Artemisia Gentileschi: the master of artistic revenge

I’m starting this post on incredible Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi by talking about about my dog. This is relevant, I promise, because I almost named her after Artemisia.

When we first saw a picture of my dog and the rest of her litter, we noticed that they all had been named after famous painters which seemed like a sign, given my family’s deep love for art history.

Just a lil pup…

We suspect that what influenced the names was the stroke of white on our dog’s nose. The pups were part golden retriever, part collie and, potentially, part black lab and so each puppy looked different but they all looked like they had just ran across a wet canvas.

My dog’s original name was Cassatt after Mary Cassatt and we initially debated keeping it. I love Mary Cassatt and I thought it was a nice unique name which would be easy to call out. However, after interacting with her, it became clear that Cassatt was perhaps too refined for her goofy behavior.

We still liked the idea of naming her after a female painter and so we began to compile a list of options. At the top of my list was Artemisia, a painter I had adored in my AP Art History class because of her brilliant take on the Baroque style. However, not only was it also a bit too elegant for the floppy puppy, it would have been difficult to call out.

We ended up straying fairly far away from female painters and ended up naming her Jovie after Zooey Deschanel’s character from “Elf,”  not, as many people initially think, after Bon Jovi. It captured her jovial (see what we did there?) spirit better than our other ideas and she seemed to take to it. I was still glad that I had taken the time to look for name inspirations in Artemisia’s life because I had tripped across many fascinating elements that I hadn’t known before. 

Artemisia was born in Rome, Italy on July 8, 1593 to mother Prudentia Montone and father Orazio Gentileschi. Her father was quite a prolific painter himself and had worked on many church frescos with the brilliant tromps de l’oil landscape painter Agostino Tassi. Despite his beautiful work, we don’t like Tassi. More on that later.

Self Portrait by Orazio Gentileschi / Image Credit: Wikimedia

In the early seventeenth century, Orazio became mesmerized by the Baroque master, Caravaggio, and the two became quick friends, frequently hitting the bars together. Orazio’s work quickly took on the dynamic, tense, highly realistic style of Caravaggio’s.

This style translated into Artemisia’s own practices in painting as Orazio taught her the art and she quickly demonstrated herself enormously talented and skillful. Unfortunately, when Artemisia was 12, her mother died during childbirth and her practices were sidelined so that she could become the surrogate mother for her three younger brothers.

However, as she grew up and took on more responsibility helping in her father’s studio, her talent became more obvious and pronounced. Orazio devoted more time to instructing her specifically. When she was seventeen, in 1610, she produced her earliest signed work “Susanna and the Elders.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia

There were many people at the time who didn’t think it was possible that Artemisia could have painted such a masterpiece at her young age, and that her father must have painted it. However, I say, and many historians will back me up, that that is pure baloney. Although I’m sure the historians would phrase it much more articulately.

“Susanna and the Elders” was a popular topic for painters throughout the history of art. However, nobody had told the story from Susanna’s perspective until Artemisia. The biblical story is about two elder men who sexually harassed Susanna, a virtuous young wife. In each of the other renditions, painted by male artists, Susanna appears as seductive or flirtatious, in a way that suggests that it was her fault that the men accosted her, that she was “asking for it.”

However, in Artemisia’s version, Susanna is vulnerable and frightened, attempting to shield herself from the remarks of the older men who loom above her and whisper to each other conspiratorially. The realness of the subject’s psychological state is what makes this one of her most striking masterpieces. 

Self Portrait / Image Credit: Wikimedia

Unfortunately, such a psychological state was not foreign to Artemisia. Remember Tassi? That guy that we don’t like? He had been making similar advances and threats to Artemisia for nearly a year. Whenever he drank, he liked to brag that he had arranged his wife’s murder to get back at her for cheating on him. It wasn’t much of a pick-up line but then again, Tassi wasn’t much of a man.

On May 6, 1611, Tassi stormed into Orazio’s studio where Artemesia was working and yelled “Not so much painting,” repeatedly. He then threw her tools on the floor and attacked her. She fought back, turning a knife on him at one point, but still, he overpowered her and violated her.

The odd thing about rape, at the time, was that it was less of an attack of the victim and more of a jab at the family. So when Orazio found out, he was less concerned about her daughter than he was at essentially becoming the butt of the era’s “yo mama” joke. (I am by no means trying to make light of the subject but simply trying to call attention to the ridiculousness of the viewpoints back then.)

As retribution, Orazio made Tassi marry his daughter and Tassi initially agreed. But remember that first wife that Tassi in theory arranged the murder of? Surprise! She was still alive! After word of this spread, Tassi backed out the marriage, infuriating Orazio. Orazio wrote a letter to none other than the Pope and said that his goods have been destroyed, referring to Artemisia, and that he wished to seek legal action.

This commenced one of the longest rape trials in Rome’s recorded history. It lasted 10 months and the transcript is over 300 pages long. Artemisia had to testify again and again that she had been raped. However, the way most rape trials worked back then was that the judges (there were no juries) assumed the victims were lying and proceeded to torture them to make sure their account could hold up under extreme duress. Only then would the judge take a victim’s word as valid.

