Rembrandt. Vermeer. Caravaggio. These are painters well known to the world and with each of them, images of intensely beautiful Baroque paintings are evoked. Unlike the other titans of the Baroque era, to those outside of the art world, Artemisia Gentileschi is a relatively unknown figure. Among art historians she is considered one of the most talented painters of the Baroque age, however, it is unlikely that anyone who has not taken an art history class will recognize her name. It is a shame that her paintings, which exude talent and mastery, are often unknown to the general public. During a time period where men dominated the art world, Artemisia made a name for herself as a talent that rivaled Caravaggio. I believe it is important for all female artists to understand those that came before them.
Born in 1593, Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a follower of Caravaggio. She was taught from a young age to paint by her father and eventually by Agostino Tassi, a man who would rape her and forever affect her art and the way it is viewed by historians. The trial surrounding this rape included torture to ensure Artemisia was telling the truth, and though he was found guilty, Tassi was released from jail. Artemisia’s traumatic trials forever tarnished her reputation and have become the lens with which historians interpret all of her artwork. Possibly her most famous artwork, Judith Slaying Holofernes, depicts the biblical story of Judith who decapitated the enemy Assyrian general Holofernes and is rendered in merciless, gory detail. It is a painting teeming with anger and brutality. Interpreted by many art historians as a symbol of vengeance against her rapist, this painting and the way it is viewed is representative of her career as a whole.
Artemisia’s strength lied in beautiful, naturalistic depictions of women in positions of strength, an unusual sight in the Baroque era. In her paintings, she embraced the very aspect of herself that made her excluded from the male-dominated field. At this time, women were not allowed to apprentice in art studio. Despite this, and all the other difficulties facing her as a woman in art, Gentileschi became the first woman accepted to the Florence Academy of Design and boasted King Charles I of England as her patron. Artemisia Gentileschi survived and thrived as a female artist despite having to face traumatic experiences and an extremely sexist society. Her resilience and lasting reputation speaks to the importance of her work, which deserves recognition by the general public.
There is an unfortunate habit of the public to forget that influential female artists existed prior to the modern era. Our collective memory is dominated by the great men of each art movement, and oftentimes blind to the women also included in it. It is important to acknowledge historical female artists offer them the same reverence that their male counterparts earned. Throughout history, women have contributed to the major art movements and Artemisia Gentileschi is just one example amongst many. While the art world is much more accessible to female artists now, it is imperative that we look to the past and recognize the struggle past women went through to get us to where we are now.
Poggioli, Sylvia. “Long Seen As Victim, 17th Century Italian Painter Emerges As Feminist Icon.” All Things Considered (NPR), Dec. 2016.
“Artemisia Gentileschi—Biography and Art.” The Art History Archive, www.arthistoryarchive.com/.