Art was a battlefield for Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a feminist before the word was invented
The 17th-century artist painted a new vision of womanhood and fought for the very things women fight for today
*Originally published on May 25, 2022.
Sexual assault. The battle for control over a woman's body. The silencing of women's voices. Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi lived it all in the 1600s, resisted and ultimately won.
Gentileschi carved a name for herself as the daring painter of biblical and Roman heroines — Judith, Esther, Susanna, Lucretia. Her bold history paintings upended traditional depictions of women by male artists and delivered instead complex female figures: gutsy, intelligent and strong.
"I will show your illustrious Lordship what a woman can do," she wrote in a note to her patron in 1649.
Gentileschi achieved extraordinary success in her own time. In the centuries that followed her death, however, the artist's standing faded. Art books referred to her in passing as the daughter of her artist father, Orazio Gentileschi.
That changed in 1971 with the publication of an article titled, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Five years later, several of her paintings were included in a groundbreaking exhibition about women artists that opened in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.
Since then, Gentileschi has been the subject of exhibitions, books, movies and plays. She is now often known by her first name, Artemisia, like superstar male artists Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Picasso and Basquiat.
But the drama of her biography has often eclipsed her sensational and subversive paintings. At age 17, she was raped by a fellow artist and had to endure a humilating trial, during which she underwent torture to prove the veracity of her statement. The 400-year-old court transcripts are today held in the State Archives in Rome.
Curators and art historians are now working to refocus attention where it belongs: with her paintings.
A new vision of Susana
Artemisia painted Susanna and The Elders in 1610. Based on the apocryphal Old Testament story of Susanna, the painting shows a young woman, nude, seated by a bath. Two much older, fully-clothed, leering men hover over her threateningly. Fingers to their lips, they try in vain to silence her. Susanna bravely resists their demands for sexual favours.
This was Artemisia's first known work. She was 17 years old.
"It's astonishing for its maturity, both in its storytelling, but also just in the sheer skill, in the way it's painted," said Letizia Treves, curator of Later Italian Paintings at the National Gallery in London, England.
The story of Susanna and the Elders had been painted many times before, but Artemisia's was the first by a woman's hand. And it was a revolutionary first.
"Her male contemporaries saw this as an excuse to paint quite an erotic subject — a half naked woman, a titillating subject," said Treves. "What Artemisia focuses on is that very strong, I would say violent physical rejection of the elders. This is the first picture in my mind where Susanna is very clearly saying, 'no.'"
The work is also a rare example of a female artist painting the female nude, said art historian Sheila Barker. As a woman, Artemisia understood the intimate details of the female body.
The painting's greatest strengths live in its contrasts, she said.
"The contrasts between her beautiful, smooth, shining, clean flesh — it's tender, it's plump, it's feminine, it's round, it looks motherly, it looks warm, it looks inviting — and the harshness of that stone wall behind her and the red cloth, red blood-red, danger-red of one of the elders who was leaning over it."
It was just a few months after she painted Susanna that Artemisia was raped by fellow painter, Agostino Tassi. "In the months leading up to that point," precisely when she would have been painting Susanna, said Treves, "Artemisia was likely being harassed by Tassi."
'A gauntlet thrown down to the world'
Artemisia included some of her own features in her depiction of Susanna.
This was a radical gesture for a female artist who would have known that this painting, with her likened nude image, would hang in a collector's home, "always with her name prominently displayed on it," said Barker. "[It] was an act of incredible courage and self-confidence and a gauntlet thrown down to the world."
Artemisia's most famous painting, the one that catapulted her to fame, is Judith Beheading Holofernes. The blood splattered image is based on the biblical tale of the Israelite widow Judith who, with the help of her servant, murders the Assyrian general in order to save her people. Artemisia painted the moment of the beheading, when Judith thrusts a large sword into Holofernes' neck.
Male artists — most famously Caravaggio — had previously painted this well-known story. But Artemisia delivered a Judith unlike any other. "She spares us none of the horror and the violence," said Treves. "There's a truthfulness here. She imagines how hard it would be for a woman to actually cut off the head of a man as strong as Holofernes, and you can sense the sheer strength of brute force needed to carry out this really gory task."
Barker added that only Artemisia "succeeded in painting Judith as a figure worthy of having changed the course of history with a single stroke of a sword."
"This painting shows us the courage of women, the fearlessness of women. And that includes the ability to do violence," she said.
The iconic work is often described as Artemisia's revenge in paint against her rapist.
"For me, that's rather diminutive," said Treves, "I think there's a danger there to diminish the achievements and the extraordinary originality of these pictures by just reading them in that vein."
A feminist before the term was invented
With her paintbrush, as in her life, Artemisia fought gender inequality and helped to reimagine womanhood and what it meant to be a female artist.
"She was fighting for all the things that we're fighting for today," said Treves, "and she was a feminist in the truest sense of the word before the term feminism had even been invented."
Mary Garrard, an art historian and author of Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe, said "feminism was a vital force before it was given a name."
Gender debates figured prominently at the time, particularly among writers. "Artemisia dealt with the same issues — sexual violence, political power, the myth of female inferiority, and the cultural silencing of women's voices and achievements."
"This art was her battlefield," said Barker. "And the victory she won with this art was a victory that all women have benefited from. Artemisia made it possible for women in the future to imagine that it might be possible to remake the world as it needed to be for them to succeed."
The power of Artemisia's Saint Catherine painting
Guests in this episode:
Sheila Barker is an art historian and director of the Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists at the Medici Archive Project. She is the author most recently of Artemisia Gentileschi (Lund Humphries and Getty Publications, 2022).
Alessandra Masu is co-founder of the Associazione culturale Artemisia Gentileschi in Rome and director of The Artemisie Museum, the first virtual museum and database dedicated to women in the arts.
Letizia Treves is the Sassoon curator of Later Italian Paintings at the National Gallery in London, England. In 2020-2021, she curated the retrospective, Artemisia, at The National Gallery, London — the first exhibition dedicated to the painter ever to be held in Britain.
Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe by Mary D. Garrard (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
*Written and produced by Alisa Siegel.