Artemisia: how pain powered the great 17th-century artist

She had a turbulent personal life but that didn’t stop Artemisia Gentileschi becoming one of the greatest painters of the 17th century. In fact, as Catherine Fletcher reveals on the eve of a National Gallery exhibition on the artist, trauma spurred Artemisia on to greater heights

Vivid experiences: a self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Baroque artist whose brilliant renderings of biblical and classical scenes earned her commissions from some of the most powerful figures in 17th century Europe. (Photo by Araldo de Luca/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1620, the artist Artemisia Gentileschi was in the process of splitting up with her husband. In between the legal paperwork, she made a painting of the Old Testament heroine Yael. In the Book of Judges, Yael saves the Israelites by assassinating the Canaanite commander Sisera. Artemisia showed her in modern dress, poised to hammer a nail through Sisera’s head. It’s tempting to wonder quite what Artemisia’s ex made of it all.

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Once perceived as a novelty on account of her sex, Artemisia is now regarded as one of the most important European painters of the 17th century. She was an impressive entrepreneur with what art historian Mary Garrard has called “almost unreasonably grand ambition”. Her extraordinary portrayals rework themes from biblical and classical sources to show women in control not only of their own destiny, but those of their people. Judith, another biblical heroine, famously assassinated an enemy general, Holofernes. Artemisia, however, added her own visceral spin to the killing, showing Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes, blood spurting from his neck as she puts the power of her arm into the sword.

Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, an artist influenced by the leading Italian painter Caravaggio. She appears to have had a sheltered childhood but one in which she was given the opportunity to acquire skills in painting – and, by her late teens, she was already producing spectacular art. Her earliest surviving work is Susanna and the Elders. Painted in 1610, it shows two older men spying on the virtuous Susanna in her bath. This was a popular biblical subject, but while many portrayals showed Susanna either oblivious to the Elders’ gaze or even perhaps enjoying it, in Artemisia’s painting she is distressed by the experience. This is a depiction of female trauma, not a saucy entertainment.

Point of death: in the 1620 painting 'Jael and Sisera', Artemisia pulls no punches in her interpretation of a famous incident from the Old Testament. The Book of Judges tells us that Yael (or Jael) saved her people by assassinating the Canaanite commander Sisera – an event that Artemisia represents by showing Yael poised to hammer a nail through Sisera's head. (Photo by Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Point of death: in the 1620 painting ‘Jael and Sisera’, Artemisia pulls no punches in her interpretation of a famous incident from the Old Testament. The Book of Judges tells us that Yael (or Jael) saved her people by assassinating the Canaanite commander Sisera – an event that Artemisia represents by showing Yael poised to hammer a nail through Sisera’s head. (Photo by Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The subject of the chaste Susanna may also have helped the young Artemisia fend off damaging rumours that suggested her father had encouraged her to model nude before an audience. Maintaining a reputation for chastity was vital to young women in the period. But just two years later, Artemisia’s own reputation was put on trial in the most public and painful circumstances imaginable.

In May 1611 Artemisia had been raped by Agostino Tassi, a fellow painter. Tassi was supposed to be helping Artemisia develop her trompe l’oeil technique, but abused his position to pursue her – with the help of a woman called Tuzia, a close friend and tenant of the Gentileschi family. Tuzia, Artemisia testified, “tried to persuade me that Agostino was a well-mannered young man, courteous to women, and that we would get along very well with each other”. Persuaded that Tassi would marry her, Artemisia became the victim of ongoing sexual exploitation.

In March 1612, however, Orazio Gentileschi took his daughter’s teacher to court. In the eyes of the legal system at the time, the complaint was his: Tassi had ‘deflowered’ his virginal daughter, thereby compromising her chances of marriage.

Artemisia was subjected to a virginity test, carried out by two midwives, and tortured with thumbscrews in an attempt to ensure her testimony was truthful. The experience she recounted to the court was horrific: Tassi, she said, “pushed me in and locked the [bedroom] door. He then threw me onto the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them”. He put a hand over her mouth “to keep me from screaming”. Artemisia still “tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair… When I saw myself free I went to the table drawer and took out a knife and moved toward Agostino saying: ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me’.” She didn’t go through with the threat, but it is hardly surprising that many people have argued that Artemisia’s paintings of powerful women betray her own trauma and temperament.

Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews in an attempt to ensure her testimony was truthful

Tassi predictably claimed that not only had Artemisia agreed to have sex, but that she had been known to sleep around. Her father denied it in court. Agostino, he insisted, “cannot say that Artemisia has misbehaved with others, since he would be lying through his teeth, because from the day that he deflowered her he constantly put men around Artemisia’s house to watch whoever entered and left, both day and night.” Artemisia confirmed: “I never had any sexual relations with any other person besides the said Agostino. It is true that Cosimo [a friend of Agostino] made all sorts of efforts to have me… but never did I consent.”

Agostino and Cosimo had made the mistake of boasting about their pursuit of Artemisia to another man, Giovanni Battista Stiattesi, who now gave evidence against them. Stiattesi had other details to add, too, not least that Agostino was already married, had run off with his sister-in-law (technically incest, for which he had served time in jail), and had then hired contract killers to murder his wife. None of this endeared Tassi to the judges, who found against him. However, he seems to have served only eight months in prison before the case was dismissed.

Inclined to marry

Later the same year, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, probably a relative of that key witness, a move that helped mend her reputation. He was a citizen of Florence, where the couple relocated early in 1613. Artemisia’s dowry was probably invested in their business, to which Pierantonio brought useful city contacts. Within two years Artemisia had been commissioned to produce three paintings for Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. She then went on to paint an Allegory of Inclination for the Casa Buonarroti, the house being established by Michelangelo’s great-nephew to commemorate his celebrated relative.

