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

Sexual assault. The battle for control of a woman’s body. The silence of women’s voices. Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi lived through it all in the 1600s, resisted, and ultimately won.

Gentileschi made a name for himself as a daring painter of biblical and Roman heroines – Judith, Esther, Susanna, Lucretia. Her bold history paintings upended traditional portrayals of women by male artists and instead delivered complex female figures: brave, 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 his day. In the centuries since his death, however, the artist’s reputation has faded. Art books refer to her as the daughter of her artist father, Orazio Gentileschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maid, 1625–7, oil on canvas. (Detroit Institute of the Arts, USA)

This changed in 1971 with the publication of an article titled, Why were there no great female artists? Five years later, several of her paintings were included in a groundbreaking exhibition of female artists that opened in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.

Since then, Gentileschi has been the subject of exhibitions, books, films 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 his biography has often overshadowed his sensational and subversive paintings. At 17, she was raped by a fellow artist and had to endure a humiliating trial, during which she suffered torture to prove the truth of her statement. The 400-year-old court transcripts are now housed in the State Archives in Rome.

Curators and art historians are now working to refocus attention where it belongs: with his paintings.

A new vision of Susana

painted mugwort Susanna and the Elders in 1610. Based on the apocryphal Old Testament story of Suzanne, the painting shows a young woman, naked, seated near a bath. Two much older men, fully clothed and leering hover menacingly over her. Fingers on their lips, they try in vain to silence her. Susanna courageously resists their requests for sexual favors.

This was Artemisia’s earliest known work. She was 17 years old.

“It’s amazing in its maturity, both in its storytelling but also in the sheer skill, in the way it’s painted,” said Letizia Treves, curator of later Italian paintings at the National Gallery in London, in 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.

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

“His male contemporaries saw this as an excuse to paint quite an erotic subject – a half-naked woman, a titillating subject,” Treves said. “What Artemisia is focusing on is this very strong, I would say violent, physical rejection of the elders. This is the first image in my mind where Susanna very clearly says ‘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 lie in its contrasts, she said.

“The contrasts between her beautiful smooth, shiny, clean flesh – it’s tender, it’s plump, it’s feminine, it’s round, it looks motherly, it looks warm, it has l inviting look – and the hardness of that stone wall behind her and the cloth red, blood red, danger red of one of the ancients leaning over it.”

It was only a few months after painting Susanna that Artemisia was raped by her fellow painter, Agostino Tassi. “In the months leading up to this moment,” precisely when she would have painted Susanna, Treves said, “Artemisia was probably harassed by Tassi.”

“A Glove Thrown to the World”

Artemisia included some of her own characteristics in her depiction of Susanna.

It was a drastic move for a female artist who would have known that this painting, with its assimilated nude image, would hang in a collector’s home, “always with her name prominently displayed on it,” Barker said. “[It] was an act of incredible courage and self-confidence and a gauntlet thrown to the world.”

Artemisia’s most famous painting, the one that catapulted her to fame, is Judith decapitating Holofernes. The blood-splattered image is based on the biblical story of the Israelite widow Judith who, with the help of her servant, assassinates the Assyrian general in order to save her people. Artemisia painted the moment of beheading, when Judith thrusts a great sword into Holofernes’ neck.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Killing Holofernes, c. 1618-1620, oil on canvas. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Male artists – the most famous Caravaggio – had already painted this well-known story. But Artemisia delivered a Judith like no other. “She spares us none of the horror and violence,” Treves said. “There is a truth here. She imagines how difficult it would be for a woman to cut off the head of a man as strong as Holofernes, and you can feel the raw strength needed to carry out this truly bloody 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 the 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 painted revenge against her rapist.

“To me, that’s rather diminutive,” Treves said, “I think there’s a danger in diminishing the accomplishments and the extraordinary originality of these images by just reading them in that vein.”

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

A feminist before the term was coined

With her brush, as in her life, Artemisia fought gender inequality and helped reimagine femininity and what it meant to be a female artist.

“She was fighting for all the things that we are fighting for today,” Treves said, “and she was a feminist in the truest sense before the term feminism was even coined.”

Mary Garrard, art historian and author of Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europesaid “feminism was a life force before it was given a name”.

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

Gender debates were prominent at the time, especially among writers. “Artemisia dealt with the same issues – sexual violence, political power, the myth of female inferiority and the cultural silence of women’s voices and achievements.”

“This art was his battleground,” Barker said. “And the victory she won with this art was a victory that all women benefited from. Artemisia empowered women of the future to imagine that it might be possible to remake the world as it was meant to be.” be for them to succeed.”

Guests in this episode:

Sheila Barker is an art historian and director of Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists of the Medici Archives Project. She is the most recent author of Artemisia Gentileschi (Getty Publications, 2022).

Alessandra Masu is co-founder of the Associazione culturale Artemisia Gentileschi in Rome and director of The Museum of Artemisiathe first virtual museum and database dedicated to women in the arts.

Letizia Treves is the Sassoon curator of Italian paintings later than national gallery in London, England. In 2020-2021, she organized the Artemisia retrospective at the National Gallery in London, the first exhibition dedicated to the painter ever organized in Great Britain.

Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe by Mary D. Garrard (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

*Written and produced by Alisa Siegel.