Art was a battlefield for Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a feminist before the word was invented


Sexual assault. The struggle for manage around a woman’s body. The silencing of women’s voices. Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi lived it all in the 1600s, resisted and finally gained.

Gentileschi carved a name for herself as the daring painter of biblical and Roman heroines — Judith, Esther, Susanna, Lucretia. Her bold background paintings upended traditional depictions of women by male artists and delivered instead complex feminine figures: gutsy, smart and strong.

“I will show your illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,” she wrote in a be aware to her patron in 1649.

Gentileschi achieved amazing success in her personal time. In the hundreds of years that followed her dying, nonetheless, the artist’s standing faded. Art guides referred to her in passing as the daughter of her artist father, Orazio Gentileschi. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1625–7, oil on canvas. (Detroit Institute of Arts, United states)

That changed in 1971 with the publication of an article titled, Why Have There Been No Excellent Ladies Artists? 5 decades later, a number of of her paintings were included in a groundbreaking exhibition about females artists that opened in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.

Since then, Gentileschi has been the issue of exhibitions, guides, movies and performs. She is now often identified by her 1st name, Artemisia, like celebrity male artists Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Picasso and Basquiat.

But the drama of her biography has generally eclipsed her sensational and subversive paintings. At age 17, she was raped by a fellow artist and had to endure a humilating trial, all through which she underwent torture to establish the veracity of her statement. The 400-year-old court docket transcripts are today held in the State Archives in Rome. 

Curators and art historians are now operating to refocus interest where it belongs: with her paintings.

A new eyesight of Susana

Artemisia painted Susanna and The Elders in 1610. Based mostly on the apocryphal Old Testomony story of Susanna, the portray exhibits a young woman, nude, seated by a tub. Two much older, entirely-clothed, leering guys hover about her threateningly. Fingers to their lips, they test in vain to silence her. Susanna bravely resists their requires for sexual favours.

This was Artemisia’s 1st known get the job done. She was 17 decades old.

“It really is astonishing for its maturity, both of those in its storytelling, but also just in the sheer skill, in the way it is really painted,” said Letizia Treves, curator of Later on Italian Paintings at the Countrywide Gallery in London, England. 

The story of Susanna and the Elders experienced been painted quite a few periods before, but Artemisia’s was the very first by a woman’s hand. And it was a revolutionary to start with.

Artwork historians Sheila Barker and Letizia Treves analyze Artemisia Gentileschi’s early get the job done Susanna and the Elders, which she painted at the age of 17.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, signed and dated 1610, oil on canvas. Assortment Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden, Germany

“Her male contemporaries saw this as an justification to paint fairly an erotic subject — a 50 percent bare lady, a titillating subject,” stated Treves. “What Artemisia focuses on is that very sturdy, I would say violent bodily rejection of the elders. This is the very first image in my mind where Susanna is pretty obviously indicating, ‘no.'” 

The perform is also a rare instance of a female artist painting the female nude, reported art historian Sheila Barker. As a woman, Artemisia comprehended the intimate information of the female human body.

The painting’s finest strengths live in its contrasts, she explained.

“The contrasts in between her lovely, sleek, shining, cleanse flesh — it can be tender, it can be plump, it is female, it is round, it seems motherly, it seems to be warm, it appears to be like inviting — and the harshness of that stone wall at the rear of her and the pink cloth, red blood-pink, threat-purple of one of the elders who was leaning around it.” 

It was just a couple months just after she painted Susanna that Artemisia was raped by fellow painter, Agostino Tassi. “In the months foremost up to that issue,” specifically when she would have been portray Susanna, claimed Treves, “Artemisia was possible remaining harassed by Tassi.”

‘A gauntlet thrown down to the world’

Artemisia bundled some of her individual attributes in her depiction of Susanna. 

This was a radical gesture for a woman artist who would have r
ecognized that this painting, with her likened nude graphic, would hang in a collector’s home, “always with her title prominently exhibited on it,” said Barker. “[It] was an act of amazing courage and self-self esteem and a gauntlet thrown down to the globe.”

Artemisia’s most well known painting, the a person 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 aid of her servant, murders the Assyrian standard in get to conserve her folks. Artemisia painted the instant of the beheading, when Judith thrusts a massive sword into Holofernes’ neck. 

Letizia Treves on the realism and bodily struggle in Artemisia’s most famed portray Judith Slaying Holofernes, and why it sets it apart from the Caravaggio’s model.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1618–20, oil on canvas. Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Male artists — most famously Caravaggio — had formerly painted this perfectly-acknowledged tale. But Artemisia delivered a Judith not like any other. “She spares us none of the horror and the violence,” explained Treves. “You can find a truthfulness right here. She imagines how hard it would be for a girl to truly reduce off the head of a male as sturdy as Holofernes, and you can perception the sheer strength of brute pressure desired to have out this seriously gory activity.”

Barker added that only Artemisia “succeeded in portray Judith as a figure deserving of possessing improved the training course of history with a single stroke of a sword.” 

“This painting demonstrates us the courage of females, the fearlessness of women of all ages. And that features the potential to do violence,” she mentioned. 

The legendary function is generally explained as Artemisia’s revenge in paint in opposition to her rapist. 

“For me, that’s alternatively diminutive,” stated Treves, “I believe you can find a risk there to diminish the achievements and the remarkable originality of these photographs by just reading them in that vein.” 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, signed and dated 1620, oil on canvas. (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)

A feminist before the expression was invented

With her paintbrush, as in her existence, Artemisia fought gender inequality and aided to reimagine womanhood and what it meant to be a woman artist.

“She was battling for all the things that we’re battling for right now,” claimed Treves, “and she was a feminist in the truest perception of the phrase in advance of the expression feminism experienced even been invented.”

Mary Garrard, an art historian and author of Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Present day Europe, explained “feminism was a critical pressure ahead of it was provided a identify.”

Gender debates figured prominently at the time, significantly among writers. “Artemisia dealt with the exact same troubles — sexual violence, political electrical power, the fantasy of feminine inferiority, and the cultural silencing of women’s voices and achievements.”

“This artwork was her battlefield,” claimed Barker. “And the victory she won with this art was a victory that all gals have benefited from. Artemisia designed it probable for women of all ages in the upcoming to visualize that it could be feasible to remake the earth as it needed to be for them to triumph.” 

The electricity of Artemisia’s Saint Catherine painting

Suggestions4:16From London’s National Gallery to a women’s jail, Artemisia’s Saint Catherine tends to make her mark

In 2018, The National Gallery of London acquired a uncommon and freshly rediscovered function by Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. “I cherished it from the second I noticed it in a photograph,” claimed curator Letizia Treves. “I believe she’s so arresting, the way she appears to be like out of the image. She has so substantially willpower.” Treves explains the emotive energy of the portray and why it resonates so broadly.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1635–7, oil on canvas (The Countrywide Gallery, London)

Visitors in this episode:

Sheila Barker is an art historian and director of the Jane Fortune Investigate Application on Ladies Artists at the Medici Archive Job. She is the creator most a short while ago 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 to start with digital museum and database dedicated to females in the arts. 

Letizia Treves is the Sassoon curator of Later Italian Paintings at the Nationwide Gallery in London, England. In 2020-2021, she curated the retrospective, Artemisia, at The Nationwide Gallery, London — the first exhibition devoted to the painter ever to be held in Britain. 

Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Present day Europe by Mary D. Garrard (College of Chicago Push, 2020).

*Created and made by Alisa Siegel.

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