Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was internationally famous in her own time, despite the obvious prejudices of 17th century Europe, being invited personally to the court of English king Charles I and enjoying the patronage of Cosimo II de Medici. Today, she is academically recognised as one of the most accomplished painters of the period, but remains largely forgotten, instead of claiming her place in public knowledge among the likes of Rubens, Caravaggio, or even her father, Orazio Gentlileschi. The first female to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, her fame was partly – and rightly – due to her fascinatingly expressive and skilful paintings, but also to her dramatic personal life, echoes of which reverberate throughout her work.
With her father already a famous painter who included Caravaggio, known for his introduction of chiaroscuro to the world of Renaissance painting among his close friends, it was natural that Artemisia began painting at an early age, with
her first major artwork, Susanna and the Elders, marking her debut onto the painting scene. She was just 17 when the canvas was finished, and already making a name for herse
lf with the controversial subject choice as much as her obvious talent. Unfortunately, she rose to notoriety shortly after for a rather more upsetting reason, when Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist hired to the tutor the young Artemisia, raped the still teenaged girl in her own house. The case went to trial, lasting a staggering seven months, and the entire transcription of the proceedings has been miraculously retained. In it, Artemisia states that she threw a knife at her assailant, shouting ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me’. Eventually, Tassi was found guilty, but the experience, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on Artemisia’s painting.
Many of her portraits are now interpreted as intensely autobiographical, with Artemisia favouring strong female characters from the Bible or popular mythology and depicting them with a sense of agency and emotion practically unseen at the time. One of her most famous pieces, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is largely accepted to represent Artemisia as Judith, finally exacting her revenge on Tassi in the form of Holofernes, an infamous general from the Old Testament. The grim determination of Judith as she saws off the head of a screaming but helpless Holofernes is one of the most chilling examples of Artemisia expressing herself, as a female in an incredibly male-dominated world, through Biblical allegory. Artemisia’s deviation from social expectations in her depiction of women shows, quite clearly, how she defied against a culture inclined to ignore her with the most powerful weapon she had – her art.