Artemisia’s Florentine years were a whirl of work, child-bearing and financial juggling. In the course of seven years she had at least four – probably five – children. In Florence she became acquainted with the astronomer Galileo Galilei, who had recently published his groundbreaking treatise The Starry Messenger, and in 1616 she was the first female artist to become a member of the Florentine Academy, the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. In 1618, she also embarked on a four-year affair with nobleman Francesco Maria Maringhi, a part of her story only discovered in 2011 when a collection of letters came to light. Her husband apparently tolerated the relationship, at least for a while. This was not entirely unusual in the context of marriages of convenience, especially in a case like this where Maringhi’s patronage was useful to the couple.

As Pierantonio pointed out in a letter to Maringhi, appearances mattered: “If you want to get ahead, you need to make a show of good taste and demonstrate that you live in comfort, because when people see that your house is in order, it makes all the difference and you enjoy much more credit.” And to keep up appearances, he and Artemisia relied on credit to obtain the luxurious fashions that also featured in her paintings. So long as they were doing well, they could keep up repayments, but the loans became problematic when their marriage broke down.

With her affair having, once again, made her the centre of public scandal, Artemisia left Florence. Solely responsible now for the debts that had once been shared with her husband, and facing the confiscation of her property, she moved back to Rome.

Artemisia spent the next decade first in Rome and then in Venice. More than a decade earlier, Rome had opened up its art academy, the Accademia di San Luca, to admit women, while Pope Urban VIII was an important patron of creative women, among them the artists Virginia da Vezzo and Maddalena Corvini, and the architect Plautilla Bricci. Artemisia herself did not join the academy in Rome, perhaps because she did not stay in the city for long before departing for Venice, but in Venice, too, she had access to a cultural scene known for its outspoken women. Among them was Arcangela Tarabotti, who became famous for her attack on the enclosure of unwilling women in nunneries.

She wrote to Galileo that she had been 'honoured by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my work'

Besides the biblical subjects for which she is best known, Artemisia also took inspiration from classical sources. Although she had not been fully literate at the time of the rape trial, by the 1620s she had learnt to write and was clearly familiar with high culture. Her painting of Corisca and the Satyr (c1635–37), in which a clever nymph evades an attempted seduction, has parallels with literary works by her female contemporaries. Like Yael and Judith, Corisca is an Artemisia heroine who uses trickery to outwit her opponent.

Honoured by kings

In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples and there spent the remainder of her career, with the exception of a 1638 trip to London where her father was court painter to Charles I. Her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting was part of Charles’s collection. By this time, as she wrote to Galileo, she had been “honoured by all the kings and rulers of Europe to whom I have sent my works”.

She was not backward about asserting her talent directly. Hoping to obtain commissions from Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena, she sent a sample of work and a letter observing that: “I have served all the major rulers of Europe, who appreciate my work… it would provide the evidence of my fame… Therefore please forgive my daring but ambitiously honourable gesture.”

It’s still fashionable to emphasise the details of Artemisia’s private life at the expense of her professional work

In this later period, Artemisia’s work included multiple female nudes, such as a Death of Cleopatra and paintings of David and Bathsheba. Always alert to the practicalities of running a business, she complained that obtaining suitable models for this work was “very expensive” and “a big headache”. She added: “When I find good ones, they fleece me, and at other times, one must suffer [their] pettiness with the patience of Job.” By this time, demand for her art outstripped the works she herself was supplying, and – as was common in the period – members of her workshop produced paintings labelled the work of ‘Artemisia’, even though her own involvement may have been limited.

When it came to marketing, Artemisia was a tough negotiator. In 1649 she wrote to Don Antonio Ruffo, a prominent collector, refusing him a discount: “I was mortified to hear that you want to deduct one third… I cannot accept a reduction, both because of the value of the painting and of my great need.” She was “displeased that for the second time I am being treated as a novice”. In a subsequent letter she did not back down, writing that Ruffo would “find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman”. She had overcome the barriers to women entering the profession by training in her father’s household, but was still conscious that she was at risk of inferior treatment because of her sex. On receiving a drawing from her, one patron had then hired a male artist to do the work. “If I were a man,” she wrote, “I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.”

Artemisia died in c1654, but it would be more than 300 years before her legacy truly came to light. Even then, it remained fashionable to emphasise the details of her private life at the expense of her professional work, whether in relation to her rape, or her affair with Maringhi. Both are easily sensationalised, but they often carry the sexist implication that the scandal matters more than Artemisia’s artistic output. Of course, her gender made a difference to her work. But it’s high time we stopped looking at Artemisia’s art only through the lens of her personal life. We rarely do that with her male contemporaries – so why should we do so with her?


The agony and the ecstasy

The paintings that won Artemisia widespread acclaim

1

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (c1620-25). (Photo by Alamy)
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (c1620-25). (Photo by Alamy)

This painting sold at auction in 2014 for €865,500, testimony to the attraction of Artemisia’s work today. It is a strikingly modern work, showing the saint in 17th-century dress in an intimate moment of religious transformation.

2

Self-portrait as a lute player

Self-portrait as a lute player. 1615–17. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Self-portrait as a lute player (1615–17). (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Artemisia painted several lute players, including this self-portrait. She may have played the instrument herself at the Florentine court around the time she was working on this painting. Musical skills were a valued attribute in court circles.

3

Susanna and the Elders

Susanna and the Elders. 1610. (Photo by AKG Images)
Susanna and the Elders (1610). (Photo by AKG Images)

The earliest of Artemisia’s surviving works, painted when she was just 17. Susanna and the Elders shows her extraordinary promise and her ability not only in producing female nudes but also in conveying women’s trauma.

Catherine Fletcher is a historian of Renaissance and early modern Europe. Her latest book is The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Bodley Head, 2020)

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This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine