Who Was the Real Artemisia?

She modeled for her father, became one of the most successful Italian painters of the 17th century, and has sparked the imagination of contemporary novelists and filmmakers. Now the Metropolitan Museum of Art looks at both Gentileschis in a major show . She modeled for her father, became one of the most successful Italian painters of the 17th century, and has sparked the imagination of contemporary novelists and filmmakers. Now the Metropolitan Museum of Art looks at both Gentileschis in a major show.

She has been the darling of feminist art historians for the past quarter century, the subject of at least three novels, and the heroine of an R-rated French movie. Now, in tandem with her father, Orazio, Artemisia Gentileschi comes into focus once again, in a major show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy” (from the 14th of this month through May 12). Billed somewhat breathlessly as “the largest assemblage of work by either artist yet presented,” the exhibition promises a wide-ranging look at 35 works by Artemisia (1593–1652) and 50 by Orazio (1563–1639), whose fame far eclipsed his daughter’s until the last century.

Susanna and the Elders, 1610, was formerly attributed to Orazio Gentileschi but is now accepted as a work by Artemisia, whose signature it bears.
Collection Graf von Schonborn, Pommersfeldon

Recent interest in the story of Artemisia’s life and art has been fueled in large measure by certain biographical facts: her rape at the age of 17 by her father’s associate Agostino Tassi, and the sensational trial that followed. several art historians have seen in one of her best-known paintings, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612–13), a grim reprise of the artist’s earlier trauma. “It is impossible to ignore the echo of personal experience in this Judith,” wrote the feminist scholar Mary Garrard in 1989. Indeed, “the very imagery of the bloody bedroom scene invokes Artemisia’s own description of Tassi’s . . . assault upon her, with its tangle of knees, thighs, blood, and knives.” And this was just one of at least four paintings she did on the subject.

The scholarly debate has focused on how much biography and Freudian psychodrama can be read into the works: Did a “psychic wound” lead Artemisia to paint personal protests throughout her life? Was she “acting out” her own form of revenge? Novelists have taken the known facts to weave lively and inevitably lusty narratives. Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia, published by Viking last month, imagines an artist husband who cheats on her with his models, a bitter rupture with her father, and a pious convent-bound confidante. The better-documented Artemisia (Grove), by the French novelist Alexandra Lapierre, invents an ecstatic midlife affair with a sensuous Englishman. The 1998 movie Artemisia, roundly scorned by feminist critics, has the heroine swooning with passion for the swarthy Agostino, in spite of his repeated betrayals. And, not to be upstaged by print or celluloid, contemporary artist Kathleen Gilje recently exhibited a meticulous copy of Artemisia’s early Susanna and the Elders at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C. Paired with an X ray of Gilje’s underpainting, which delineates a more violent interpretation of the scene, the work purported to “show how closely Artemisia’s story mirrors that of Susanna’s.” (This will not come as news to the art-historical community: Garrard made much the same claim 30 years ago.)

It seems very much to be the Artemisia moment. But why now? And who was the real Artemisia? Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., believes that interest in Artemisia reflects a wider interest in the century that also gave us Caravaggio and Velázquez. “We’re beginning to get a much richer and more textured history of the period,” she says. And archival research into Artemisia’s life has given us a more complete picture of the woman and her times. Beginning with her rediscovery by the first generation of feminist art historians, she has gained an almost cultlike status as a woman who triumphed in an era dominated by supremely talented men.

Artemisia’s career, as it emerges from the Metropolitan’s show and from the wealth of recent scholarship on the artist, is more complicated, more calculated, and possibly more heroic than the gruesome facts of her adolescence. Yes, she did survive a violent assault at a young age and go on to paint stirring images of women subduing, escaping, and generally fending off the attentions of importunate louts. But more intriguingly, through sheer talent and force of will, Artemisia Gentileschi almost single-handedly pulled herself up out of unpromising circumstances to become a member of elite social circles in Florence and Rome, a successful promoter of her own work, and the mother of four children. Unlike other female painters of the day, who confined themselves to portraiture or still life, Artemisia produced ambitious biblical scenes, provocative nudes, and searching self-portraits.

