Finally, after three hundred and fifty years, a woman artist has risen to the ranks of those artists and sculptors who are known by a single name, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Botticelli, Donatello, Rodin, Picasso – all of them men.
The work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654/56) is currently being exhibited at London’s National Gallery, yet do people discuss her brilliant innovations of the portrayal of subject matter; her superb use of glazes or her realism in the portrayal of the female nude? No! The first thing that springs to the minds of most people will be the infamous trial brought about when her father, Orazio, accused another artist, Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644) of stealing various assets from his studio, which included accusing Tassi of the rape of Orazio’s major asset, his artistically talented daughter, Artemisia.[i]
The critics have all raved about this exhibition, which is stunning, but their main focus is on Artemisia’s sensational images of the beheading of the Assyrian general, Holofernes, re-citing lots of theories that Artemisia was using her art as therapy and visualising what she would like to do to Tassi.
Artemisia was not the first to portray this diabolical deed. That was the bad boy of baroque, Michelangelo Cerisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610). We know him simply as Caravaggio, the artist notorious for allegedly murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni (d 28th May 1606) on a tennis court in Rome.[ii]
Caravaggio was the first to depict the widow Judith in the act of beheading the general Holofernes, ably assisted by her elderly maidservant, Abra. Frankly, in Caravaggio’s painting Judith looks as if she could not cut a slice of bread, let alone take a sword and remove a man’s head.
Artemisia’s first Judith, painted between 1611-12, depicts a woman used to butchering a carcass of a pig. No wonder the journalists have latched on to this brilliantly conceived image, which is equally shocking now as it was then.
However, the decapitation of Holofernes was not Artemisia’s first painting. The 1610 portrayal of Susanna and the Elders was painted when Artemisia was seventeen years old and again, her treatment is so different to all popular renditions of the subject created in the late 16th century that you have to ask yourself whether she painting from a personal standpoint, or was this innovative re-thinking of a popular subject?
Both Artemisia’s Susanna of 1610 and her beheading of Holofernes took a very potent and different viewpoint to those paintings executed by her contemporaries. By comparison, Artemisia’s 1610 Susanna steps away from the traditional ‘male gaze’ and challenges us to ask why she chose to portray the virtuous woman in this manner.
Professor Germaine Greer’s (b1939 -) 1970’s book, The Female Eunuch, Greer shocked the world by challenging traditional (male) conceptions of the portrayal of women. In an interview the following year she said :
“The title is an indication of the problem. Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigour for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”
Was Artemisia asking the same question in visual format via her 1610 painting of Susanna, now in Schloss Weinstein, Pommersfeld? If so, how successful was she at changing attitudes, was she successful because of her ‘different’ take on these traditional subjects from those of her male contemporaries?
Many have suggested that the two elders are portrayals of Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644), the man her father had employed to teach her the complexities of perspective, and another of his ‘friends’, Cosimo Quorli (dates currently unknown), who also tried to have his way with her.
The 1622 version could portray the two men now several years older – if you buy into the theory that Artemisia was stuck in a rut and still using her art as a form of revenge. The requirements of the Catholic Council of Trent dictat regarding art was that images were to have a moral narrative, but not to contain lascivious portrayals of the flesh or use of pagan themes. Considering these requirement had to be balanced with the wishes of patrons , it is far more likely that Artemisia recognised a good thing when she saw one. The tale of Susanna would pander to her patrons’ requirements for a female nude, while the subject matter would fulfil the Council’s requirements for a moral narrative. After all, these men were paying high prices and that gave them the right to dictate content.
From the transcripts of the 1612 trial Tassi comes across as a criminal braggart and thoroughly arrogant individual who clearly thinks he is entitled to behave as he wishes. From the surviving pages of the trial transcript we learn from Artemisia that she is barely literate and only capable of writing her name. In her testimony we hear her seventeen year old voice, full of angst and righteous anger and indignation.[iii] Recent archival finds have demonstrated how Artemisia went on to learn to read and write fluently with passion in her personal correspondence, even if she was not educated in the classics.
Artemisia’s success and popularity during her lifetime demonstrates she was a survivor rather than the victim as judged by various (male) critics in the past. She used her extraordinary talent to ensure she became a financially independent woman not reliant on the vagaries of a husband to provide for her family. Her Judith paintings still shock for their brutality, but is the underlying message of her canon of work not just one of revenge, but also one giving the message that women can overcome sexual exploitation and succeed in life on their own terms?
Artemisia was canny enough to be able to paint single images that appealed to both a male audience and female audience, without upsetting the social mores of her time and, in the process, has succeeded in rising above the centuries of male critical dogma and continues to speak to a modern audience.
For a more in-depth article of my thoughts on Artemisia’s place in art history, herewith a free download with images and many links to images that will open in new tabs. These links are to keep the size of the file to a reasonable size. Enjoy.
[i] Under 17th century canon law there were three definitions of rape: Stupro semplice – defloration with consent; Stupro qualificator – defloration with consent after a promise of marriage; Stupro violente – defloration by force. Canon law took a serious view of virginity as a woman was a valuable commodity when it came to arranging useful and influential marriages. The rather odd bundling together by Artemisia’s father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563 – 1639), of the rape together with the accusation that Tassi had stolen a painting from the family studio highlights the fact that both his daughter and the painting were clearly valuable assets and Orazio wanted some form of recompense.
[ii] Recently it has been argued that Caravaggio was made the scapegoat because witness evidence has allegedly been found stating that Caravaggio was rendered unconscious during the fight on the tennis court. His raucous behaviour and history of court cases for non-payment of debts and drunken behaviour made him a soft option for the authorities. (Source: Andrew Graham-Dixon’s documentary on Caravaggio).
[iii] This translation is included in the extended article.