The 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi has been the subject of a recent resurgence of interest, with some connecting the visceral feminist fury of her art to the current #MeToo movement. As much as the painter’s gruesome chiaroscuro interpretations of women’s bloody revenge resonate, so too do Gentileschi’s experiences of rape, victim-blaming, and torture. So let’s get into it: who was Artemisia Gentileschi?
Talented and driven from an early age, Gentileschi was mentored by an older man who abused, seduced, and discarded her as well as robbing her father. When she took him to court, she didn’t receive the vindication nor justice she craved. Gentileschi’s medium was oil painting, and her work is remembered now for its frank portrayal of female rage and strength, rendered in breathtaking chiaroscuro. Gentileschi was raped at about age sixteen by two men, one of whom had been hired both as her art tutor and as her father’s interior designer. Her attacker abused his position in their household both by attacking his teenage student as well as by absconding with a valuable painting of her father’s.
As was the custom in Italy at the time, this man was not charged with assault provided he agreed to marry her. As weeks turned to months and no marriage ensued, Gentileschi and her father chose to pursue legal restitution for her reputation and her father’s artwork. The painting in question was one painted by Artemisia’s father that depicted a scene from the life of the Biblical heroine Judith.
Judith’s story is included in some but not all versions of the Old Testament. The story goes something like this: seeing her town about to be destroyed by an invading army, young widow Judith devises a scheme to save both herself and the townsfolk. Bringing a maidservant along with her, she put on her finest clothes and jewels and crossed enemy lines, presenting herself as a willing sexual offering for the invading general, Holofernes. Once inside his tent, she plied him with alcohol. Finding him sufficiently inebriated, she used his own sword to behead him and thereby end his military campaign. For centuries, artists found inspiration in this story of sex and murder, with most works focusing either on the act of Holofernes’s beheading or in Judith leaving the tent with his head in a basket. It is not known which scene was in the work stolen by Gentileschi’s attacker.
The trial of her attacker was lengthy and vicious. Gentileschi was subjected to invasive physical examinations and even torture as her story was interrogated for plausibility. Ultimately, her attacker was found guilty and sentenced to be banished from Rome; a sentence in theory only, he never actually left. And shortly thereafter, Gentileschi unveiled what would become her best-known work of art: her own version of Judith and Holofernes. The inspiration behind her work was unmistakable, and its sense of righteous fury intermingled with inarguable talent and beauty to create something wholly itself.
Artemisia painted two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes, each purchased by a separate patron. The differences between the two versions are largely surface-level: the colour of Judith’s dress, the type of head covering worn by her maidservant. Comparing the face and dimensions of this Judith to those of Gentileschi in a self-portrait leave little room to argue she did not use herself as a model for the murderer; it follows, then, that her Holofernes is generally accepted to have been styled after her attacker. Moreso than the self-insertion, though, is the startling and visceral emotion of the piece, especially compared to other works portraying the same situation. Unlike the seeming distaste with wich Caravaggio’s Judith enacts the murder, Gentileschi’s version leans in with firm resolve, sleeves pushed up, all business.
Both Judith and the maidservant — depicted by Artemisia as being of a similar age to her mistress, unlike the older woman others painted (or the older woman alleged to have been complicit in Gentileschi’s own assault) — are muscular, powerful women. Their arms outstretched like arrows, coaxing the viewer’s eyes to the focal point of the piece: Holofernes’s face, twisted in agony. The viciousness of the attack is depicted in such a way there is no question who is in the right in this situation. The first version of the work finds blood spatter surrounding Holofernes’s head; the second adds a visceral spray emerging from his neck, splattering on his bare shoulder. His hands, though large, are powerless against two women enacting what the Bible states to be divine vengeance. The brutality of the image, the way it forces viewers to confront its gruesomeness, is such that at least one owner of this painting chose to keep it hidden behind curtains so as not to upset his guests.
Gentileschi specialized in making beautiful feminized fury, crafting her images such that the viewer is forced to see themselves in her Biblical heroines. And unlike the stoic, dispassionate virgins found in other works illustrating the same stories, Gentileschi’s women appear as protagonists in their own stories — filled with rage, or terror, or divine righteousness. They are women taking control of their own narratives with glorious, shameless, orgiastic glee.
As anyone who heads to court expecting justice may come to learn, being found guilty or not guilty is not the end of anyone’s story, victim nor perpetrator. Gentileschi’s attacker was found guilty but never experienced his punishment. When the law doesn’t provide the justice you want — perhaps, even when it does — we all have to find ways to keep moving ahead. For Gentileschi, it was to continue producing beautiful, gruesome paintings. Her life had been changed by her experience with her abuser, but she would not allow that to keep her from pursuing her passion or carving her own path.
As long as women have had their voices and words taken from them we find women who find ways to communicate everything you need to know through song, art, craft, and the myriad other seemingly invisible ways women have always been filling in the blanks in our culture with their beautiful rage. And yet the work going on auction next month, Lucretia, tells a different story.
Lucretia is not a Biblical character, but like the wronged biblical heroines Gentileschi preferred to portray, is a woman who has suffered at the hands of men. According to Roman myth, Lucretia was the wife of a Roman general who was blackmailed and raped by a soldier. She chose death by suicide, and the moment if this choice was a popular subject of artists of the era. Gentileschi finds as much empathy in this work as she did rage in the images of Judith and Holofernes. Women’s pain is not a single narrative, and she explores the experiences of women pursuing vengeance, offering forgiveness, and succumbing to their internal misery. No one narrative supersedes the others; she found each equally worth exploring and elevating.
Artemisia Gentileschi continued painting throughout her life, creating works under the patronage of notable figures such as the House of Medici and Charles I of England. She had a daughter, named Prudentia after Artemisia’s late mother, who she trained to be a painter as well. It’s not known exactly how or when Artemisia Gentileschi died, but it was likely around 1656, when the plague swept through and many people — including other notable artists — died. Her final burial place isn’t known, but her art is still showing in galleries throughout Europe, the United States, and in Mexico (here’s a list of which paintings are where). And to take a look at more of her work, Art History Project has a gorgeous online gallery of all of her known paintings.
There’s so much out there now for those who want to really dig into Artemisia’s life and story. Beginning with the new YA novel Blood Water Paint, recently selected as a finalist for the National Book Award. A new play based on her experiences debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The National Gallery is live blogging the restoration of her painting ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’.
In the realm of nonfiction, some recent-ish books include Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting and Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Eve Straussman-Pflanzer. And for historical fiction, check out The Passion of Artemisia: A Novel by Susan Vreeland, Artemisia: A Novel by Alexandra Lapierre (translated by Liz Heron), and Artemisia by Anna Banti (translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo).
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter