A while back a friend asked me if I had ever heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, and though I pride myself on my knowledge of art history, I had to say no, I had not. She told me Artemisia was a female painter from “the 17th century or something,” and that she thought she was pretty cool. Consequently, I had to find out more.
My friend certainly got the timeframe right: Artemisia was born in 1593 to Orazio Gentileschi, her father, who was also a painter and greatly influenced by Caraveggio. He is the one who taught Artemisia how to paint – and she learnt quickly, eventually even surpassing her father’s skills. Artemisia had to deal with some very traumatic experiences from a very young age: not only did she lose her mother when she was 12, but she was also raped by one of her father’s colleagues not long after. She managed to channel the heart-breaking feelings these events brought along with them into her paintings.
In Susanna and the Elders, for example, she tells the biblical story (Book of Daniel) of Susanna. Susanna was bathing in her garden when two elders secretly watched her. They threatened to tell everyone she was committing adultery unless she had sex with them. Susanna refused to be blackmailed, and the two elders spread the word. When she was about to be put to death for adultery, Daniel demanded the two elders be questioned about what they saw, which eventually uncovered the lie. This painting makes a strong connection to the traumatic event Artemisia went through when she was 17, being raped by one of her father’s colleagues. Unlike the two elders in the story, he got away with it, and by means of this painting Artemisia tried to cope with the injustice.
In fact, like Susanna and the Elders, most of Artemisia’s paintings had female protagonists. She also painted a Madonna and Child around 1609, which can be regarded as one of her very first paintings. It is likely this one was painted with the help of her father, Orazio. Besides that she also painted two paintings regarding the story of Judtih: Judith Slaying Holofernes and Judith and her Maidservant. The first painting depicts the brutal scene where Judith slays Holofernes with the help of her maidservant, to save the Jewish people from oppression. The second shows Judith and her maidservant closely together, with the maidservant holding a basket which contains Holofernes’ head. Artemisia also tackled other strong female protagonists in works such as Minerva and The Death of Cleopatra.
Artemisia continued to dominate the baroque painting culture for many years to come, managing to make a decent career for herself, despite the fact that this was a path mainly walked by men. Up until today Artemisia remains one of the most influential, but sadly least spoken of, painters of the 17th century.