Artemisia Gentileschi is regarded as one of the most illustrious artists of the 17th century. She made a name for herself during a time when women were not allowed to be a part of art and cultural activities. Her paintings were a symbol of women empowerment of the Baroque period and yet are not well known.
Artemisia was born in 1593 in Rome Italy, to Orazio Gentileschi, a renowned painter at the time. Her father recognized her talent from an early age and encouraged her to paint. Her father was a huge follower of the remarkable Baroque painter Caravaggio and her own paintings were highly inspired by Caravagio’s dramatic realism.
Gentileschi’s earliest known work is Sussana and the Elders, who at the time of painting this was only 17. The painting shows a young woman Sussane taking a bath in her garden and two men with ill intentions and a predatory look towering over the young women. Sussane who obviously seems very vulnerable at the moment and can not do much but just confute the two men with her actions which go to waste. This painting is inspired from a tale in the book of daniel. This tale portrays Sussana taking a bath in her garden as two elders start spying and harassing her sexually.
In 1611, an Italian landscape painter Agostino Tassi who was working under Orazio, went into their house and raped Artemisia. Orazio was under the impression that Tassi would be marrying her daughter to save the Gentileschi name from embarrassment but when Tassi refused to do so Orazio took him to trial. This was really tragic for the 17 year old Gentilesci, according to her father and all the other men in power her virginity was stolen but for her it was a part of her that was stripped away. As if this wasn’t enough torture for her she was tortured with nails and screws at the trial to attest the authenticity of her testimony. Tassi was found guilty but did not serve any sentence owing to his relations with the pope.
A short while after the trial, her father married her off to a Florence based artist and moved to florence. This period of her life brought her tremendous success. She became the first woman to be accepted at the Academy of Design, Florence. This meant that she did not need permission from any man to buy art supplies, she could do it without any men controlling her.
In Florence, Gentileschi had developed her own style. She used tenebrism in her paintings which is a style of painting that uses light and dark contrasts and the dark becomes a dominating feature.
In 1620, she completed Judith Slaying Holofernes, which is inspired from a narrative in The Bible. Throughout the history of art many versions of this tale have been painted by multiple artists, even Caravaggio but Gentileschi’s version is more real and violent. This work of hers can be compared with her own traumatic experience, where Holofernes can be compared to Tassi and Judith is Gentileschi.
Now it is not that she was the first female painter ever but all the female artists that came before her chose still lives or aesthetically pleasing subject matters. Gentileschi on the other hand, portrayed women that were a subject to male oppression like herself and were raw. Yet she is not very well known in the 21st century. Gentileschi’s work is empowering and a mark of early feminism and needs to be celebrated.