The Most Famous Female Painter You’ve Never Heard About: Artemesia Gentileschi

artemesia
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-39

Considered one of the most exceptional, and perhaps atypical, artists of her time, Artemisia Gentileschi stands as the sole recognizable and applauded female voice in seventeenth century painting, both in her own lifetime and today.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620) is undoubtedly Artemisia’s most reproduced work, the image most associated with her oeuvre. Judith has been thoroughly discussed in terms of Counter Reformation politics of the time, patriarchal realties of Artemisia’s life, the supposed feminist impulse of the work, and her own personal intentions.Being the historical rarity that she is, a lot of analysis surrounding Artemisia’s work has centered on the question of gender, or more specifically, how her gender, both her own experience as a female and the cultural and social impacts of being female in seventeenth century Italy, influenced and help explain her paintings. Specifically with Judith, scholarly discussions consistently focus on the question of intent—did Artemisia paint Judith as a response to the traumatic experiences she endured or was it simply another commissioned painting, or perhaps both? But it might be even more productive to ask—how have contemporary feminist discussions surrounding this piece added to our understanding of Artemisia, and also how have they at times narrowed our perception of this accomplished and proficient Baroque painter?

One of the great paradoxes of Artemisia’s appreciation is that her gender was the central catalyst in both why we know so little about her and why we are so interested in knowing more. Being a female artist in an undeniably male-dominated and male-produced art historical cannon, after her lifetime much of Artemisia’s work was quickly forgotten. With the exception of Baroque era connoisseurs, her work was relatively unknown and under-appreciated. With the rise of feminist thinking in the 1970s, and its application to other academic fields of study like art history, this enigmatic artist was resurrected into art historical limelight. Additionally, as the scholarship surrounding Artemisia’s work grew, feminist writers continued to work towards ensuring that her paintings were properly attributed, citing that the long held patriarchal belief that women cannot be creative producers has led many art historians to frame Artemisia as reactive to other influences, namely her father and teacher Orazio Gentileschi and Caravaggio, rather than as a proactive force in Baroque painting.

Furthermore, feminist’s perspectives on her work have continually reminded the undeniable importance of gender in Artemisia’s own life. In her own time, her gender defined innumerable aspects of her private life as a daughter and a rape victim, and in her public and professional life—from what type, or lack of, training she would have received as a painter, what commissions and support she could expect, and how she would (or wouldn’t) be recognized and remembered. Indeed, as Artemisia’s own letters have attested, the painter herself seemed self aware of her exceptionality as a female; she both regretted that it limited her acceptance as a visionary painter, and utilized it to foster patronage.

This being said, there are also many dangers to placing gender as the central crux of Artemisia’s work. For, many times, feminist readings of her work pin her as remarkable because she was female. In this regard, feminist focus on her importance as specifically female painter can become detrimental instead of constructive. As Judith Mann adeptly states: “Without denying that gender can offer valid interpretive strategies for the investigation of Artemisia’s art, we may wonder whether the application of gendered readings has created too narrow an expectation.”

Wouldn’t it be more constructive to understand Artemisia as an exemplary painter, not because she was female, but despite it?

In other words, despite the fact that she faced many obstacles based on her gender, she still had undeniable talent as painter that deserves to be acknowledged as such. A quote Bissell cites in his book Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art by art historian and feminist writer Griselda Pollock deftly supports this guided analysis: “It is only when we escape this disturbing fascination with her life and return the work to its context within a specific time, place, and school of painting that that we can fully appreciate her activities as a painter.” Judith Slaying Holofernes is in particular need for the objective historical contextualization that Pollock champions; being a charged image of female heroic prowess, and due to the gendered focus of previous art historical analysis, Artemisia’s several renditions of Judith “have often come to be more looked through than at.” Let us then take a look at this work and attempt to draw a conclusion on how this piece can be comprehend based on a historical contextualization.