“What’s extraordinary is that she sustained a painterly career throughout her life and was extremely skillful in placing her pictures and, indeed, in marketing her pictures,” notes Cropper, who contributed a lengthy essay to the catalogue of the show.

At the time of the rape, in 1611, Artemisia was living and painting in her father’s house and studio in Rome. Even as a teenager, she was an accomplished painter, collaborating with Orazio on ambitious canvases and producing compelling work of her own. She was also, according to contemporary accounts, an eyeful. “Beautiful and provocative, with her unkempt hair and low-cut dresses, she stirred the imagination of many men,” writes Patricia Cavazzini, an independent art historian living in Rome and one of the contributors to the Metropolitan’s catalogue. The most impressive of her paintings from this period, Susanna and the Elders of 1610 (which some scholars have attributed to Orazio even though it bears Artemisia’s signature), shows the anguished protagonist recoiling from the lecherous advances of a pair of predatory males.

Orazio did his best to keep his daughter under wraps, confining her to the household and assigning her a chaperone, but gossip about her was rampant. Matters weren’t helped much by rumors that Orazio used his own daughter as a model—a daringly nude model. At the time that Artemisia was taking her first steps as an artist, Orazio was himself undergoing a kind of rebirth. Inspired by Caravaggio, he “had taken to painting directly from the model, and this is what Artemisia learned from him—this use of living models, which gives to the pictures their extraordinary immediacy,” explains Keith Christiansen, Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan. Orazio, then in his late 30s, was on his way to becoming “the major Italian Caravaggesque painter,” whose works would eventually find favor at the courts of Paris and London.

Unaccountably, he allowed two of his closest friends, Tassi and another associate named Cosimo Quorli (described by Cavazzini as “a truly revolting character”), free access to the daughter he otherwise guarded so closely. One day Tassi found Artemisia alone and forced her into a bedroom; the trial testimony, of which there is ample documentation, leaves little doubt that what followed was rape, not seduction. Artemisia pushed him away; she claimed to have grabbed his penis and torn off skin; and she snatched up a small knife and tried to stab him. But soon after the incident, a full-blown affair developed. Tassi promised marriage, and Artemisia fell for her suitor, who was described in contemporary accounts as small, pudgy, and “di poca barba” (with a scant beard).

Ten months later, still at work on a project with Tassi and sensing no nuptials on the horizon, Orazio pressed charges against his daughter’s lover—not for rape specifically but for “defloration,” robbing his
offspring of her virginity and thus ruining her chances of a respectable marriage. “This was a dishonor to her family,” says Christiansen. “One has to shift gears very dramatically in dealing with the issue of rape in the 17th century.” Indeed, a woman of ill repute or low status, such as a servant, could not look to the Roman courts for justice in the event of rape.

The subsequent trial was a messy business, with Tassi producing witnesses who claimed to have enjoyed Artemisia’s favors. For her part, the young artist was seen to behave affectionately toward her “intended”—until it was revealed that he already had a wife. In November 1612 Tassi was sentenced to five years’ exile from Rome, but such was the protection of favored artists at the time that he hung around the city for several months and then, according to Cavazzini, for two years “he stayed at Bagnaia, not far from Rome, frescoing for Cardinal Montalto, one of the wealthiest and most notable patrons in the city.” Notes Christiansen: “In the Renaissance and the 17th century, being a gifted artist could get you out of all kinds of jams.”

