TW: Graphic description of rape and abuse
Earlier this month, the National Museum of Women in the Arts posed the following challenge: Can you name five women artists? Unless you’re an art lover, chances are you can’t, even though most of us can probably name five male artists, regardless of our feelings about art. It’s not that there haven’t been great female artists in history; it’s just that history has more or less forgotten about most of them. One such artist is Artemisia Gentileschi, a very talented 17th century Italian painter. She was born July 8, 1593 in Rome, the oldest daughter of Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia and her brothers learned painting in their father’s workshop, but it was Artemisia who really showed a talent for it.
When Artemisia was a teenager, her father hired painter Agostino Tassi as a private tutor for his daughter. Unbeknownst to Gentileschi, Tassi was a serial rapist, and had previously abused his first wife, whom he planned to murder, and had an affair with his sister-in-law. Tassi raped Artemisia when she was nineteen years old. Her father pressed charges against Tassi on the grounds that he had taken Artemisia’s virginity, and what followed was a highly publicized rape trial. Artemisia testified that “I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth I couldn’t cry out… I scratched his face and pulled his hair and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.” Still, she was subjected to humiliating abuse during the trial, including undergoing gynecological examinations in front of judge, and being forced to endure a form of torture called thumbscrews, a medieval torture device that crushed the fingers of the victim, to make sure she was telling the truth. Tassi claimed he had never had any sexual contact with Artemisia, and brought forward witnesses to testify that she was “an insatiable whore.” Ultimately Tassi was convicted of rape and sentenced to a year in prison, which he never actually served.
It is widely believed that the trauma of her rape and the subsequent trial had a profound impact on Gentileschi’s work and the subjects she chose to paint. Most of her paintings feature women from mythology or the Bible who suffered injustices at the hands of men, often portraying them not as passive victims, but as survivors taking control of their situations. One of her most famous paintings is Judith Slaying Holofernes, which depicts the story of Judith saving her home and her people by entering the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes and cutting off his head. This story was a popular subject of Baroque art, but most paintings shied away from depicting Judith in any act of violence, instead showing the aftermath: a pious, proper Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes. Gentileschi’s painting, however, captures Judith mid-decapitation in a bloody, gruesome scene, giving her a power and a vengeance that previous artists had denied her. In one of her earliest paintings, Susanna and the Elders, Gentileschi takes on another Biblical story, the story of Susanna being threatened and sexually accosted by two men. Several other artists had painted scenes involving Susanna, but Gentileschi was one of the only artists to depict it as a traumatic event.
As a female painter, Gentileschi was the subject of some curiosity during her lifetime. In 17th century Italy, female artists were rarely accepted by patrons and the artistic community, but Gentileschi enjoyed a successful career as a court painter for the Medici family. She was not the only women to make a career as a painter–Sofonisba Anguissola was another Italian woman who made a career out of painting several decades before Gentileschi did–but a career as a painter was still a very rare and difficult path for a woman to follow. It seems that her gender may have given her one advantage over her male counterparts: Male painters were forbidden from painting live female nude models, but as a woman, Gentileschi could use live models for her paintings. Her work earned her a place in the inner circles of the art world, and she was the first woman to be admitted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence.
Records of Gentileschi’s later life and death are scarce, but it’s generally accepted that she died in 1652 or 1653. Some historians believe she may have committed suicide. After her death, she was more or less erased from history, and many of her paintings were erroneously attributed to her father. A 1971 essay by feminist art historian Linda Nochlin entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” reignited interest in Gentileschi’s life and work, particularly among feminist scholars, who were fascinated by her life story, her work, and her lack of recognition in the art world. In recent years, Gentileschi has become iconic in the world of feminist art, and has helped to answer Nochlin’s question: There have been great women artists; we just never learned about them.