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Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes c. 1611-12

The paintings focus on the same moment from the biblical tale of Judith. It is important to note that this subject is not particular to Artemisia; on the contrary, it is a popular subject that had been sanctioned and championed by the Church and had already been treated by several  other artists, most notably Caravaggio. Briefly, the story relays the beheading of Assyrian general Holofernes by the hand of Judith, a widow from the town and her maidservant Abra. Both versions depict the moment when Judith takes the sword to Holofernes’s unsuspecting throat. Describing the scene as horrific is almost an understatement. Holofernes’s body foregrounds the composition; his warped head facing the viewer and the rest of his struggling body pushing backwards. His hand reaches out and grapples Abra who is holding him down, while Judith vigorously clenches his head with one hand and grips the bloodied sword with the other. Important to note here is the fact that Artemisia strays from the biblical description of the scene by highlighting Abra’s involvement in the beheading; the biblical story clearly states that Judith was unaccompanied during the slaying. Garrard’s gendered-based reading of the work claimed that by displaying both women working in conjunction to behead the general, Artemisia intended to champion a theme of sisterhood; these claims have, as mentioned, been severely questioned as excessively interpretive.

Artemisia first executed this work in 1612 in Rome near the time of her rape trial against Agostino Tassi, a point some writers sight as evidence that the violent depiction was a response to her sexual assault. Yet, once in Florence several years later while working as painter, Artemisia revised her treatment of the subject, this time with a more monumental and dramatic force.  These revisions perhaps points to a more refined and naturalistic development in Artemisia’s style, as well as a calculated effort to make the second version of Judith more opulent and striking.

All of the characteristics of the painting, from size to color and treatment of forms, incite a striking, yet gruesome and even off-putting effect on the viewer. And if a contemporary viewer is also aware of Artemisia’s own private struggles against male figures, it is understandable that most will want to draw a psychoanalytic conclusion of the piece. Feminist writers like Garrard see Artemisia’s choice to focus on collaborative female heroines against a domineering male and her pointedly violent depiction of the scene as evidence that she choose this subject and its treatment as a way to personally cope with her rape. While it is perhaps plausible that Artemisia somehow connected with the story and characters that was depicted, I agree with Pollock’s conclusion that ultimately this is not enough to suggest that the Uffizi Judith was anything more than a commissioned work of a largely treated subject. Nothing indicates that during her life, the work was intended or understood as a response to her rape.

Although I think it is imperative to avoid overarching assumptions of Artemisia’s intent in any of her works, I would perhaps suggest that this painting was less about responding to a traumatic experience and more about delighting in exceptional female figures, that like herself, had to fight and prevail in the face of oppression.

With this historical contextualization informed by a critical analysis of previous scholarly work surrounding Artemisia, I hope that my own understanding, and future discussions surrounding Artemisia’s work, start and end with just that—her work. Let her painterly accomplishments and her undeniable contributions to the history of art speak for themselves as worthy achievements deserving merit and close study, regardless of gender. And if anything, let her gender not define how she is appreciated, but speak to the fact that creativity and success are never gendered terms.

By: Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Managing Blog Editor

References:

Bal, Mieke. “Introduction.” The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. By Mieke Bal. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. Print.

Bissell, R. Ward. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. Print.

Ciletti, Elena. “Gran Macchina E Bellezza.” The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. By Mieke Bal. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. Print.

Cropper, Elizabeth. “Life on the Edge: Artemisia Gentileschi, Famous Woman Painter.” Orazio And Artemesia Gentileschi, 2001.

Curtis, Amy Stacey. Women, Trauma & Visual Expression. Portland, ME: WTVE, 2005. Print.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: the Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity. Berkeley: University of California, 2001. Print.

Garrard, Mary D. “Artemisia’s Hands.” The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. By Mieke Bal. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. 24. Print.

Mann, Judith Walker. “Artemisia and Oratzio Gentileschi.” Artemisia Gentileschi: Taking Stock. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2005.

Pollock, Griselda. “Feminist Dilemma with the Art/Life Problem.” The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. By Mieke Bal. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. Print.

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