Artemisia was subjected to the standard methods of court torture at the time. The “beginners” torture, if you will, was caused by wrapping a rope tightly around each of her fingers and pulling the ends tightly, cutting off the circulation. The “advanced” torture was caused by thumbscrews, metal contraptions that her fingers, capable of producing such extraordinary paintings, were held by and subsequently crushed. After enduring endless hours in these horrific contraptions, Artemisia stood by her account. Only then did the judge believe her. 

If that wasn’t infuriating enough, Tassi underwent no such torture during his testimony even though he was the aggressor,  had been imprisoned earlier in his life for incest and  had told multiple witnesses that he had been sleeping with Artemisia. However, during the trial, he said that he had never laid a finger on her. He even went so far as to say he only visited her father’s house in order to protect her virginity from other men who might attempt to take it by force.

AUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!

He was, at least, found guilty and was exiled from Rome for five years. However, nobody enforced this exile and so he essentially walked around scot-free.

AUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!

Meanwhile, Artemisia, her virtue lost, was dishonored and laughed at as she passed through the streets. The incident was a stain on her family forever. So she had two choices: enter a convent or get married. Because of her immense talent as an artist, her father arranged a marriage with Pierantonio Stiattesi, the brother of a lawyer who had helped in Artemisia’s trial. Pierantonio was also a painter and the two left Rome for Florence in the hopes of finding commissions for work.

Finding patrons were hard, especially as an illiterate female artist with a rocky past, but she received her first commission from Michelangelo’s nephew who was creating a series of paintings detailing his uncle’s legacy. Artemisia painted “The Allegory of Inclination” personifying the painter’s artistic calling as an etherial woman.

Image Credit: Pinterest

Orazio had also written to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany requesting a patronage for his daughter. Soon, Artemisia was painting for the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo de Medici. As in THE Medicis. This caused Artemisia to become a fixture in the art world of Florence and she made many friends who helped to educate her in music and in literature. One of these friends just so happened to be Galileo. As in THE Galileo.

During this time, she created another one of her famed masterpieces, “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” More graphic and gory than the original biblical story, the painting portrays Judith and her maidservant as strong, powerful women. However she did not depict them as the monstrous, unfeeling witches that many men had created in the past, but as mortal women who struggled in their attempts to kill a tyrant but were successful nonetheless. The painting’s brutality is understandably interpreted by many as an artistic revenge for Artemisia’s rape. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Her marriage had not been a particularly happy one, especially since three of her four children did not live past childhood. This was unusual, even for the time. Additionally, Pierantonio tended to spend money faster than the pair was able to earn it. He also allegedly cheated on Artemisia multiple times.

Hoping a change of scenery might help, they moved from Florence to Rome. There, she made friends as easily as she had in Florence, which further angered Pierantonio. He even slashed the face of one of Artemisia’s buddies before abandoning the marriage for good.

Around this time, patrons began to tire of the Baroque tradition and started to seek out Neapolitan painters. This made commissions difficult for Artemisia so she accepted a commission from King Phillip IV in Spain so that she would have enough money to support herself and her daughter.

She moved to Venice briefly until the bubonic plague came a-knockin’ and killed nearly a third of its population (you know what this means…the return of the Black Death Hollaback Girl video!!! If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go back and read my post about Caterina Sforza). Surviving the plague, Artemisia and her daughter moved to Naples, where she stayed for the rest of her life with the exception of one short stint in London.

Image Credit: Royal Collection

She went to Greenwich to help Orazio paint the ceiling panels of the Queen’s House for Queen Henrietta Maria. Unfortunately, during the process of working on the house, Orazio died in February 1639. Artemisia remained in London to finish the work and to bury her father but, once she had work in Italy, she returned to Naples and worked until her death in April 1652 around the age of 59.

Her legacy has been somewhat tarnished because many of her works have been attributed to other artists, mainly because many people did not believe that a woman was capable of producing such high quality work She wrote a letter to one of her patrons about the difficulty of working in a predominantly male field. She was particularly tired of defending her paintings as her own and struggling to get a fair sum for them. “You feel sorry for me because a woman’s name raises doubts until her work is seen. If I were a man, I can’t image it would have turned out this way.”

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting / Image Credit: Wikimedia

Conversely, in the past couple of decades, there has been a mad rush to assign nearly any sympathetic painting of a woman at the time to Artemisia. This is equally as problematic because it takes away her striking individual artistic identity and portrays her legacy as a feministic ideal rather than a woman who fought to succeed.

Her legacy, as I see it, should be that she changed the perspective her subjects by turning them from victims into survivors, into people in control of their own destiny, and gave a voice and a power to the wronged women of history, such as Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Lucretia, and, of course, Judith and Susanna.

So, while I love Jovie, and find that she does inspire me to be a better person (which will sound crazy to anybody who doesn’t have the greatest dog in the world), I think Artemisia’s legacy is better carried out in a less furry and floppy form.

The most elegant odalisque in art history…
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