Artemisia Gentileschi – her powerful paintings helped her overcome adversity and prejudice

This week I discovered the inspiring story of the greatest female painters of the Baroque period, Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia was born in 1593 in Rome. Her father, struggling artist Orazio Gentileschi, taught her to paint and introduced her to the work of Rome’s prominent artists, including Caravaggio whose use of light and shadow influenced her painting. Orazio was a key figure throughout Artemisia’s life; her mother died when she was twelve.

Artemisia had produced first major work, Susanna and the Elders, by the age of seventeen, but was excluded from art academies and apprenticeships because of her gender and humble origins. In 1611 her father hired fellow artist Agostini Tassi to tutor her, but Tassi raped her. The only female figure in her life, a tenant called Tuzia, was upstairs at the time but ignored Artemisia’s cries of help. Tassi promised to marry her and so Artemisia, hoping to restore her dignity, embarked on a sexual relationship with him. When it emerged that Tassi’s wife was still alive and he was therefore unable to marry her, Artemisia’s father pressed charges against Tassi, and during the ensuing seven-month highly publicized trial, Artemisia was tortured using thumbscrews to prove her honesty, accused by Tassi of being an ‘insatiable whore’ and subjected to a humiliating gynaecological examination to determine whether she was a virgin at the time of her ‘deflowering’. Tassi was ultimately convicted but never served his full sentence, while Artemisia’s reputation was ruined.

Artemisia found catharsis in her work, which contains rebellious, powerful women, a contrast to contemporary portrayals of women in art. The images are often violent: Judith Slaying Holofernes depicts Judith killing an Assyrian general by slicing his throat while her handmaiden holds him down. Unity and bonding among women is also a theme of Artemisia’s work, perhaps because of her betrayal by Tuzia and the lack of women in her life.

Soon after the rape case, Artemisia’s father arranged for her to marry an older man, Pierantonio Stiattesi. The couple moved to Florence and had a daughter, but the marriage was not happy. But Artemisia’s career flourished: she became a court painter, received the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, and was the first woman to be accepted at the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing. Around this time, she met Francesco Maria di Niccolò Maringhi, who became her life-long lover and financial supporter. Despite her success, her husband’s extravagances left them in debt and in 1621, she returned to Rome alone.

In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples, ran a studio and built friendships with other artists. Between 1638 and 1641, she was was in residence at the English court at the invitation of Charles I. During this time, she worked with her father, decorating the ceilings of the Queen’s house at Greenwich. After civil war broke out in England, Artemisia returned to Naples where she lived until her death, circa 1652. Epitaphs were mostly derogatory – her depictions of female strength and sexuality alienated the male aristocracy.

It’s hard to know the size of Artemisia’s body of work – after her death, several of her paintings were attributed to her father, as well as male contemporaries – but thirty-four works survive. She has since inspired novels and films, not only for her powerful paintings, but for living her life boldly and in the process overcoming adversity and prejudice.