An Introduction to the Painting of Artemisia Gentileschi, the First Woman Admitted to Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno (1593–1653)

The works will speak for them­selves. — Artemisia Gen­tileschi

The praise Baroque painter Artemisia Gen­tileschi gar­nered dur­ing her life­time is aston­ish­ing.

Not because the work isn’t deserv­ing of the atten­tion, but rather, because she was a young woman in 17th-cen­tu­ry Flo­rence.

The first female to be accept­ed into Florence’s pres­ti­gious Accad­e­mia delle Arti del Dis­eg­no, she was col­lect­ed by the Medicis and respect­ed by her peers — almost all of them male.

Her style was as dra­mat­ic as the sub­jects she depict­ed.

One of her most com­pelling ones, cov­ered in Alli­son Leigh’s ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son, above, comes from an apoc­ryphal book of the Old Tes­ta­ment. It con­cerns Judith, a come­ly Jew­ish wid­ow who, assist­ed by her maid­ser­vant, behead­ed the loutish Assyr­i­an gen­er­al Holofernes, whose forces threat­ened her town.

This sto­ry has attract­ed many artists over time: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Donatel­loBot­ti­cel­liMichelan­ge­lo, Cristo­fano Allori, Goya, Klimt, Franz von Stuck, and Car­avag­gio, the painter whom Artemisia most sought to emu­late as a teen.

Artemisia vis­it­ed Judith and Holofernes sev­er­al times through­out her career.

Her first attempt, at around the age of 19 or 20, fea­tures two healthy-look­ing young women, their sleeves sen­si­bly rolled so as not to dirty their bright dress­es, a prospect that seems much more like­ly than it does in Caravaggio’s ver­sion, paint­ed some 15 years ear­ly.

Caravaggio’s Judith is brave, but maid­en­ly, a bit ret­i­cent in her snowy frock.

Artemisia’s is a bad ass, sword casu­al­ly bal­anced on her shoul­der as she checks that the coast is clear before escap­ing with a bas­ket con­tain­ing her victim’s head. Although she prayed for the suc­cess of her endeav­or, this is a woman who might not have need­ed god’s help to “crush the ene­mies” arrayed against her peo­ple.

Things get even more vis­cer­al in Artemisi­a’s third depic­tion, paint­ed per­haps 10 years lat­er, after she had mar­ried and moved to Flo­rence.

Art his­to­ri­an Sis­ter Wendy Beck­ett, an unabashed fan, describes the mus­cu­lar and bloody scene in Sis­ter Wendy’s 1000 Mas­ter­pieces:

Gen­tileschi shows Judith grip­ping the head and wield­ing the sword with a feroc­i­ty of con­cen­tra­tion as she applies her­self to the gris­ly but nec­es­sary task, like a prac­ti­cal house­wife gut­ting a fish (there is none of that one stroke and it’s off, beloved of the male painter. The maid might feel qualms, not Judith… The hor­ri­fied face of the butchered male is bal­anced by the grim­ly com­posed face of the butcher­ing female.

Sev­er­al years fur­ther on, Artemisia again imag­ined Judith’s flight, in a scene so the­atri­cal, it could be a pro­duc­tion still.

It’s easy to imag­ine that Artemisia’s tal­ent was care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed by her artist father, Orazio Gen­tileschi, but when it comes to the feroc­i­ty of her depic­tions, the spec­u­la­tion tends to take on a dark­er cast.

The TED-Ed les­son brings up her rape as a teenag­er, at the hands of her father’s friend, fel­low painter Agostono Tas­si. Leigh also pro­vides legal and soci­etal con­text, some­thing that is often miss­ing from more sen­sa­tion­al allu­sions to this trau­mat­ic event.

If you engage with the TED-Ed’s les­son plan more deeply, you’ll find a link to an arti­cle on nov­el­ist Joy McCul­lough’s research into 400-year-old court tran­scripts pri­or to describ­ing Artemisia’s rape tri­al in 2019 Blood Water Paint, as well as his­to­ri­an Eliz­a­beth S. Cohen’s essay The Tri­als of Artemisia Gen­tileschi: a Rape as His­to­ry:

Com­bin­ing irre­sistibly sex, vio­lence, and genius, like the sto­ry of Heloise and Abelard, the rape of Artemisia Gen­tileschi has been retold many times. So often indeed, and with such rel­ish that this episode over­shad­ows much dis­cus­sion of the painter and has come to dis­tort our vision of her. In the past as well as in the recent renew­al of inter­est in Artemisia, biog­ra­phers and crit­ics have had trou­ble see­ing beyond the rape. In her case, the old-fash­ioned notion that women are defined essen­tial­ly by their sex­u­al his­to­ries con­tin­ues to reign, as if a girl who suf­fers assault must be under­stood as there­after a pri­mar­i­ly sex­u­al crea­ture.

Explore a gallery of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paint­ings here.

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

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Data­base, Will Fea­ture Works by 600+ Over­looked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Cen­turies

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

The Icon­ic Uri­nal & Work of Art, “Foun­tain,” Wasn’t Cre­at­ed by Mar­cel Duchamp But by the Pio­neer­ing Dada Artist Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven

The Com­plete Works of Hilma af Klint Are Get­ting Pub­lished for the First Time in a Beau­ti­ful, Sev­en-Vol­ume Col­lec­tion

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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