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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Artemisia Gentileschi

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Artemisia Gentileschi: July 8,1593-1652/1653...Italy

"As long as I live I will have control over my being."
~Artemisia Gentileschi

One of the most talented artists of the Baroque is, the nearly forgotten, Artemisia Gentileschi. She was the first woman to emerge as a great artist, but is often overshadowed by the other names of the time. She was a woman in what was considered a mans occupation. It was a huge debate: what a great talent, but she does not belong in a mans profession. She was snubbed by her contemporizes and nearly forgotten in history. Forgetting Artemisia Gentileschi to me is like forgetting that there was once a movie called Forrest Gump; such a great example should not be cast aside.

Women at that time were not allowed to apprentice, but Artemisia’s father, Orazio Gentileschi, was a fresco painter. Her mother died when she was only twelve years old and spent a lot of time in her father’s art studio. He trained her and exposed her to the vast numbers of working artists of Rome. Of all the artists in Rome at this time, she most appreciated and was most influenced by the rogue Michelangelo Caravaggio. She, like most everyone else, really connected with his chiaroscuro style. She would use shadows to add drama into her own work, just like Caravaggio. Her first known work was created when she was only seventeen years old. Susanna and the Elders was created in 1610 in her father’s studio. We see her perfection with proportion and anatomy. We can see her influence by Renaissance artist Michelangelo Bunarroti in this painting. This illustrates the Biblical story of Susanna, a young wife that attracts the harassing comments of community elders. Susanna had been depicted, by many male painters, as a flirty girl that teased these men. Artemisia shows us her spin on the story, with Susanna as the obvious victim in this situation. This was the first of many works that illustrate the psychological situations between the sexes and in the Bible. She cowers as the men hover over her to quiet her cries. There was a possible parallel in her own life at the time she was painting this work.

Susanna and the Elders
1610. Oil on Canvas. Graf von Schonborn Kunstsammlungen, Pommersfelden, Germany.

As Artemisia was painting Susanna’s harassment, Artemisia may have been in a similar situation. Not long after beginning her training in her father’s studio several of the male apprentices were very aggressively harassing her. One of the artists that was quite attracted to her was Agostino Tassi. He raped her in 1612, when she was nineteen years old. Self-conscious about this, the abused girl agreed to marry Tassi and continued with a physical relationship. When her father found out he was extremely upset, especially since Tassi had no intensions of marriage. Orazio Gentileschi sued Tassi for injury and damages. This developed into a seven-month-long rape trial. According to court testimony, Tassi tried to get her alone several times before trapping her in her own bedroom with the help of another friend. Artemisia underwent vaginal exams and was tortured to see if her claims were true. Defending himself, Tassi said that he was teaching the untalented girl perspective the day in question and had never had any physical contact with her. Several witnesses came in to claim that she was far from an innocent girl. But witnesses also came forward against Tassi, saying he was bragging about the incident. It is also important to note that he was put in prison for raping his sister-in-law and hiring a hitman to kill his wife. In the end Tassi was convicted of rape, he was banished from Rome but was back within four months and was later allowed back into the Gentileschi studio, at Orazio invitation.

Toward the end of the trial, Artemisia began painting Judith Slaying Holofernes. The Biblical story of Judith, who was a Jewish widow from Bethulia, was a perfect fit for Artemisia’s work and situation. Bethulia was being attacked by Middle Eastern emperor Nebuchadnezzar. His army was punishing the region because they had refused to help him fight in a war with the Medes. After the war was won, Nebuchadnezzar’s commander, Holofernes, was in charge of the punishment. To keep safe from the fortified Bethulia, the water supply was cut off and after thirty four days the people were suffering. Judith and a maid took wine, oil, and food to the tent of Holofernes. She captivated him with her beauty. She visited for three nights to gain his trust. On the fourth night, the day before the city was going to give up, she was invited to a party at the camp. After Holofernes passed out, Judith cuts off his head with his own sword. She takes his head with her to Bethulia in a food bag. His head was hung on the city wall and retaliated against the leaderless soldiers. Here, the woman took control of the situation, got an advantage and brought down the mighty Holofernes single handedly. The weak and smart always defeat the tough and stupid. Obviously, Artemisia saw herself as the weak, but she was getting stronger, as well as smarter and more skilled. Her technical skills are truly amazing by this point in her career. Caravaggio painted a similar work about fourteen years before where we see a slightly grossed out Judith. Again, Artemisia approached it differently than her male counterparts. In her version, Judith is pulling the head of Holofernes as she cuts through his throat. She would revisit this scene again in 1620. In this second Judith Slaying Holofernes, a more brutal version, blood shoots out of Holofernes's neck like a fountain. Artemisia also gives her a wardrobe change as well as a bigger sword this time around.

Judith Slaying Holofernes
1613. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capolodimonte, Naples, Italy.
Judith Slaying Holofernes
1620. Oil on canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Also at this time, shortly after the trial in November of 1612, Artemisia married artist Pietro Antonio Stiattesi. Together, they had a daughter. They moved to Florence where they worked at the Academy of Design. She was made a member in 1616. This was a completely out of the ordinary honor for a woman at that time. She was patronized by the powerful de’ Medici family. When questioned about her abilities as a woman her reply was, “My illustrious lordship, I'll show you what a woman can do.” In fact the second Judith Slaying Holofernes was owned by Maria Luisa de' Medici, who hid the painting because of its graphic nature. The works first public display was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy in 2002. Stiattesi and Artemisia had a second daughter in 1618, but she died in less than a years time. It is thought that her money stupid husband accumulated a lot of debt that she didn’t know about. They left Florence to return to Rome, in-debt and with damaged reputations, in 1621. Artemisia was the family provider and hired two servants to help her. Soon she and her husband separated and he more or less vanished.

Gentileschi and her daughter moved on to Naples, where she too root for about ten years. She was drawn away from the area by her new patron, King Charles I of England, where she was a member of the court from 1638 to 1641. After civil war broke out in England, she would return to Naples for the rest of her life. She died with a bit of a reputation, being called a nymphomaniac and an adulterer in her epitaphs. What is truly sad, is the thought that people were accusing her, abusing her, and all around nasty to her throughout her life, but she was able to beat the system through her skills. She was self sufficient in a world that was totally against a woman being self sufficient. What a great example of the opportunities that open when one has skills to offer.

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Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063