months-long trial have survived. But mainly it’s the sensational nature of the story. Many other facts about her life have faded into obscurity in most bios.

Judith and her maidservant really put their backs into their work, in Judith Slaying Holofernes1614-20.

One thing that hasn’t faded, however is the vivid and poetically ageless revenge she took on men (especially in the person of Holofernes–could her model have been Tassi?) in her paintings. 

According to one biography, Judith Slaying Holofernes was painted for Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who hid the painting from view as he believed it was “too horrifying to behold.I’ve got to say that the expression on Judith’s face probably does have a tendency to make the cojones shrivel.

Artemesia included a glimpse of old Holofernes’s head and a rather badass-looking sword, when she accessorized Judith and her Maidservant1613-14.

Even before the sordid rape episode, her Susanna and the Elders (a masterwork produced when she was 17) makes it clear she already knew all too well what it felt like to be objectified.

Anyone who doesn’t cringe in empathy with poor Susanna in Artemesia’s Susanna and the Elders, 1610, has only ever been on the oglers’ side of the interaction.

A true survey of her artwork reveals, of course, that she panted a far greater range of subjects than the battle of the sexes. Most of her subjects, indeed, were dictated by her patrons, but they still mostly feature rather-more-bold-than-usual women. The art critic Roberto Longhi wrote, “There are about fifty-seven works by Artemisia Gentileschi and 94% (forty-nine works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men.” Here are a few more wonderful pieces, to give you a glimpse of her range.

Artemesia’s The Penitent Magdalene, 1617-20, looks to me as if she might be having second thoughts. The color of her dress, by the way, is sometimes called “Gentileschi Gold.” Artemesia signed the painting on the back of Mary’s chair; as she often did during this period, she chose to use her uncle’s surname, rather than that of her father or her husband.
Did Artemesia play the lute? Maybe. She appears to have a clue about fingering in this Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615-17.
Let’s wrap with another later work, Clio, the Muse of History, 1632. As well she should, Clio appears undaunted by the weight of history (“muse of,” after all). So too, Artemesia’s work has stood up quite well to the test of time. 

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikipedia and the Royal Collection (of the British Royal Family) for the self-portrait image of Artemisia at work, to Art History Archive, for the Allegory of Inclination image, to Wikipedia and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence for the image of Judith in her moment of gory triumph, and to Wikipedia and the Palazzo Pitti in Florence for the image of the wickedly-accessorized Judith-plus-one; also for the painting of Mary Magdalene in the golden gown. Many thanks to Wikipedia and the Web Gallery of Art for the image of Susanna and the dirty old men, as well as the same duo for the photo of the self-confident Clio (the painting is in the Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa, a savings bank in Pisa, Italy). Finally, many thanks to Wikipedia and The History Blog for Artemesia’s self portrait with the lute; the painting itself is currently in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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