As for Artemisia, the day after Tassi’s sentencing, she was quietly married to another painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, and packed off to Florence. It was there, in the city of the Medici, married to a Florentine whose career never amounted to much, that she blossomed as an artist and a woman of consequence. Illiterate when she left Rome, she learned to read and write. A promising beginner in her father’s studio, she became the first woman artist admitted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno. Within a few years, her circle of patrons and friends expanded to include Galileo, the grand duchess Cristina de’ Medici, and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, nephew of the great one. And before her return to Rome in 1620, she gave birth to four children, only one of whom, a daughter, survived to adulthood. The works from this period include the first of the bloody canvases of Judith and Holofernes, along with a more contemplative painting of Judith and Her Maidservant and a proud full-length nude self-portrait in Allegory of Inclination. So seductive was this last work, notes Cropper, that later in the century, on inheriting the painting, the new owner had another artist “cover up the figure with draperies so that his wife and children would not see the nudity.”

Intending at first to make only a short visit to the city of her girlhood, Artemisia ended up staying in Rome for six years. “She made friends with all the intellectual elite,” Christiansen says. “And from that point on, this is the story of her life. She’s dealing with major patrons on her own terms.” Documents that show her living on the Via del Corso with her daughter and servants indicate that she was faring handsomely, although her marriage was clearly on the rocks. In 1623 Pierantonio was accused of slashing the face of one of a group of Spaniards while they were serenading his wife. Soon thereafter, he disappeared from her life for good.

Artemisia went on to enjoy three decades of heady independence, becoming one of the most successful painters of her day, with a career that took her to Venice, Naples, and even London. Her patrons included Philip IV of Spain, the Spanish viceroy in Naples, members of the papal family, Prince Karl von Liechtenstein, and Charles I of England. She enlisted her brothers as agents for her work, acquired property, and amassed a handsome dowry for her daughter. “Artemisia was not merely successful,” Cropper notes in her essay. “She was famous.” She was praised for both her talent and her beauty; an artist who drew her hands in 1625 called them more beautiful than those of the goddess Aurora, because “they make marvels that ravish the eyes of those who judge best.”

Her specialty, not surprisingly, was strong and heroic women—Judith, Esther, and Cleopatra, to name three. Her self-portraits show her as an equally formidable presence, robust and composed. In one, she proudly holds the tools of her art, a brush and palette, while her pushed-up sleeves and hasty coiffure give evidence of a woman deeply absorbed in her work. In some sense, Cropper points out, “every image of a forceful woman she painted has to be associated with its author.” Christiansen believes she created a market for such images, but Cropper is more cautious. “The court of Marie de Medicis developed a great interest in what is called the femme forte, or ‘strong woman,’ and so an interest in this theme of the heroic and virtuous woman was not strictly linked to Artemisia,” she says. “She may have been successful in exploiting it in painting on a grand scale, but so were others.”

As she moved from city to city, her style changed, becoming at times more dramatically Caravaggesque, at other times more obviously classicizing. For that inconsistency she has come under attack in some quarters, drawing the criticism that she was a little too adaptable, perhaps painting just for the market. But Cropper sees her protean approach as a positive attribute. “When Guercino goes to Rome, he famously changes his style. When Guido Reni goes back to Bologna after painting in a very Caravaggesque idiom, his pictures change. In the case of these outstanding male artists, we see it as a demonstration of their capacity, of their ability to learn and invent in new ways. So for me the fact that Artemisia is able to change her style is quite remarkable, because she would conform much more to the conventional image of the female artist if she just had one small specialty, like still life or portraiture.”

In the end, it is of course the marvelous works that still ravish our eyes and imagination, not the fact that she was a woman or the sensational aspects of her biography. And yet to disavow her sex, and her unique position as a supremely talented female artist of the 17th century, is a little like ignoring van Gogh’s lunacy or Picasso’s misogyny. On some level, a great artist’s temperament, proclivities, and even gender inform the works.

“We should not… ignore her life as we look at the work, because the life is in her work,” Cropper writes. “Most of all we should not deny her exceptionality, her true independence from her father from the age of nineteen, and the fact that she was indeed a very famous painter during her lifetime, not just infamous now.”


Contributing editor Ann Landi also writes about Sebastião Salgado in this issue.

©2002 ARTnews L.L.C.

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