Don’t mess with Artemesia

The name Artemisia has a long, illustrious history. Artemisia I of Caria was a commander for the Persian imperial fleet during the second invasion of Greece, whilst Artemisia II of Caria was responsible for the construction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The third great Artemisia was the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi, she was raised in a world of art. Spending her childhood and adolescence in her father’s workshop, she displayed more talent than her brothers and came to be influenced by the style of the great Caravaggio, a friend of the family.

In some ways, Gentileschi was a member of the artistic establishment. She received the patronage of such potentates as Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Charles I of England and was ultimately accepted as the first female member of the Florentine Academy. However, in both her work and her personal life she stood on society’s margins, daring to paint powerful female subjects in defiance of artistic and cultural norms, refusing to be submissive.

In 1610, at just seventeen years of age, she painted ‘Susanna and the Elders’. The way in which she depicted the characters and events of the Biblical episode differed markedly from her contemporaries and gave some early indication of what her approach to the world was going to be.

Recounted in the Book of Daniel, the story of Susanna tells of a lady bathing in her garden when she is discovered by two elderly voyeurs who threaten to accuse her of meeting a young man in her garden if she refuses to have sex with them. She does refuse and is promptly arrested. Before being put to death, Daniel interrupts and demands that the elders be questioned to prove the veracity of their claims. They give differing accounts, undermining their story and saving Susanna’s life.

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In Alessandro Allori’s depiction of this episode, the nude Susanna appears barely perturbed, seemingly caressing one of the men’s cheek and holding the other’s head to her chest. Indeed, Allori includes sumptuous cloths and a small spaniel to complete the harmless scene. In stark contrast, Gentileschi’s Susanna is movingly disturbed by the old men who are shown to be plotting villains, preying on the innocent from above. The whole tone of the painting is markedly different thanks to Gentileschi’s more subdued palette with the elders’ red cloaks only serving to highlight their danger in comparison to Susanna’s guiltless white.

The horrors of sexual assault entered Gentileschi’s own life the following year when she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father. The brutal patriarchy of early modern Rome forced Gentileschi to endure humiliation and torture. Following the rape, her father did not press charges as the pair continued a sexual relationship which was meant to ultimately lead to marriage. It was not until nine months had passed and it emerged that Tassi was not planning to wed Gentileschi that charges were brought against him.

The central issue of the trial was not the rape but rather the victim’s virginity when the rape occurred, for had Gentileschi not been a virgin Tassi would not have been convicted. During the seven-month trial she was subjected to a gynaecological examination and torture using thumbscrews in order to validate her evidence.

This event evidently had a profound effect on Gentileschi’s life, seen most clearly in her masterpiece ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’. Although the story of Judith was a common subject in Renaissance and Baroque painting, like her depiction of Susanna, Gentileschi’s reinterpretation of the topos is strikingly profeminine. Told in the Book of Judith, Holofernes, an Assyrian general planning to destroy the city of Bethulia, is overcome with desire for the Jewish widow who is consequently permitted entrance to his tent. She plies him with drink until he passes out and then beheads him and saves her home.

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Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ markedly contrasts the work of Caravaggio, whom she had been taught to follow by her father. Caravaggio’s painting of this scene gives the impression that his decapitation is almost effortless with Judith standing back and looking curious rather than furious. Gentileschi’s Judith is actively engaged both emotionally and physically, her face contorted and her hand holding Holofernes’ head down with apparently considerable force. The blood spurts from the wound in every direction and cascades down the bed whilst Caravaggio is much more reserved. The increased energy and visceral nature of Gentileschi’s work is given further significance when the viewer realises that Holofernes is in fact a painting of Tassi and Judith a self-portrait.

A prolific and talented artist, the story of her life and the world in which she lived only serve to vindicate her achievements. Artemisia Gentileschi was an exceedingly worthy bearer of that name.